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Mira Nair on “The Namesake”

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By Dan Persons

IFC News

[Photo: Irfan Khan and Tabu in “The Namesake,” Fox Searchlight, 2007]

Taking several steps back from the lush canvas that was her adaptation of “Vanity Fair,” director Mira Nair turns her glance inward, bringing personal insight and a more straightforward style to “The Namesake.” Based on the novel by Pulitzer Prize-winner Jhumpa Lahiri, the film attempts to portray the universality of the modern immigrant experience by tracing the lives of Ashoke (Irrfan Khan) and Ashima (Tabu) as they face the transition from their life in Calcutta to their new home in New York, and eventually that of their son Gogol (Kal Penn), who struggles to reconcile his identity as a first-generation American with a growing realization of how strongly his roots still reach back to the culture of India. I spoke with Nair in New York:

This film seems to address two divides: the divide of country in Ashoke’s and Ashima’s story, and the generational divide in the story of Gogol’s relationship with his parents. Does one theme inform the other?

Good question — I don’t know if they inform each other. I think the story of parents and children, and therefore the generational divide, is a story that’s not unique to any one culture, it’s the same in many places. Of course, in the case of “The Namesake,” it’s deeply affected by the fact that the parents are born and raised in Calcutta, in a deeply Indian context, and that their children are born and raised entirely in an American context.

The fact is that the parents realize they can’t spoon-feed what they have known. There’s no stasis, things move. And they’re also wiser than most, in that they’re not going to sledgehammer down Gogol’s throat everything that is Indian and everything that they know.

So there’s a certain amount of fluidity, but the story is the ancient story: How do you grow up? How do you come of age? How do you realize who you are? Sometimes, many times, you realize a little too late. You have regrets; you have things that you wished you had done. I know when I became a parent it was the only time I really realized what I had put my parents through. It’s about that continuum, but greatly affected by the fact that there are two cultures here.

You’ve said this film expresses your love for two cities: New York and Calcutta. The things there are to love about New York will be more obvious to American audiences, but what about Calcutta?

Calcutta is incredibly layered; layers of history in that city. And it’s a city that’s devoted to politics and art, the mix of it. It’s a city that is full of erudition in the least expected places. Look at the house Ashima comes from: It has stenciled wallpaper next to a patch of cement next to a family portrait. That was not an art-designed home — that is how it came. I love the need of people to express themselves. It’s classic Bengali living — an oil painter, singing, protests… that’s life in Calcutta. It’s always bristling with some kind of life. I love that city. I discovered musical theater in that city; I grew up in that city. It was a wonderful banquet for me to try to capture that.

You’ve talked about bringing your Punjabi background to this story about Bengals. Jhumpa Lahiri had mentioned bringing you to her parents’ home for dinner to get you better acclimated. What did you see in the Bengali personality that you had to revise in your own approach to telling this story?

Well, I’m Punjabi, but I grew up in Bengal, so I know very well how different it is. The oxygen of culture in Bengal is very inspiring to me. It’s not like I had to temper my Punjabiness, because I wasn’t making a Punjabi film. But going to [Lahiri’s] family and meeting her parents, who were, in her own admission, the way she channeled [her characters] — her mother especially, for Ashima — these were the flesh-and-blood people of the characters that she had written; that was a big key to how to play Ashoke and how to play Ashima. I even took Tabu and Irrfan, the actors, to Mr. and Mrs. Lahiri for the same reasons: They spent the day together, and it was a big, big key in how to get their characters right.

The press notes mentioned your reliance on paintings and still photos when you were developing the look of this film. What inspired you?

I love contemporary photography. Raghu Rai, a great Indian photographer, made this image of a man and a rickshaw pulling the Goddess Saraswati down a boulevard in Calcutta. That image gave me an idea: Durga and Saraswati are like the key gods of the city of Calcutta; you can’t go a block without seeing a goddess of some kind, really. I thought it would be very important to have the blessing of the goddess in our film, because it is a Bengali film, in actual sense. So that image gave me the idea to have the goddess floating above us and being lowered down to the street. It’s like that: Image will give me the idea to make a scene.

You’ve got a gallery show opening at the Sepia Gallery on March 8th. Did all this come to you upon…

I created it. I made it happen, because of the photography that I love, and we created a really photographic film. So I talked to a publisher in the summer — I designed [a companion book for the film], a mix of text from Lahiri’s novel and images from the movie as well as the images of these classic photographers. That book was the foundation of taking it to the Sepia Gallery, and I said, “Do you want to do this?” And they loved the idea.

Did your personal investment in this story inspire you to carry this project beyond just the film?

Of course. It was like total possession, I can’t tell you. And because I know how precious it is to be inspired, I really follow that inspiration. It doesn’t happen often that you have this wave of, “I have to make this. I was born to do this.”

“The Namesake” opens in New York, Los Angeles, Toronto, and San Francisco on March 9, rolling-out to other cities in subsequent weeks (official site).

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.


Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…


IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.


IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).


IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.


IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.


IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.



IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on and the IFC app.

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