Smriti Daniel

Mira Nair: A Life Across 3 Continents

In Filmmakers, Gardeners on July 28, 2014 at 4:45 am

The line of the equator runs through Mira Nair’s garden in Kampala, Uganda. The sprawling estate overlooks Lake Victoria; glittering blue under the warmth of an African sun, it stretches as far as the eye can see. At the heart of her garden, set with winding pathways and plants that have proved irresistible to the local population of butterflies and birds, is a tall, graceful coconut tree that Mira and her husband Mahmood Mamdani planted on the day their son Zohran was born.

Mira Nair

Though she has homes in India and America, here the iconic director of films like ‘Monsoon Wedding’, ‘The Namesake’ and ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’ can count on the vast majority of her neighbours being unaware of her celebrity. The odds were even better over two decades ago when Mira first arrived. It was 1989, and Mira had practically just stepped off the red carpet at the Oscars where ‘Salaam Bombay!’ had received an Academy Award nomination for the Best Foreign Language Film.

Few had ever seen anything quite like it. Having enrolled 30 street children in a three month workshop, Mira took her young, unwieldy cast of amateur actors and created a movie that captured not just their often harrowing circumstances, but the resilience, humour and even dignity that allowed them to survive on the streets of India’s grand metropolis. Aside from the Oscar nomination, ‘Salaam Bombay!’ won the Camera D’or and Prix du Publique at the Cannes Film Festival; racking up in total more than 23 international awards.
After the Oscars, everyone had assumed Mira would be “heading to Hollywood for the next big ticket,” but she had other plans. She was going location hunting for her next film, ‘Mississippi Masala’ which would star young Denzel Washington and Sarita Choudhury as a gorgeous, mixed race couple. She found not only her perfect location but also the man who would become the love of her life.

Her family was with her the last time she was in Sri Lanka, when they toured Bawa’s properties together. Still, finding herself in his home in Colombo now has left Mira so moved that she tore up and rewrote the speech she had intended to deliver at the 2013/14 Geoffrey Bawa Awards. A printer sends up a whirl of smoke as it spits out the last of 10 pages, and Mira can finally relax into this interview. Sitting in his home, it seems only fitting that Bawa is a touchstone in our conversation, an inspiration Mira returns to more than once whether talking about her own work, her landscaping plans or the roots of her own fierce individualism.

“It’s because his roots were so strong in Sri Lanka that he could fly and for me too it was very similar,” she says, recognizing some parallels. Growing up in Bhubaneshwar in the Indian state of Odisha, she was affectionately nicknamed ‘pagli’ or mad girl. Decidedly middle class, her father was a government servant. A fierce intelligence made her a misfit in the local school but when she was enrolled in the boarding at Loreto Convent, an interest in theatre took root. Her baritone voice meant she was always cast a boy, but Mira loved acting. “I felt really at ease, I felt blithe and happy on stage.”

Later, at Miranda House, theatre became her focus. (Among her stage companions were Indian MP Shashi Tharoor for whose benefit she would eat raw onions before a love scene and the author Amitav Ghosh, who wore a lungi to serve her Cleopatra.) Mira found herself drawn to the authenticity and vitality of street theatre but when she earned a scholarship to Harvard to study it, she found it simply wasn’t political enough for her. On the other hand, the film department was.

Her parents had allowed their youngest child to study abroad in part because the university was so well known, and as her father said: “The Kennedys have gone there.”(Mira remembered to thank Caroline Kennedy for the unwitting part her family had played when they became neighbours on campus housing.) It was still an unconventional thing to do but confident enough to simply be herself, Mira wasn’t cutting her new teachers and classmates any slack, a challenge that she would later extend to her audiences across the world.

“My roots were so strong in a desi context that I could go to the States and say to them that I refused to pander to their ignorance of my country. I said: ‘My distinctiveness is my advantage. You will never know this world, until I show you this world,’ which was how I would parlay the few crumbs I would get.”

Her early filmography is built on documentaries like ‘So Far From India’ (1982), ‘India Cabaret’ (1985) and ‘Children of a Desired Sex’ (1987). Whether she was convincing jaded Indian strippers to let her come backstage or talking their patron into letting her go home with him to meet his wife, her ability to win the trust of her subjects made her an exceptional documentary film maker. “I became someone who was deeply at home in various contexts, who could find ways of making people be themselves with me. It took time; you have to be respectful, you have to be humble, you have to be really listening.” Mira has since worked with some of the biggest names in both Bollywood and Hollywood, with each new release spurring another long walk down the red carpet at Cannes or Venice.

On the back of 2004’s ‘Vanity Fair’ Mirawas even asked to direct the fourth instalment in the Harry Potter franchise but an adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri’s ‘The Namesake’ was also in the works. When Zohran said to her, “Mama, any good director can make Harry Potter but only you can make Namesake” he simultaneously liberated her and supplied the question she would hereafter ask herself before taking on a new project.

There have been exceptions to that rule – such as the disastrous‘ Amelia’ with Richard Gere and Hilary Swank in the role of the famous aviator– and Mira says she has learned worthy lessons from them. In stark contrast to Amelia’s $40,000,000 budget, ‘Monsoon Wedding’, perhaps the most widely loved of her oeuvre was a film she made in just 30 days on a budget of just over a $1,000,000. (“I’m really at my best when I have very little money and I have freedom.”)

Her family and friends made up much of the cast of a film that set out to capture the boisterous joy and colour of a traditional family wedding. Once again, Mira was uninterested in pandering – not only was the film frank in its depictions of a generation of increasingly sexually liberated young Indians, but it also examined how child abuse could exist within the confines of even most intimate family gatherings.

Mira is re-immersing herself in that world, having spent the last five years hard at work on converting ‘Monsoon Wedding’ for Broadway.They’re casting in September and come December they’ll be ready to share the script and the music with investors. Mira wanted this to be as authentic as possible, real “desi style.” “I’ve been cooking it for six years,” she says. New lyrics by Vishal Bhardwaj were delivered to her inbox just this morning and she’s determined that like the film, the show will also have a script that’s bilingual. When I wonder how American audiences will respond, she reiterates her mantra: “You must never pander.”

It must have felt like a difficult motto to live up to when the release date of ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’ rolled around. Set in the aftermath of 9/11, the book by Mohsin Hamid was a frank examination of how even the most ardent fan of America could find themselves disillusioned by all that followed the tragedy. The plot embraces ambiguity, as does Mira, who wanted the film to force people to confront each other’s humanity and their own ignorance of ‘the other’. Then, five days before ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’ premiere, the Boston Marathon bombings once again made the subject of terrorism in America one fraught with emotion and conflict. Mira became an overnight media guru.

“I was on the hot seat, man,” she says now.“I made the film with great passion to speak of the other side, the story you never hear. Suddenly, I was the prescient person who had seen this coming…That was the scary part because I didn’t have the key to those boys but I had told a story that Mohsin had told, which was a passage as to how someone can get disenchanted and why.” Needless to say, she weighed her words carefully.

Her successes over the years have given Mira the confidence to live a life across three continents – she knows that the right projects will come to her. In fact her upcoming Disney funded blockbuster, ‘Queen of Katwe’ will tell the true story of young corn seller in one of Kampala’s poorest slums. Phiona Mutesi beat seemingly impossible odds to become a world class chess player. For Mira, never one to go for a linear, simplistic narrative, the story is about Phiona’s family as well – and in particular her elder sister who continued to struggle with poverty and is a now a mother to five children.

Mira’s commitment to doing good takes tangible form not just in her movies but in the two organisations she’s helped set up. In Delhi, the Salaam Baalak Trust is in its 25th year. Its 17 centres have supported thousands of street and working children in the inner cities of New Delhi and Mumbai. In Kampala, the Maisha Film Lab provides training and support for emerging East African filmmakers and actors. Since it began, everyone who’s studied or taught there has planted a tree and written their name on it. One of the trees bears the name of Lupita Nyong’o – last year’s winner of the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for ‘12 Years a Slave’.

Looking at what they’ve accomplished at Maisha and Salaam Baalak, Mira says “It’s amazing because that was the question: Can art change the world? Can it affect the world?” She personifies the answer, which if you were to judge by her life and achievements, is a resounding ‘yes’.

Published in the Sunday Times on 27 July, 2014. Words by Smriti Daniel. Pix courtesy Ishaan Nair . 


Prof. Chandra Wickramasinghe: The Origins of Life on Earth

In Academics, Astronomers, Scientists on July 28, 2014 at 4:38 am

Whether they agree with him or not, most scientists consider Prof. Chandra Wickramasinghe a force to be reckoned with. His early career was marked by a string of honours – graduating in 1960 with a BSc First Class Honours in mathematics from the University of Ceylon, he went on to study at Trinity College and Jesus College, Cambridge, where he obtained his PhD and ScD degrees. His research on interstellar dust won him a Fellowship at Jesus College Cambridge where he would spend the next decade. In 1973, his appointment as the youngest Professor and Head of Department at Cardiff University was a particular triumph.

Though it later lost its funding and was shut down, he is credited with incubating the Cardiff Centre for Astrobiology. He is currently the Director of the Buckingham Centre for Astrobiology, University of Buckingham where he has been since 2011.

Never one to fear controversy, Prof. Chandra’s recent research has provoked a storm of criticism, with his colleagues in the scientific community questioning in particular his faith in panspermia and the widespread existence of extra-terrestrial life as well as his stance on evolution. Invited to deliver the IESL Ray Wijewardene Memorial Lecture 2014 on July 31, Prof. Chandra will be talking about the search for the origins of life on earth, as he lays out his case for “a major game-changing paradigm shift” that will trigger a sociological revolution with far reaching consequences.
Below are excerpts from our email interview:

- Your family has produced not one but four noted scientists. As a young man, what inspired your interest in science and in astronomy in particular?

All four brothers in my family ended up as distinguished scientists in various ways, only Dayal and I were professors of astronomy. One other brother, Sunitha, was a Professor of Haematology at St Mary’s Hospital in London, and my youngest brother Kumar is a distinguished Professor of Nanophysics at the University of California in Irvine.

A reason for my early passion for astronomy was my father – PH as he was known – who was himself a brilliant mathematician. He was at Cambridge in the 1930s, a Senior Scholar at Trinity College and a Wrangler in the Mathematical Tripos. He specialised in astronomy and was a pupil of the Cambridge astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington. There was a vast collection of astronomy books in my father’s library, and I believe that it was through looking at these books, and also long conversations with my father that sparked my serious interest in astronomy.

I had realised quite early that in order to properly understand astronomy one needed a firm grounding in mathematics and physics, and so when it was time I went to the University of Ceylon to study mathematics. From there I went to Cambridge as a Commonweath Scholar to do my further studies in Astronomy.

-Your work on the interstellar medium was ground-breaking and challenged theories that were widely accepted at the time. Would you walk us through your research and its significance?

I was very fortunate to be supervised by Sir Fred Hoyle, the iconic theoretical astronomer of the 20th century. Interstellar dust shows up as dark clouds and striations against the background of stars in the Milky Way. In the 1960s when I began studying the nature of this dust, the consensus view was that they were icy particles, similar to the microscopic ice particles that exist in the Earth’s cumulous clouds. I challenged this point of view with my calculations that indicated the dust to be mainly composed of the chemical element carbon. I published my results in scientific journals and in so doing became plunged into my first scientific controversy.

It took 10 years of a bitterly fought battle before the carbon dust idea became part of mainstream astronomy. This controversy gave me my first introduction to how scientific paradigms are overturned.

Carbon dust in space was not the end of the story. The question of what form this carbon exists in led to my next confrontation with orthodoxy. In 1974 I published the first scientific argument in the journal Nature to propose that the interstellar dust had a complex organic composition, including long chains of molecules. This also provoked controversy, and this second controversy lasted another decade, before it was finally settled in my favour.

-When did you first become interested in the origins of life on earth? 

It was the next step in this train of reasoning that led to my interest in the origins of life on Earth. When you ask the question how could all the carbon in space be turned so efficiently into complex organic molecules, the answer stares you in the face. On Earth almost all the organic material we find is either directly or indirectly the product of biology. So why is the same reasoning not applicable to organic molecules in space? It is precisely this question that led me to reject the Earth-bound origin of life idea in favour of the theory of panspermia – life being a cosmic phenomenon.

-As a theory, panspermia is yet to be widely accepted. What would you say in its favour?

The existence of complex organic molecules in interstellar clouds and in comets is now no longer a matter for dispute, it is a fact. The idea that these molecules represent early steps towards life originating everywhere is fashionable, but for this there is no experimental support. Ideas of Haldane and Oparin in the 1930’s led to the theory that life originated in a “primordial soup” of organics on the Earth. But this is surely seen to be flawed when you consider the superastronomical level of molecular complexity that is found even in the simplest bacterium. Experiments to simulate an origin of life in the laboratory have been conducted for over half a century and they have all led to dismal failure. The primordial soup therefore remains an unproven and wrong theory. It is based on a pre-Copernican philosophy that argues that we are always at the centre of things. There is also a recent embarrassing finding that life on Earth appears at the very first moment it can survive. This evidence is found in sedimentary rocks dated at about 4 billion years ago, when we know the Earth was severely bombarded by comets. The most reasonable explanation is that the impacting comets brought not only the water that formed the oceans, but brought life as well.

Panspermia theory states that the first origin of life occurred on a truly cosmological scale, requiring the combined resources of a very large part of the Universe. Once life has originated, however, its spread from one habitable planet to another becomes inevitable. This idea has received a strong boost from recent discoveries of exoplanets – habitable planets outside the solar system. The present estimate of about 140 billion habitable planets in the galaxy means that the separation between habitable planetary systems average just a few light years. This is a very short distance in cosmic terms and could be easily bridged by exchanges of comets and meteorites.

This leads me to the next aspect of panspermia. If life was transferred to Earth by comets and meteorites, such a process could not have stopped at a distant time in the past. Comets and meteorites are with us today and must still be delivering living forms to Earth. Over the past few years this facet of panspermia as a testable theory has come into sharp focus. Balloons sent by teams of scientists in India, Japan and the UK have brought back living organisms (bacteria) that essentially proves panspermia. Critics who dislike this idea continue to say that these must be Earth-bacteria that were somehow lofted from the surface. The Polonnaruwa meteorite of December 2012 has also shown compelling evidence of microscopic life – diatoms, which are microscopic plant life forms. The chemical composition of this meteorite showing a high concentration of the element iridium confirms its cosmic origin beyond a shadow of doubt. But the controversy stems from the fact that on the basis of the conventional primordial soup theory there should be no signs of life in meteorites. It is a case of prejudice dictating skepticism. But I believe in the long term the controversy will be settled by the rapidly expanding body of facts that all goes to support the ideas of panspermia.

-Particularly in recent years, your research has often inspired controversy. What has inspired you to persevere in the face of criticism from your peers? Do you believe time will vindicate your work?   

When every new observation and data supports a theory, one should not give up a fight. I think the data will eventually be so overwhelming that it would be impossible to stop a major paradigm shift from Earth-centred biology to cosmic-centred biology.

-How did your collaboration with Fred Hoyle shape your career and influence your research?

I found it exceedingly useful to have the support of Fred Hoyle throughout this work. Combating adversaries in controversies of this type could be a lonely business. To have the backing of Fred Hoyle was a tremendous boon. What I learnt from Fred Hoyle was the virtue of obstinacy in sticking to one’s intended course. Only the facts matter in science. Opinions are often misleading and should not be heeded in preference to the facts.

-Have you met Ray Wijewardene? Since you will be speaking at an event in his honour, we’d love to hear your thoughts on his legacy.

I met him only briefly in the company of my friend Arthur C. Clarke. I think Ray was a remarkable man, a genius. I believe his main legacy is work on inventing machines that helped poorer countries to improve their agricultural yield and facilitate the production of food in a cost effective way. Alleviating extreme poverty is one of the greatest challenges we face at the present time. Ray’s invention of his two-wheel tractor set an example for others to follow.

-You are also an award winning poet. Do tell us why haiku imagism is your preferred style and the role poetry has played in your life?

I think that the poet, the scientist, the artist all describe the same external universe, but using different tools. I enjoy penning short poems mainly in the fashion of haiku imagism. I think this compact style of poetry is similar in many ways to the rigour and precision of mathematics. This is more therapy than serious creative poetry.

Published in The Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on 27 July, 2014. Words by Smriti Daniel. Pix by Susantha Liyanawatte. 

Barbara Sansoni: The Numbers Didn’t Add Up, But the Sketches Did

In Architect, Designers, Entreprenuers, Illustrators on July 28, 2014 at 4:06 am

Barbara Sansoni was 11 years old when she met Maria Montessori. Having fled to India after being exiled by Mussolini during WWII, Maria’s school in the Olcott Garden Bungalow already had a small complement of students. Now, here was this child in need of her guidance. Barbara, enrolled close by in a boarding school in Kodaikanal, was a poor student. A bad case of dyslexia had left her struggling to read and write and as she told Maria plaintively – “the worst one is sums. I can’t add or subtract.”

Over the course of their conversation, Maria discovered that Barbara loved to draw and her advice was that she draw as much as she could – history would be figures of people, maths little groups of pebbles that she could add to or subtract from. This made sense to Barbara, whose letters home were already filled with sketches of cartoon figures, each more expressive to her than any sentence she could have constructed. “Still, it wasn’t as easy as that, but she was a wonderful woman,” says Barbara, remembering.

She and her second husband, the architect and scholar Ronald Lewcock are just finishing their lunch when we arrive. Barbara, dressed in a skirt of many colours, with a shirt to match and an assortment of colourful, beaded chains around her neck looks like an ambassador for Barefoot. She is nestled among some of her most recognizable creations – there are the brilliantly coloured cushions at her back, the ‘wall furniture’ or hangings with many pockets on the wall beside her and dangling from a chair nearby are the bags that are so recognizably from the store she founded. She has a pair of bad hips and finds walking difficult, so it is Ronald who goes looking for a copy of ‘A Passion for Faces’ and who identifies the oldest dated picture in the set – a line drawing of Barbara’s sister Mary, from 1964, when Barbara was 35 and Mary 25.

Just launched, the book juxtaposes simple sketches, vividly coloured paintings and the odd, fantastical portrait that take for their theme the faces of people Barbara has encountered in the course of her long life. In each, she explores her fascination with our genetic heritage – in the line of the cheekbones, the flaring of a nostril, the curl of a hair, the fullness of a lip. In fact, if she’d had her way, the book would have been called ‘Races in the Face.’She is regretful that she didn’t pay more attention to some when she was working on them; she never imagined they would be published. She blames her distraction on why she was in the vicinity of her subjects in the first place – the old houses she had come to sketch.

She would write in a poem titled Houses and Faces: ‘To me it isn’t important who lived in the house, history/doesn’t make ugly things beautiful – but age does/A face, after all, is a house, built centuries ago by genes.’ By the beginning of the 1960s, Barbara’s drawings of old buildings were already being published in the Ceylon Daily Mirror. She would go looking in villages and rural hamlets for architectural gems (and would often be asked by the villagers if she could sketch them too.) She did this,

she says, because she wanted to share her pleasure in the buildings but her sketches now serve too as memorials to structures long torn down and destroyed. It was these that first brought Ronald into her life – visiting the island to conduct research, he had been determined to meet the artist who had created these charming drawings and who simultaneously penned pragmatic articles on the use of perforated walls that ‘breathed.’

Married to Hildon Sansoni at the time, Barbara was already a mother (Dominic, her youngest child, was not yet six) and she was completely unaware that the decade ahead would transform her career and define her legacy as an artist and a designer.
When an Irish nun, Sister Good Counsel, Provincial of the Good Shepherd sisters of Southeast Asia, approached Barbara it was because she knew her as a family friend and an artist in her own right. Her wish was that Barbara could become involved in a programme that taught young girls how to weave. The girls in question had nowhere else to go – impoverished, some were orphaned, others child servants who had then been thrown out by the families they lived with. Barbara’s first response was to say no, because as she stated clearly, she had “no interest in good works.” Sister Good Counsel set up a meeting anyway, and that was that.

When Barbara became involved in the project, the women were only weaving towels and dish cloths with a simple stripe at one end. Barbara saw that if they were to make a profit from these and sell them abroad, she would have to bring an entirely new aesthetic to the design that would appeal to a much wider audience. “I was also a friend of the traditional weavers and I didn’t want to get my weavers to start copying their things,” she says.

Hildon and she decided they would establish and finance four village weaving centres. They were not easy to get to for Barbara, who then drove a small Volkswagen, but it seemed important to her to bring work to villages where it was scarce, and to avoid at all costs a factory-like set up. The girls would weave in large halls with open windows. Barbara’s contribution was her particular talent – an incredible eye for colour which she combined with a gift for innovation. When only white yarn was available, she would unwind spools of thick jute rope and weave it in to create texture. At other times she would have to find ways to work with a limited range of colours or poor quality thread (never afraid to complain, she brought her case directly to Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake himself and says he was very helpful in seeing the quality of the yarn improved.) She would eventually learn how to dye fabrics and trained a group of master dyers to create those spectacular hues.

Increasingly, Barbara saw they were doing good in the communities they worked with. She is echoing Maria Montessori’s opinion when she says: “when you meet children who have been uneducated you can’t go back, too many years have passed, a skill is the best education a brain can have.” Proficiency in weaving could still develop the whole person. They would simultaneously acquire a whole gamut of other abilities – from problem solving, to basic mathematics, manual dexterity and a discipline that would serve them well in all aspects of their lives.

When money became tight, Barbara took the extremely unconventional step of selling the girls’ products in her own home (her invitation to drinks read: ‘You will find various things, handwoven by poor girls around the place. Don’t let me feel ashamed that I have put them there.’) Her trusted butler Ekanayake would be standing at the ready to offer a price on the neat little parcels and would handle the money afterward – Barbara never having overcome her fear of doing math.

From that point on, the small business would only grow in renown. In 1970 a prestigious Rockefeller Scholarship would allow her to tour 14 countries and meet some of the world’s most emminent designers, but she really knew she had arrived when Geoffrey Bawa chose to use her fabrics in the Lighthouse Hotel. (They were friends, but she knew he would not have singled her out unless he genuinely admired her work.) Her design team also swelled to encompass the likes of Marie Gnanaraj and Preethi Hapuwatta, who she would collaborate with in years to come.

As they began to consider expanding their range, Barbara decided that any clothes they made would take the shape of the traditional garments worn by ordinary people about their work. There would be no fitted sleeves or bust darts (“bust darts are bad words at Barefoot”) and the colours would reflect the lushness of the tropics. She herself has worn these clothes throughout her life, even when accompanying Ronald to the UK and the US (they will celebrate their 34th anniversary this year). As you might expect, Barbara found herself coming in for criticism – society women compared her to their ayahs and once her bank manager cautioned her that her midriff-baring garments might “incite men” and place her person in jeopardy. Barbara’s response was to contemptuously ignore the former, the latter she reassured by showing him the heavy object she carried around in her bag to deter any assailants.

Her confidence and stubbornness sprang from how fully she embraced life. “I love life, I like laughing, I don’t take it seriously…those were the clothes I felt most comfortable in and they were lovely to look at,” she says.

As we talk, Ronald writes in a copy of ‘A Passion for Faces’ and hands it over for Barbara to sign. Her voice softens always when she speaks to him, he who probably knows her best and takes such pride in her accomplishments. There is much joking about how she wields her walking stick to bring him into line. As I am about to leave, having been pressed to accept a milk toffee, she pulls me back to tell me sotto-voce that she is most profoundly grateful for him. “Write that down,” she says, “and also that I wouldn’t have been able to do it without the stick!”

Published in The Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on 20 July, 2014. Words by Smriti Daniel. Pix by Susantha Liyanawatte. 


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