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Fierce Presence

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seems an unlikely trait for an ambitious filmmaker. Yet Mira Nair, who is nothing if not fiercely determined to bring her ideas to life, says she actively cultivates it. Her adherence to the yogic axiom “Let go of everything but the present moment” may even be the secret to her success. Nair has directed 16 films, including Monsoon Wedding, Mississippi Masala, Vanity Fair, Salaam Bombay! and now The Namesake, a spellbinding adaptation of the Jhumpa Lahiri novel, scheduled to arrive in theaters in March.

“Without a vision, you’re not a director,” Nair, 49, said during a phone interview from Kampala, Uganda, where she lives part of the year. “But the difference comes in capturing that vision. My way of doing it is to communicate my vision to my team in advance. Then on the day of shooting, I let go. That gives my mind the space for inspiration to bloom.

“Sometimes an actor will do a scene in a way you never considered, and it may be exquisite, but because you never thought of it, you don’t see it and you resist it. If I am grounded in the present, maybe instead of resisting, I’ll be able to surrender to the moment and say, “I never expected this, but it’s great.'”

This ability to surrender, she says, is directly linked to her yoga practice. “I often use the example of Virabhadrasana II [Warrior II]—if you’re leaning too far forward, it’s like you’re in the future, and if you lean too far back, it’s like you’re in the past. But if your trunk is solidly anchored in the center, you are right there in the present moment.” And that is a beautiful lesson for any art making or any life making.

A Yogic Afterglow

Nair powerfully portrays this “beautiful lesson” in The Namesake, as her camera follows the lead character, Ashima, through a life whose immense changes only bring her to a greater acceptance of what is. In a riveting 117 minutes (which will inspire laughter, tears, and the conviction that you’ve been transported to the chaotic streets of a colorful Indian city), the film explores the emotional roller coaster of an immigrant’s life. Ashima pingpongs between Calcutta and New York, between her traditional extended Indian family and her very American nuclear family, between her true love for her arranged-marriage husband and her deepening independence. As she weathers everything from culture shock to the painfully typical adolescence of her children to the deaths of loved ones, Ashima learns, with quiet grace, to accept each moment on its own terms.

Tabu, the Bollywood star (and the cover model for this issue) who plays Ashima, channeled some of her own yogic training into the role. For the past five years, Tabu has studied with a student of T.K.V. Desikachar at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram in Chennai, India. Practicing yoga, she said by phone from her home in Mumbai, has been “like a magical process of getting in touch with my own body, like the innermost fiber coming to life, and a discovery of the strength that was lying inside me.”

The 35-year-old, who has twice won India’s National Award for best actress, said, “It has made it easy for me to be in the moment or be in the emotion of a scene and then come out of it when being in it was no longer required. It’s one of the great aftereffects of the practice—being one with the moment.”
Like the character Ashima, Tabu was in her own kind of culture shock at the start of filming. “I’d never worked on an American film, and the crew was totally new to me,” she said. “I was removed from the whirlpool of people and past associations,” she explained, referring to the Indian film industry she’s been a part of for 20 years. But being removed from her normal work milieu heightened her ability to stay in
the present. “I had no expectations of the people I was working with, and they had no expectations of me, personally. We were just doing our jobs. It was a very liberating experience.”

The Hilarity of Chanting

Nair considers Iyengar Yoga a mainstay of her life and her movies. The Namesake’s crew included yoga teachers Yvonne De Kock and James Murphy of the Iyengar Yoga Institute of New York, and Ashwini Parulkar, of Mumbai. One of them would lead a 5 a.m. class for the crew before shooting began each day. Tabu, who with other actors would be getting her hair and makeup done at that hour, took private classes with Murphy.

Nair was 12 years old, living in a remote Indian village, when she began her own practice—with Richard Hittleman’s book Yoga: 28 Day Exercise Plan. She dabbled in Sivananda Yoga while studying at Harvard and discovered Iyengar Yoga while living in Capetown, South Africa.

“I am very attracted to rigor,” Nair says, “and I think the Iyengar tradition is deeply rigorous. It is not chic, which I love. I don’t want to dismiss any other tradition, but I’ve done a lot of other yoga—this and that in New York—before I knew about Iyengar. And I find all that music and chanting and all of that quite woolly for me,” she says with a laugh. “Especially as an Indian, to hear all of this chanting, all mispronounced, all crazy—I find it hilarious, actually funny. And that totally takes me out of it. What I like about the Iyengar way is that there is no pretension and it doesn’t create the easy pleasures of the other ones. I might view the world as a vibrant musical universe, but in myself, rigor is of most importance.”

The rigor and routine of Iyengar Yoga form something of a backbone for Nair, lending stability and flexibility to a whirlwind life that straddles several continents. Her office and one home are in New York; another home is in Kampala. She films frequently in India but also in locations around the world. So what would she do with her “free time” but apply herself to the dream of building an Iyengar Yoga center in Uganda, as part of the community arts center she envisions for Kampala? Already, Nair and her husband, the Columbia University professor Mahmood Mamdani, have donated land for the center and started the Maisha Film Labs, which holds a free 25-day screenwriting and directing program each year for a small group of East African and South Asian filmmakers. She hopes to raise enough money to build the center in the next couple of years. Nair will host screenings of The Namesake in March to benefit Maisha and the Iyengar Yoga Association of Greater New York.

“It’s a good dream, but I’m really just thinking of myself,” says Nair. “When I grow old here, I want to do Sirsasana with 50 people and feel like I have a community.” Her combination of determination and surrender will surely guide this new venture to fruition. And her yoga practice will no doubt help her meet whatever challenges arise. As Nair puts it: “If you’re doing Sirsasana and you’re purposefully seeing the world upside down—you’re disorienting yourself and feeling oriented in that disorientation—that often gives you a clue to a problem you may have that day. It’s teaching you to see it in another way. I don’t know, it just works.”