The chronicle of a lonely do-gooder family doctor who survived.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Mira Nair and Shantaram

I just saw the film The Namesake, after having read the book last year. It is an incredibly moving story of an Indian man who comes to America as a graduate student and raises his family here where they struggle to balance their own cultural identity with the pressures of assimilating into the United States. The thing that is so remarkable about the story is actually that it is so unremarkable, having been repeated tens of thousands of times by many different Indian families, including my own adopted one. I think Mira Nair, the director (who also directed Monsoon Wedding, Salaam Bombay, Mississippi Masala, among other films) did it justice. She has such a way of capturing on film whatever it is that makes India such a beautiful, complex place. And she does this by portraying scenes on the street with a realism that is at once ordinary but also astonishing.

So I finished reading the book Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts on the plane back from India. It's this mostly true story, about an Australian political activist who becomes a heroin addict. He had been given a 20 year prison sentence for armed robbery when he escaped, ultimately making his way to the slums of Bombay. There, he redeemed himself, learning Hindi and Marathi, establishing a free clinic, falling in love, and generally being embraced by the inhabitants of Bombay. He also joined the Indian mafia, went to live in a rural village, acted in Bollywood movies, and fought with the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan.

Aside from being a totally amazing, engrossing thousand page adventure story, it is also a love letter written to India with some brilliant observations about the country, from the perspective of an outsider who is taken in and ultimately becomes Indian.

Some samples:

"And the Indians, they love most of all. Your little friend may be beginning to love you...It happens often and easily, for the Indians. That is how they manage to live together, a billion of them, in reasonable peace. They are not perfect, of course. They know how to fight and lie and cheat each other, and all the things that all of us do. But more than any other people in the world, the Indians know how to love one another...India is about six times the size of France...But it has almost twenty times the population. Twenty times! Believe me, if there were a billion Frenchmen living in such a crowded place, there would be rivers of blood. Rivers of blood! And as everyone knows, we French are the most civilised people in Europe. Indeed, in the whole world. No, no, without love India would be impossible."

"At first, on that first journey out of the city into India, I found such sudden politeness infuriating after the violent scramble to board the train. It seemed hypocritical for them to show such deferential concern over a nudge with a foot when, minutes before, they'd all but pushed one another out of the windows. Now, long years and many journeys after that first ride on a crowded rural train, I know that the scrambled fighting and courteous deference were both expressions of the one philosophy: the doctrine of necessity. The amount of force and violence necessary to board the train, for example, was no less and no more than the amount of politeness and consideration necessary to ensure that the cramped journey was as pleasant as possible afterwards. What is necessary? That was the unspoken but implied and unavoidable question everywhere in India. When I understood that, a great many of the characteristically perplexing aspects of public life became comprehensible: from the acceptance of sprawling slums by city authorities, to the freedom that cows had to roam at random in the midst of traffic; from the toleration of beggars on the streets, to the concatenate complexity of the bureaucracies; and from the gorgeous, unashamed escapism of Bollywood movies, to the accomodation of hundreds of thousands of refugees from Tibet, Iran, Afghanistan, Africa, and Bangladesh, in a country that was already too crowded with sorrows and needs of its own."

"This is not England, or New Zealand, or Australia, or wherever the fuck else. This is India, man. This is India. This is the land of the heart. This is where the heart is king, man. The fuckin' heart. That's why you're free. That's why that cop gave you back your phoney passport. That's why you can walk around, and not get picked up, even though they know who you are. They could've fucked you, Lin. They could've taken your money, Khader's money, and let you go, and then get some other cops to bust you, and send you the fuck home. But they didn't do it, and they won't do it, because you got them in their heart, man, in their Indian fuckin' heart. They looked at all what you did here, and how the people in that slum love you, and they thought, Well, he fucked up in Australia, but he's done some good shit here, If he pays up, we'll let the fucker go. Because they're Indians, man. That's how we keep this crazy place together -- with the heart. Two hundred fuckin' languages, and a billion people. India is the heart. It's the heart that keeps us together. There's no place with people like my people, Lin. There's no heart like the Indian heart."

Roberts eventually was captured and finished his sentence before writing his novel. He has a pretty slick, and interesting, web site, which details his real life and his activities since getting out of prison.

The book was a gift for me from Daanish. Actually, Daanish picked it out after consulting with Metafilter, so in some way I guess it was a gift from Metafilter. Either way, it was a wonderful gift, and highly recommended reading for any white guy discovering India for the first time.

So bringing it back to Mira Nair...
Like most people who fall in love with a book, particularly one with a lot of striking visual descriptions or an unusual setting, I often imagine what it would look like if a movie was made of the book. In this case, there is so much that happens, I assumed any attempt to consolidate the story into a two and a half hour movie would be a mess. But then I heard that Johnny Depp had purchased the rights and that Mira Nair had signed on to direct it.

I have never seen anything like the slums of Bombay. Imagine a city, like New York, or San Francisco, only bigger and dirtier and hotter. Then imagine every empty space being taken up by shanties. Every sidewalk, every empty lot, every park. They encroach on the infrastructure of the city, into the roads, the train stations, even the airport runway. And it goes on as far as the eye can see. Given Nair's talent for giving the audience a singular, detailed, and stunning impression of a place, this film has great potential. I am looking forward to it.


liquorice said...

I was disappointed with The Namesake, actually. I don't know if it was because I loved Monsoon Wedding and the storyline of The Namesake intrigued me so much (haven't gotten around to reading the book, unfortunately) and so I had higher expectations than I should have had, but it just didn't hit the notes that I wanted it to.

On paper so many of the family dynamics and issues that arose were similar to my own and yet played out on screen it just wasn't convincing. I'm still looking forward to Shantaram, however. Maybe that can put Nair back into my good books again. :)

The Doctor said...

You know, The Namesake mirrored my wife's life story as well and she didn't love the movie either (though she was blown away by the book).

Nair has such a way of visually capturing India on screen though. A sense of amazement at the incredible beauty seen in ordinary life in India, at least in a way that resonates with my own whitey perspective, observing Indian cities as a relative newcomer.