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Mira Nair fulfils a dream with ‘Vanity Fair’

Director fell in love with Thackeray's novel when she was 16
/ Source: The Associated Press

Mira Nair found success as a marriage planner with her last film, “Monsoon Wedding.” Now she’s out to play matchmaker for one of 19th century England’s most notorious husband hunters.

Nair’s latest film, “Vanity Fair,” stars Reese Witherspoon as Becky Sharp, social climber, gold digger and always plucky heroine of William Makepeace Thackeray’s epic novel that skewers class snobbery and pretensions of the nouveau riche in Napoleonic-era Britain.

Born in India and raised on a diet of colonial British literature, Nair discovered “Vanity Fair” when she was 16 and fell in love with Becky’s indefatigable aspirations to rise above her lowly origins.

“Mostly because she was like us. She was somebody who didn’t care for the cards that society had dealt her and she made her own deck,” Nair, 46, said in an interview with The Associated Press. “She basically carved her way in a time when it was much harder to carve your way as a young woman from the other side of the tracks. Motherless, orphaned and born on the outside into a completely class-straitjacketed society.”

Though a decent person at heart, Witherspoon’s Becky is a manipulator, using her charm, beauty and musical talents to win over the snooty British upper class and land herself a well-to-do mate.

The film’s cast includes Gabriel Byrne, Eileen Atkins, Bob Hoskins, Jim Broadbent and Romola Garai.

“Vanity Fair” was a book Nair dipped into every few years since first reading it, so it was a nice bit of serendipity that Focus Features approached her about directing its production of Thackeray’s masterpiece.

Crafting films from imaginationAt $23 million, “Vanity Fair” was the biggest budget yet for Nair, who made a splash with her 1988 feature debut “Salaam Bombay!” — an Academy Award nominee for foreign-language film. She followed it with “Mississippi Masala” starring Denzel Washington, “The Perez Family” and “Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love.”

Her credits also include the TV movie “Hysterical Blindness,” which starred Uma Thurman and Juliette Lewis.

While her earlier films had mixed receptions in the United States, 2002’s “Monsoon Wedding” found an enthusiastic reception. A vibrant, crowd-pleasing tale of tradition clashing with modern times during a Punjabi family’s preparations for an arranged marriage, the film took in $13.9 million domestically, impressive results for a largely subtitled foreign flick.

“Monsoon Wedding” was an experiment for Nair, who had been teaching filmmaking to students while living in South Africa for three years and later at Columbia University’s film school in New York.

The mantra she shared with students was making something out of nothing, crafting films from just their imagination, without millions of production dollars. So Nair decided to practice what she preached and try to make a film on a tight schedule of 30 days for just $1 million, the same budget she had on “Salaam Bombay!”

The year before, two close friends of Nair’s had died, so “I wanted to make a film of things that I held special, that I celebrated or felt thankful for, and that was my family,” Nair said.

“And we also are party animals, my family, and also our community, we are serious party animals. So family means party time, and a lot of drama that goes with partying. And if you want to make something popular and not just something for your family, I thought, let’s take a wedding.”

Focus on culture clashesNair grew up in a small Indian town, her father a civil servant, her mother a social worker. Attending Harvard on a scholarship, Nair initially studied theater but moved into film, shooting a documentary for her thesis and following with three other socially minded documentaries through the late 1980s before steering into fictional films.

Next up for Nair is “The Namesake” adapted from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel about an Indian-American man trying to find his place in his parents’ adopted country.

Nair, who splits her time between homes in New York and Uganda, often makes films touching on culture clash and the experiences of immigrants. She has had offers to direct big, mythic Hollywood films, but demurs: “It has to be smart, and it has to get my heart beating. Usually, when I get offered those pictures, it’s like if anybody else can do them that I can think of, it’s better that they do them. But if there’s something I can bring to it that I think no one else can, then I take it seriously.

“It’s a good criteria, because I’m not a dime a dozen. I have my own thing, and I love doing that thing. I have loads of other things as well to do in life, so when I make a movie, I have to commit to that fully.”