- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 2, 2004

NEW YORK — When Mira Nair landed in her native India for a quick, two-day shoot on “Vanity Fair,” which opened in area theaters Wednesday, that’s when star Reese Witherspoon went from being merely impressed to awestruck.

Seemingly in no time, Miss Nair had marshaled a crew of 200 people speaking in three different languages and — why not? — four elephants.

“She’s just a very special person,” Miss Witherspoon says, lamenting there aren’t more like her in Hollywood.

James Purefoy — one of several British actors cast in the movie, which was filmed primarily in Bath, England — was impressed by that same organizational brio, in this case her encouragement of actors to join her for early-morning yoga sessions.

No way, Mr. Purefoy said of the 6 a.m. invitations, citing leisure-appreciation: “I’m British.”

It took a certain fearlessness for Miss Nair to take on a classic of English literature, William Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair,” an ensemble saga centered on Rebecca Sharp (played by Miss Witherspoon), the audacious, low-born social climber of Georgian England.

First of all, Miss Nair is, well, not a Mr., and Hollywood’s big-epics Rolodex is filled with names like Ridley Scott, Wolfgang Petersen and Mel Gibson. “Sadly, there aren’t a whole lot of female directors out there,” Miss Witherspoon says.

Miss Nair, 46, started her career making documentaries such as “Jama Masjid Street Journal” and “So Far from India.” She’d gotten a full ride to Harvard University and set only one deadline for herself: Make a feature by age 30.

“Salaam Bombay!” came out in 1988. She was 29.

Only recently did Miss Nair break through to mainstream American audiences, with the 2002 comedy “Monsoon Wedding.” She’s long kept India’s Bollywood system at arm’s length — though that extravagant, carnivalesque aesthetic does inform her movies.

Miss Nair is a self-styled outsider, which is why she jumped at “Vanity Fair,” a project that Focus Features offered her without realizing she’d snuggled in bed with the novel since she was a teenager.

Thackeray was “the ultimate outsider,” she believes.

“He was born and raised in Calcutta and was shipped to England to be an English gentleman,” Miss Nair says in an interview in midtown Manhattan, not far from the Upper West Side apartment she calls home eight months of the year. (She spends summers in Kampala, Uganda, with her professor husband.)

Miss Nair is short, dark and striking, dressed in traditional Indian clothing with vivid purples and reds. She calls herself a “helpless fan of Thackeray” and feels she can relate to him.

“Thackeray spent his happiest times in India. He always looked at his own society with the same eyes Becky Sharp did.”

And the same eyes that Mira Nair does: “Many of us are colonial hangovers in India; we’re steeped in English literature,” she says. “We know them better than they know us.

“I went to an Irish-Catholic boarding school in India and studied deeply Shakespeare and Blake and Keats and so on,” Miss Nair continues. “‘Vanity Fair’ was what I read kind of slightly under the covers when I was 16.”

As in “Monsoon Wedding,” but on a grander scale, there’s an element of Anglo-Indian cultural intersection that Miss Nair extracted from Thackeray’s novel, set in “a time that I’m very interested in — where England was first feeling the flush of wealth from what I call the rape of the colony.”

The novel is set in Europe, but the reality of the Raj (shorthand for British rule of the subcontinent) is always just around the corner.

Miss Nair turned that “waft of India” (screenwriter Julian Fellowes’ description) into a constant breeze for her adaptation of “Vanity Fair.” For example, one scene from the book — a game of charades put on for visiting royalty — became a sexy Bollywoodesque dance sequence in the movie.

The director is unapologetic about such anti-“Masterpiece Theater.”

“You couldn’t drag me into a stuffy period drama — the rich heiresses with nobody to love them, so they pamper themselves with baths and manicures,” she says. “It’s not my thing.”

As an Indian and a woman, Miss Nair believes she brought a value-added touch to the adaptation.

“What I’m interested in is the whole tapestry of life, not just being in love with the indulgence of scale — that’s more of a male thing,” she explains.

“Monsoon Wedding,” made on a $2 million budget, would go on to gross about $13 million in the United States, a huge success as far as indie movies go, if not by the unprecedented standards of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”

For Miss Nair, the shoestring project was a sort of dare. “I really made that film on so little money purposely to prove that you don’t need a lot of money and men in suits to tell you how to make a movie,” she says.

The $23 million budget for “Vanity Fair,” she says, was “big but not vast.” Yet the same principle of economy applied. “We have this lovely expression on the streets of India — ‘paisa vasool,’ which means, ‘We’ve gotta give you your money’s worth,’” she says.

Asked to look back on her success, Miss Nair answers with self-assurance.

“I don’t sit around looking over my shoulder hoping they won’t catch me,” she says. “I think it’s the other way around. I think that I have something to say … I’d like to open your eyes to the part of the world that I come from.”

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