Mira Nair and Satyajit Ray

One of the more interesting programs the American Film Institute puts on in Los Angeles is the Cinema Legacy series, which invites filmmakers to present a movie by a filmmaker who inspires them. I’ve had the good fortune to catch Agnieska Holland presenting AgnËs Varda’s Le Bonheur, Paul Schrader presenting Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket, and just last week, Mira Nair presenting Satyajit Ray’s Aparajito (1957), his second film in the acclaimed Apu Trilogy.

Nair was born in India, in Bhubaneshwar, Orissa, but eventually began studied sociology and cinÈma vÈritÈ documentary filmmaking at Harvard University before coming to international prominence with films like Salaam Bombay! (1988), Missisippi Masala (1991), and Monsoon Wedding (2001), films noted for their spirited takes on social issues facing ethnic cultures, told with strong visuals and compelling performances. For several years, she lived in South Africa (where she is currently starting an annual young filmmaker’s lab called Maisha) and is quick to present herself as an international filmmaker rather than a strictly Indian voice.

Nair is also a very lively and intelligent woman, who listened to audience questions and offered thoughtful commentary with conviction, speaking at length about her friendship with Satyajit Ray and the ongoing influence of his work.

Some highlights:

ïShe cites Resnais’ Night and Fog, Marker’s La JetÈe, and Aparajito as her three favorite films, works she was introduced to at the university; Ray’s films were unknown to her in India as a child living in a rural area who only occassionally saw Bollywood musicals. Her other Ray favorites include Days and Nights in the Forest (1970) and Devi (1960).

ïShe was most impressed by the photographic qualities of Ray’s films, the framing and imagery of children playing or running through town or walking through grassland.

ïWhen Nair began meeting Ray to show him her early work, they mostly discussed her films or the work of other filmmakers rather than his own; she described Ray as always being interested in contemporary cinema. “What was extraordinary about him was he was totally accessible,” she said. “And he hand wrote these beautiful letters,” where he was more open to discussing his own work.

ïOne of her favorite anecdotes was meeting Ray one evening at his home as he was entertaining guests. “He always had these gatherings of eccentric men or women, men mostly, talking about Tolstoy or talking about these arcane artists or filmmakers. . . . One time there was this coterie of people around him in his home and he was on the cover of India Today, which is like the New York Times, and there was one remark in it which was not terribly positive, and as I walked in to his sitting room, it was just like the setting of Two Daughters–there was the head librarian, there was the head professor, there was somebody else . . . and they were all reading to him reviews from his past, reminding him how extraordinary he was. And he would say, ‘Oh, give me 1955’ and someone would read these glowing reviews. . . . And I didn’t know if he was taking it seriously or not. I said to him, ‘This is just like in Two Daughters‘ and he just laughed and laughed, because actually, he saw what was going on. . . .

ïShe thinks his honorary Oscar gave him a great amount of pleasure, particularly since he always believed Hollywood had stolen his screenplay entitled The Alien–a story he submitted to Columbia in the ’70s about an extra terrestrial arriving in a small Bengali village and befriending a boy–and transformed it into E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial. (Spielberg later denied ever having seen Ray’s script, which had circulated around Hollywood for several years.)

ïNair’s favorite sequence in Aparajito is the scene when Apu’s mother, Sarbojaya (Karuna Bannerjee), is preparing food for her ailing husband (Kanu Bannerjee), and a man who lives in an upstairs apartment (who Ray has carefully established as an immodest and even flirtatious neighbor) approaches her from behind, carefully removing his shoes and softly inquiring about her activity. Ray shoots the scene from Sarbojaya’s point of view , cutting to the man’s feet, his removal of his shoes, and suspicious entrance. In fear of his motives, Sarbojaya whirls around in anger, holding a knife and demands that he leave; he quickly obliges. Nair highlighted Ray’s deft command of framing and his crafting of an essential image that expressed the intensity of the moment.

ïNair’s latest film, Vanity Fair is now opening in cinemas and she is currently preparing to shoot a screen version of Tony Kushner’s Homebody/Kabul as well as an adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, a novel she recently read that she claimed “completely moved me to my bones.”

For more news on Satyajit Ray, check out GreenCine Daily‘s recent collection of links.

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