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"I am nervous," Nair said, adding that she had not focused on Namesake since she finished the film.
The first screening of Namesake was held at the Telluride Film Festival's Palm theatre at 9 pm. The Palm is the name given by the festival organisers to the 650-seat theatre which is actually a part of the town's high school.
An hour before the screening, there was a line outside the theatre -- a Telluride festival tradition, where pass holders stand in queues for the films. They talk to strangers and share information about the films they have liked and disliked so far.
This year's general consensus is that The Last King of Scotland, with Forest Whitaker in an Oscar-worthy performance as Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, is by far the best film of the festival, followed closely with the documentary The US vs John Lennon and Aljandero Gonzales Inarritu's Babel [Images].
This time the conversation focused on Namesake -- Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jhumpa Lahiri's acclaimed novel and also Nair's past films. Several people I heard mentioned they had read Lahiri's novel in their book clubs. And one person asked me whether I had written Namesake. I was kind to that person and responded by saying that Lahiri is a woman. But this type of mistake happens often in Telluride where I am one of the few brown faces!
One person pointed to the interesting coincidence between The Last King of Scotland and Nair's second feature film Mississippi Masala. In the bio-pic on Amin, director Kevin Mcdonald shows the pivotal moment in the Ugandan dictator's reign when he expelled Asians from his country in 1972. Nair's Mississippi Masala deals with those same Asians some of whom came and settled down in the US and started to run motels.
Nair was already in the theatre when the audience walked in. She was huddled around her friends -- producer Lydia Dean Pilcher and Annette Insdorf -- Columbia University film professor and a regular at the Telluride festival. Also in the group was Whitaker and filmmaker Josh Marston (who made the Oscar-nominated Maria Full of Grace).
Before I took my seat, I walked up to Nair to wish her good luck. Namesake is one of my favourite books in recent years. The book, exploring the lives of an Indian-American family, struck a chord with me and last year I twice visited the film's set in New York City. I had been looking forward to Nair's film for a while now.
Nair responded by saying that after the screening she wanted to know my opinion about the film. "You can write what you want," she said to me, "but mujhe imandari se bataana (tell me honestly)."
The theatre was nearly full when Nair was introduced by Insdorf, who referred to the filmmaker as an amazing human being, a fine director and a great teacher. Nair has been Insdorf's colleague at the Columbia University film school.
In her brief introduction Nair said Lahiri's novel possessed her "out of the blue" during a plane ride.
"It captured how I live my life between India and the United States," she said.
The director pointed out that she had been to the Telluride film festival on a few occasions, including in 1988 for a screening of Salaam Bombay! "This is a wonderful place and audience to share my adrenaline, my nerves, and my hopes," she said.
She described Tabu [Images] as the Indian Meryl Streep. And she recalled the first day of the film shoot, where Tabu dressed in a white sari walked on a snow-filled street in New York.
"It reminded me of when I came to the US. It took me three years to learn to dress in the American way," she said.
The film grabbed the audience from the first frame with the colourful titles -- the names of the cast and crew appearing in Bengali and then transforming into English.
The movie remains faithful to Lahiri's novel, but stands strong by itself. Especially remarkable are the scenes showing the loneliness of Ashima (Tabu), the young bride from Calcutta, who makes her home in a gray and cold New York (Nair makes the departure from the book by setting it in New York and not Boston); the bright cheerful moments when the Ganguli family members visit India and when they gather with other Bengalis in New York. Gogol's (Kal Penn) alienation from his family and his eventual reconciliation after his father's sudden death is handled in a very delicately. And Ashoke's (Irrfan) death and the funeral scenes in the US and in Calcutta brought tears to some in the audience.
Given Nair's direction and Sooni Taraporevala's writing, Namesake is rich with humour, but like Lahiri's novel, it will also make you cry.
And that is what I told Nair after the screening, as she stood in the lobby of the theatre surrounded by her admirers. I told her the film moved me and that she told the story of Indian Americans with honesty and integrity.
Namesake was screened two other times -- and both screenings were sold out. The word of mouth was strong and that is what makes a hit out of a small film at Telluride.
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