January on Cinema Asian America offers the charming, Bollywood-inspired independent feature film “Cosmopolitan,” directed by New York based, Indian American director Nisha Ganatra. With a light touch and wonderful humor, Ganatra tells the tale of a lonely middle aged divorcee (the great Indian actor Roshan Seth, seen by many in Mira Nair’s “Monsoon Wedding“), who, after consulting his daughter’s issues of Cosmopolitan magazine, begins to remake his life. Bollywood fantasies ensue, as well as an encounter with his free-spirited neighbor (Carol Kane) and his life begins to take a new direction.
Your film stars the great Indian actor Roshan Seth (Monsoon Wedding, Ghandi, Mississippi Masala) and the Oscar-nominated actress Carol Kane (Taxi, Annie Hall, The Princess Bride), and their interactions and acting styles are wonderful to watch together. How did you come to think of pairing them?
NG: I’ve always been a fan of both of these actors for so long and when I read the story I just pictured them in the parts. Carol Kane we approached early on, before the script was even written and she was an incredible supporter of the film. My producers Jen Small and Jason Orans have great taste in casting and so together we put together a truly enjoyable and remarkably talented cast. They couldn’t be more different in terms of their acting styles – Carol Kane is all instinct and brings a wonderful, believable and imaginative interpretation of her character and Roshan Seth is very British in his training and brings the discipline and rigor of British theatre – - who they are just worked so well with the characters they were playing… it was just a magical combination.
In Cosmopolitan, you pay homage to Bollywood musicals through several wonderful song and dance sequences, which are a staple of the cinema. As an Indian American independent filmmaker, this must have been a lot of fun. Did you draw from any personal memories of watching Bollywood films, and where did the inspiration for your song and dance sequences come from?
It was great fun. Though we only had only one day to film the entire green screen and dance sequences… so we were a bit limited in our scope. Luckily, the films I remember watching as a child were old films that my parents loved – so what we went for was that retro sort of “rear screen projection” look that was authentic to the period of the films that Roshan Seth’s character, Gopal, would relate to and watch when he was alone. Lucky for us – those old school effects don’t require much time or money to execute.
I also was thinking about his character and how he would see himself and his arc for the story. In the beginning he is picturing himself as a sort of Bollywood Elvis – then he meets Carol Kane and he pictures her as his Indian romantic leading lady – but as their relationship progresses – he starts to picture himself as an American and her as a traditional 50’s housewife — his fantasy changes from making his romantic interest Indian into making himself more the ideal American male. And his ideas are all rooted in the past – Shammi Kapoor’s movies and The Lucille Ball Show both were sort of happening at the same time – across the world from each other. They come together in Gopal’s head because he is straddling both cultures and both histories.
In many of your films, you’ve looked at stories of individuals who are asked to reconcile and accept new situations they find themselves in. In your first feature “Chutney Popcorn” (2000), a young Indian American lesbian must find a way to make sense of herself and her family when she becomes a surrogate mother for her sister, and in “Cosmopolitan,” a newly-found bachelor has to rethink how he conceives of how he lives his life. What draws you to these kind of stories?
That’s a really interesting take on it – I haven’t really thought of it that way… but it seems very accurate. I think that I’m very interested in identity and how we seek to define ourselves and how, ultimately, the labels are too limiting to encompass all aspects of ourselves. That is why a story about a 60 year old man or a twenty-something first generation lesbian are equally compelling and universal – we are all ultimately seeking our own selves and striving to find that self reflected in the world around us. For me, I didn’t see anything represented in American film that was telling the story of the immigrant experience from the particular point of view of those who came to this country and are not going back to the country they came from – and so I really seek out those kind of stories when I get the opportunity to make a film.
The script for “Cosmopolitan” was based on a short story by the writer Akhil Sharma, and originally appeared in The Atlantic Monthly. There has been a great surge of diasporic Indian novelists and filmmakers in the past decade, including writers such as Jumpha Lahiri, Rohinton Mistry and Aravind Adiga, and filmmakers such as Mira Nair, Gurinder Chadha and yourself. Many of their books and films have received great acclaim. Do you see a relation between the kinds of stories which writers and filmmakers are exploring?
I do – I lose myself in Jumpha Lahiri books and find them so beautifully restrained and full of such depth that it allows the reader to feel the emotions for the characters – she is such a master storyteller… and Gurinder Chadha and Mira Nair are exploring similar moments but one with a clear ear for comedy and the other with a any eye for the cinematic. I think that ultimately the thing we all have in common is that we put pieces of ourselves into all of our work. Whether it’s a studio film or a personal indie – each movie has a specific and personal piece of the director or writer who created it – and that small piece of ourselves is what makes the story based in truth. And when something is based in truth, and not in what people think will play to a demographic – I think that is what resounds with audiences. Truth. And the sheer insanity of putting yourself out there for the public to consume, criticize or adore. It’s all of the glory and all of the blame… you can’t really have one without the other.
What is exciting for you right now? What parts of art, pop culture, music and film are inspiring you?
So many things are exciting for me – media is moving so fast that it’s hard to name just a few. I am a huge fan of technology and of all the coming and current ways that media can reach audiences. I’m excited by the digital revolution, the iPad and the iPhone and they way those devices are changing the very way we communicate and our expectations of that communication. (What do you mean I can’t see you when I call you on my cell phone? How unacceptable!) Things we dreamed of when we were kids are all things we can do now and that is insanely exciting. But also I love that there seems to be a return to the singer/songwriter – that things are getting less produced and more stripped down in music. Sure there is the auto-tune crowd – but that individual singer songwriters are able to get their work out there in this media is very cool to me. And my favorite thing of recent is the HD camera that looks like an SLR camera – because now we can get back to truly indie films – where it’s affordable and the look is not too limiting and best of all – it looks like a still camera so you don’t need permits if you can sneak under the radar when you are shooting and it reminds me of NYC when there was a blanket permit for us to shoot wherever we wanted in Manhattan as long as we were safe – and the creativity was flowing…