Mira Nair and Aditya Assarat

A year of mentoring

Overview (Chapter 1 of 4)

Signing on for the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative, Mira Nair let it be known just what sort of young partner she wanted: “Find me a girl from Karballah!” Yet Nair chose a boy, or rather, a young man, from Thailand: Aditya Assarat, 33. “When we first met in New York,” Assarat would later recall, “Mira cooked me fish curry and we drank wine and talked about movies until 2 am. A week later, in Bangkok, I got the call from Rolex that she had chosen me as her protégé.”

Mira Nair and Aditya Assarat

A year of mentoring

First impressions (Chapter 2 of 4)

An Interview with Aditya Assarat Early in the Mentorship

What interested you most about participating in the Rolex Arts Initiative?
The chance to work with Mira Nair and to be a part of a multi-disciplinary arts programme, where artists from different fields can share their perspectives. When we’re so involved with our own work, it’s rare to get the chance to learn from artists working in a different medium, who actually share a lot of the same perspectives.

Have you ever had a mentor before?
No. Certain film-makers have influenced my work but they were not mentors. I admire the writer Haruki Murakami – he is more of an influence on me than any film-maker.

What do you hope to get out of this collaboration?
To be able to produce my first feature film with Mira Nair's help. I am looking both for artistic interchange and practical advice, but it is easier to begin with something practical.

I also hope to assist Mira Nair on one of her films, that I can make a contribution.

Finally, I hope that with her help I can reach a wider audience. I think Mira Nair taking an interest and supporting me will make other people aware of my films as well.

So far, what is the best part of being a Rolex protégé?
There are a lot of good things about it. For me, what is particularly important is to find someone who can help me in the practical sense.

What was your first impression of your mentor?
She is very small, but she has a lot of confidence, a lot of energy and a big smile! She has a lot of life, a lot of character.

The first time we met she invited me for dinner in her home. I talked with her family, with her son. We talked about football, not film.

How do you think your work is similar to or different from your mentor’s?
I think we are by nature both interested in people – real stories about real people. And we both respect the documentary aspect of film – the ability of film to try to find the truth.

Do you think that Mira Nair's guidance will change your approach to film?
It is important to understand the full life of an artist. In film, business is as important as art. Mira is a very successful film-maker artistically but also commercially. It’s a rare combination. I hope to learn how she approaches her work and balances both sides, as I think that is always the greatest challenge for a film-maker because this art form that we work in is so commercial. You cannot make an interesting film without money, but at the same time, all the money in the world can’t always produce an interesting film. How to do both at the same time, that is always the challenge.

Mira Nair and Aditya Assarat

A year of mentoring

On location (Chapter 3 of 4)

At work in New York
In the summer of 2004, with the release of Nair’s sumptuous adaptation of William Thackeray’s classic novelVanity Faironly weeks away, Assarat visited Mirabai, Nair’s New York-based production company, where he had the rare chance to look over her shoulder as she edited. What does Nair look for from the actors, Assarat asked as the film began to take shape before his eyes. “Energy,” she said. “The actors have to have energy from the start of the scene to the end.”

Assarat’s next close look at Nair in action came in spring 2005, whenThe Namesakewent into production on locations in New York City, with work in Calcutta to follow. When Nair was launching the project – based on Jhumpa Lahiri’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel – Hollywood had offered her a seven-figure sum to direct the fifthHarry Potterfilm. One evening in New York when Nair mentioned she wouldn’t be taking a taxi home, it crossed Assarat’s mind to wonder if she wished she had taken the money. Smiling, she answered: “You have to do what you really care about.”

Country life
One day,The Namesakeproduction went out to Oyster Bay, Long Island. The shots – only three or four pages of dialogue, a fairly normal daily quota – took place in an ample colonial home, situated on a rambling emerald lawn that fell steeply to the sandy waterfront.

In the story, Gogol, the son of Indian immigrants, comes here to meet the parents of his rich girlfriend. Assarat felt he knew why Nair had chosen this specific location. “Among these gorgeous homes, there is a sense that life is out of reach for immigrants,” he wrote in his diary. “We were not born here, and because of that, we will never belong here.”

Masters at work
Over the course of the shoot, Assarat varied his routine, sometimes sitting at Nair’s elbow by the monitor as she worked, asking questions or chatting with her during the idle moments, sometimes drifting off to get to know the crew and learn in detail what they do.

“The film crews in America are absolute masters,” Assarat says. “In Thailand, every person on a shoot will do lots of different jobs, but none at this level. Each person is a top master at a highly specialised craft.”

One memorable day on the Calcutta shoot, Nair was filming in the bedlam of a bustling train station. Making his way through, Assarat observed guards armed with rifles, who were keeping the crowds in check; background extras taking direction from Nair’s assistants; the producer, who was trying to appease an angry station manager not previously informed that the film crew would be closing down the middle of the station.

Cool head in a crisis
And where was Nair? Off in the empty train, calmly discussing the next shot with her cinematographer. “She trusts her crew to handle problems for her so she can focus on directing,” said Assarat. “That is good management.”

Extracted from a chapter, written by Matthew Gurewitsch forUnique Voices, Common Visions, a record of the 2004/2005 cycle of the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative

Mira Nair and Aditya Assarat

A year of mentoring

After a year with a master (Chapter 4 of 4)

Aditya Assarat talks about his year as a Rolex protégé

What was your most important artistic achievement before you began participating in this programme?
I’ve made a variety of films and videos, but I don’t find any one to be particularly important. I think a sustained body of work is more meaningful.

How did the mentoring year progress?
I think the time I spent observing the production of Mira Nair’s new film,The Namesake, in New York and India was very educational.

What was the best part of being a Rolex protégé?
The chance to work with Mira and also the chance for my work to reach a wider audience through the support of the Rolex programme.

Is there one incident or remark that sums up or typifies your relationship with your mentor?
The first day of shooting, Mira was hurrying to get the last shot before the sun set. We were out on a jetty surrounded by crashing waves and everybody was getting wet. When it came time to roll the camera, she had no idea whether the actress should look camera left or camera right. I realized that what she does is not much different from what I do. Film-making is the same everywhere. It’s a race against time, and every director is under pressure and makes mistakes. It gave me confidence that I can do what she does.

What was the single most important lesson or piece of advice your mentor gave you?
Always look good and be the centre of attention. Because being the director is like being the host of a party, she didn’t say this, but it’s what she is.

How do you think your work is similar to or different from your mentor’s? Was that a stimulus or a barrier to your relationship?
Our work is very similar. In fact, surprisingly so. The process of making a film is the same everywhere, and I’m already on the right track. That’s the most valuable lesson I learned from Mira.

Did you learn from your mentor any lessons beyond the practice of your art?
One afternoon we were shooting at a beautiful home on Long Island, which had a large sloping backyard that overlooked the bay. During lunch break, while the film crew went to eat, Mira lay on the grass watching the view and fell asleep. I think Mira puts her work in perspective. Only when you can stop and watch the view can you really make film-making work for you as a career and a life.

Can you describe in two or three sentences the most beneficial aspects, for you, of the mentoring year?
The interaction with Mira Nair. The chance to meet more people in the film community outside Thailand. The stipend that Rolex gives each protégé – for it would be a lie to deny that.

Has your approach to film changed or developed during the mentoring experience?
I think my knowledge has been solidified by working with Mira. It’s not that I’ve learned anything new, but more that what I’m already doing – my process of film-making – is essentially correct. That gives me confidence to continue on.

Now that the mentoring year has ended, which direction will your artistic career take?
I will continue to work as a director and hope that the support I’ve received from Mira and Rolex will show results in my work.