You are a Punjabi, but you grew up on Orissa. How did that happen?
My father was an IAS of Orissa cadre. I was born and brought up in Orissa…I spent 20 years of my life there. I went to Stewart School in Bhubaneswar with my brother.
There is a story that you used to challenge your teachers. True?
I had come with my father on deputation for two years in Delhi and gone to a proper school (Loreto Convent). When I went back to this convent school in Bhubaneswar, I found education was pretty lousy there. By that time I had tasted what is called decent education. And because these young teachers (waiting to get married) thought me as a good student, they would just see the copy coming from me and give me highest marks. I knew that and I was getting absolutely unchallenged. And so I decided to have a campaign of testing them. When I had essays to write, let’s say, on hospitals, I used to write literally gibberish and I would still get the top marks. In short, I was a spunky, kind of mad kid…I still am. (Smiles)
You got involved in street theatres while at Miranda House, Delhi University…and you were famous as Cleopatra?
I was famous as Cleopatra…and the five slaves who carried me on stage are extremely famous now, including Ramu Damodaran, Amitabh Ghosh, Gautam Mukhopadhyay. And my Antony was Shashi Tharoor who always lost his wig during the love scene.
You were into theatres at the Harvard too. Why did you shift to documentary filmmaking from theatres?
Theatre was not so sustaining for me at the university. I was under the illusion that I was an academic and I used to work in political theatres in Calcutta and Delhi. I was stimulated to work visually. I took up a photography course and used those photographs to enter the film department that was really competitive. I was 19 when I started studying films, 21 when I graduated from there.
Did you expect that after 11 years you will get an Oscar nomination for your debut film (SALAAM BOMBAY)?
No, no. As Gita says, beware the fruits of action. You should never do things thinking what’s going to come. In fact, I never expected that I would become a filmmaker. I never took films seriously.
How will you define filmmaking?
Filmmaking, according to me, is all about capturing something extraordinary things about ordinary life. And I feel blessed that at the age of 20, I found my place in life.
Did you enjoy watching films?
As I told you, I come from a very small town in Bhubaneswar… there was only one movie theatre where they perennially showed Doctor Zhivago. And I have a distinct memory that power would often go off and it would be terribly hot inside the hall. The manager would come and say: ‘Pretend you are in Siberia and it’s very cold’. (Laughs) In short, I was very uneducated about films, even Indian ones. I am ashamed to say this, but it’s true…that first time I saw Satyajit Ray’s films (Apu’s Trilogy) at the Science Centre in Harvard at the age of 19. So I can’t say films inspired me.
But as a kid growing up in a small town, what was most inspirational was jatra, which is mythological travelling theatre. People would come from villages and take over a school field; as a prop they would have only a set of painted stairs, I used to go with my driver and while everybody thought I didn’t enjoy going to such places, I used to sit there and world emerge in front of me. The incredible Prahlad natak, and other mythological dramas were spelt out in front of me. That was the fuel of my first excitement of doing anything with the art.
Postscript: Mira Nair has been refused visa by Pakistan to shoot for The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Media reports quote her saying she would recreate Lahore in Delhi.