Mira Nair: Sharp shooter

The Indian director Mira Nair has taken on Vanity Fair... is Harry Potter the next stop? She talks to Lee Marshall
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Sari-wrapped and primed for action, Mira Nair sweeps into the interview room at the Hotel Des Bains in Venice, flashes a radiant smile, shakes hands, calls for a cup of tea, gets the air-conditioning turned up, and sashays into the answer to my first question all in one long take. The Indian director is a human dynamo; she's so fierce and focused that I decide to put the Harry Potter question off until later.

Nair, you see, is not here to talk about the rumours that she will be directing the fifth film in the series, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. She has flown in to the Venice Film Festival to talk up her latest film, Vanity Fair. Starring Reese Witherspoon as Becky Sharp - the 19th century's favourite ambitious blonde - the latest screen version of Thackeray's enduring classic is a romp with attitude, a colourful evocation of Regency England which is also a surprisingly contemporary study in social mores, as seen through the eyes of a talented gatecrasher.

The film was greeted with mixed reviews when it opened in the States last week, but it is likely to strike more of a chord in the UK: many of the strong cast (which includes Bob Hoskins, Jim Broadbent, Rhys Ifans and Eileen Atkins) are British, and Nair's take on Vanity Fair is rooted in her perceptions of Britain's colonial history and class system: "I think Thackeray wrote brilliantly about the intersection between colony and empire in early 19th-century England, where the middle classes were getting fat on the riches of India".

Born into a middle-class family in the eastern Indian state of Orissa in 1957, Nair was sent to study at a Catholic missionary school in the Himalayan hill resort of Simla at the age of 13. It was here that she first read Vanity Fair and fell in love with the larger-than-life character of Becky Sharp. She has read the book four or five times since then, approaching it as "a banquet which gives me something different each time".

Nair enjoys the fact that Thackeray, today one of the Victorian pillars of the English literary canon, was himself an outsider with a large chunk of India in his soul. Born in Calcutta, Thackeray was packed off to public school in England at the age of six. This, Nair believes, caused him to "look at his society through the eyes of an outsider, with a very interesting clarity, which was about removing all the layers of hypocrisy and sham. It's this outsider viewpoint that he gave Becky Sharp".

This was one of the reasons why Nair cast Witherspoon: "I felt that that kind of American energy that Reese brings, which is a kind of sass and a fire in the belly, is a very good energy for the character, because Becky was like that - she was an iconoclast in her time".

Social exclusion has been an abiding theme in Nair's films; as she comments, "if anyone understands the class system better than the British, it is the Indians". After studying sociology at Delhi University, where she became involved with street-theatre, she won a scholarship to Harvard to study drama, but soon found herself becoming drawn towards documentary making. Nair's social agenda came through most strongly in India Cabaret (1985), which documents the lives of a group of ageing strippers in a seedy Bombay nightclub, and touches on issues that would emerge again and again in the director's oeuvre. These strippers, says Nair, had "a total awareness of where they stand in this society and the hypocrisy involved".

But it was Salaam Bombay!, Nair's 1988 feature-film debut, that made the world sit up and take notice. Filmed with in-your-face documentary verve, this raw and punchy portrait of Bombay's underclass tells the story of an 11-year-old boy who runs away from his village and takes refuge in the city's red-light district. Though this is a world of apparent misery and squalor, its social structure is every bit as complex as that of the smart set in Regency London. The boy is knocked around like a pinball as he tries to find his place among the hierarchy of exploiters and exploitees.

Nair's next film, Mississippi Masala, shifted the focus onto race, casting Denzel Washington as a hotel carpet cleaner who falls in love with a Ugandan-born Indian girl in America's Deep South. Like Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing, Nair's first American feature examines the foodchain of prejudice. The couple's black-American- and Ugandan-Indian families may be the daily object of white racism, but this doesn't stop them being pettily racist themselves.

The theme was close to Nair's heart; she is married to Mahmood Mamdani, a third-generation Ugandan Indian who heads up the Institute of African Studies at Columbia University. She spends two months each summer in Kampala with Mamdani and their 13-year-old son Zohanran (who was "very excited" when he discovered his mum was going to be directing Witherspoon). Nair goes to Uganda to switch off and recharge - she spends her time there "doing yoga and gardening".

Nair's subsequent effort, The Perez Family, set among the Cuban refugee community in Florida, was panned by the critics. It was followed by 1996's Kama Sutra, a beautifully shot fictional take on the famous sex manual, set in 16th-century India. Banned in India it went big only in Japan and the Far East.

Those who rushed to cast Nair onto the "nice debut, shame about the rest" slag-heap were finally proven wrong when Monsoon Wedding opened in 2001 to rave reviews and international box-office pay dirt. Winner of the Golden Lion at that year's Venice festival, the film is a biting but big-hearted satirical comedy that pulls the carpet of propriety slowly and enjoyably from under the feet of an upper-class Delhi family as they prepare for a wedding.

While she stands up for all of her films, Nair recognises that the sheer animal energy of Monsoon Wedding had a lot to do with the fact that, for the first time since Salaam Bombay, she was telling a story about a world she knew intimately: "I come from the Punjabi community, and we really live it up. We have a huge appetite for life: we work hard, and we party hard". She adds "the idea of capturing the density and layering of Indian life was essential to me".

Nair has been married twice; "the first ceremony was a lot like Monsoon Wedding; the second - which was a lot more meaningful to me - was very simple and very beautiful".

In 2002 the director changed course once more with Hysterical Blindness, a made-for-TV film starring Uma Thurman about single women who pick up men in New Jersey bars; it earned Thurman a Golden Globe.

Nair says that she enjoys the abrupt shifts of setting, genre and budget that have marked her career: "Monsoon Wedding was made with just $1m, while Vanity Fair is a huge movie... though we only had 55 days to shoot it. I cut my cloth to size, but the trick is that I make you imagine I have all the cloth in the world". Now an independent producer with her own company, Mirabai Films, Nair is currently helping to set up an annual laboratory for young Indian and East African film-makers.

It would be wrong to write Vanity Fair off as Nair's Hollywood sell-out, though with its $23m budget it is easily her most expensive film to date. The film was independently produced, and for all its widescreen slickness, this is a period film with a difference. At one point, Becky takes the floor in an extravagant Bollywood-style dance number that was choreographed by Nair's Monsoon Wedding collaborator Farah Khan. When I mention that I don't remember this scene in the book, Nair laughs. "Well, it's a charade in the novel. I just thought that seven minutes of people standing in a room spouting words was not half as cinematic as using the flamboyance of the Regency Era."

Witherspoon had told me earlier that day that she was relieved to find, on reading the script, that this was not going to be a "bonnet movie", and Nair concurs: "usually films made about that time are so genteel and freeze-dried. In the early 19th century, London was filthy, smelly and full of shit. What I was trying to do was to bring the drawing room into the street because I want to tell you that if Becky makes one false move, she'll go back to the gutter. And you have to feel and smell that gutter".

Choreographer Khan is part of what Nair refers to as her "film family", a close-knit group of regular crew members, "most of whom happen to be women". Asked why she, Jane Campion and Sofia Coppola are the only women in most critics' lists of significant contemporary directors, Nair hesitates before replying. "I never know how to answer that question. I don't go out there fighting the big battle against male directors, I just do what I want to do. But in India it's paradoxical, because we've grown up with women in public leadership since before I was even born... whereas in the US they won't even think of a female president."

Next up for Nair is a screen adaptation of The Namesake, the debut work by Pulitzer-Prize-winning Indian novelist Jhumpa Lahiri. "It takes place between Calcutta and New York from the late 1960s to the present day. It's a beautiful, amazingly moving tale. If Monsoon Wedding was my Delhi work, this charts the road I've travelled since, from Calcutta to Cambridge, Massachusetts to New York City. After two years making Vanity Fair, I just wanted to see my own people again".

And so to Harry. Is there, I stutter, any truth in the rumour that she has agreed to direct the next Potter movie? Nair takes a deep breath and says: "I've been so busy that I haven't even had a chance to read the book. I've read the first two, but I haven't read number five. Obviously it's a fantastic opportunity... but I can't tell you yet if I have the mettle for it. The books are a big favourite in my house, though... my son loves them; I think J K Rowling is amazing".

I'll take that as a yes.

'Vanity Fair' is released in January next year