For director Mira Nair, making a film on a legendary aviatrix who died in 1937 is personal. Her latest film is also her most ambitious: Amelia, which releases in the United States on Friday, is her first biopic, and shot across Canada and Southern Africa.
So what could this Indian-born director have in common with the subject of the film, Amelia Earhart, an American icon and the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic? In an interview in New York, Nair explained the connection: "I felt an affinity because like me she too came from a small town. Like Atchison, Kansas, I came from Bhubaneshwar, Orissa and like her I wanted to see the world. I remember when I was eight years old, the first aerodrome came to Bhubaneshwar and we used to run to the airfield and see the Fokker Friendships land and I knew one day I'd be on that plane. And that was her small town dream as well."
For Nair, who has gained acclaim for films like Salaam Bombay, Monsoon Wedding and The Namesake, Amelia is her most expensive, if not expansive, film so far. The film cost nearly $20 million to make and that means the director, who has always enjoyed critical success, needs box office success as well with Amelia. That is making her somewhat nervous: "The fact that it's a huge commercial endeavour certainly means that it should have a commercial response, it should make its money. So I did feel the pressure of making a film that would make a difference, that would take people on a journey." She describes that experience as a sort of ballet, and a "dance with money" in which she was part "poet" and part "horse-trader".
Other than the personal connection to the story of Amelia Earhart, Nair was also attracted to the biography of that remarkable woman. As she explained, "I felt that if she were to walk into a room today, she'd still be considered a deeply iconoclastic modern woman, utterly modern - someone who created her own rules and lived by them." As part of her modernity, Nair said, Amelia could be credited with having created the first-ever pre-nuptial agreement.
This is also the film in which Nair has had to work with the most high-powered starcast - two-time Academy Award winner Hilary Swank (as Amelia Earhart), Richard Gere (as her husband, GP Putnam), and Ewan McGregor (as her lover, Gene Vidal). For Nair, working with Swank, who won Oscars for her roles in Boys Don't Cry and Million Dollar Baby, was a breeze, as she said, "As interested as I became in Amelia, I was even more interested in working with Hilary Swank. She's such a consummate actor, she's a total spiritual daredevil. She learnt to how to fly to become Amelia!"
Swank returned that compliment in an interview during the red carpet premiere of the movie at Manhattan's Paris Theater: "I think Mira's a very special person and like Amelia she makes no apologies for her strengths."
The studio behind the film, Fox Searchlight, has gained a reputation for dominating the Academy Awards in the last couple of years, especially with Slumdog Millionaire's amazing sweep this year. And the Oscar buzz has already started around Amelia, given that Swank always delivers a near pitch perfect performance.
This is also a film that is visually arresting simply because a large portion of the cinematography focuses upon the vistas observed from a cockpit, another first for Nair, who has kept her subjects closer to the ground in the past. But the filmmaker nearly always uses Indian elements in her films, almost as a talisman. And she does it here again in depicting Amelia Earhart's final journey, attempting to circumnavigate the globe, an attempt that ends in the aviator's tragic death (her craft, a Lockheed Electra, disappeared over the Pacific Ocean and her body was never recovered).
Nair brings her to Kolkata during the last legs of her final journey: "I recreated Dum Dum in South Africa. Dum Dum was part of my childhood, but also the monsoon. She was trapped by nature in Calcutta. It was not so much to get India into the film, it was much more to show that despite the force of nature, she had to go on. It was also to show her recklessness, that scene."
Nair will be in India from December 1 to 4 to open the film there in Delhi and Mumbai. And she's considering her next projects - a Broadway adaptation of her most successful film, Monsoon Wedding, and a film based on The Reluctant Fundamentalist, the novel by Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid.
For now, Nair is hopeful that her latest film, on a character she describes as a "yogini of the sky" takes off across the world.