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 US 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 said: “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 and that means the director, who has always enjoyed critical success, needs box office success as well. 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 the 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 Earhart, Nair was also attracted to her biography.
“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, she could be credited with having created the first-ever pre-nuptial agreement, Nair claimed.
In this film, 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, G.P. Putnam), and Ewan McGregor (as her lover, Gene Vidal).
For Nair, working with Swank, who won Oscars for Boys Don’t Cry and Million Dollar Baby, was a breeze.
“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 the compliment during the red carpet premiere of the film at Manhattan’s Paris Theatre.
“I think Mira’s a very special person and like Amelia she makes no apologies for her strengths.”
This is also a film where a large portion of the cinematography focuses upon the vistas observed from a cockpit, another first for Nair. But the filmmaker nearly always uses Indian elements in her films, almost as a talisman. And she does it here again in depicting Earhart’s final journey, attempting to circumnavigate the globe, an attempt that ends in her death (her craft, a Lockheed Electra, disappeared over the Pacific Ocean and her body was never found).
Nair brings her to Kolkata during the last legs of her 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.”
She is hopeful that her latest film, on a character she describes as a “yogini of the sky” takes off across the world.