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Mira’s Vanity fare: spice, song and dance

Mumbai, April 10: Did William Makepeace Thackeray like curry' Hope he did — for he is going to get a taste of it very soon.

Vanity Fair, Thackeray’s masterpiece set in 19th century Britain at the time of the Napoleonic wars, a savage satire on an avaricious nation that had begun to drain its colonies, is soon going to hit the big screen — smelling strongly of garam masala. The redoubtable Mira Nair is directing the film, a huge Hollywood production starring Reese Witherspoon as Becky Sharp, British fiction’s best-known social climber.

But some feel it’s good that Thackeray died of the bursting of a blood vessel in the brain about a hundred and fifty years ago or he may have died of a nastier shock. For, the film will also have Bollywood’s biggest choreographer Farah Khan directing a song-and-dance sequence and Javed Akhtar may be penning the lyrics for a Hindi song.

Nair, however, is triumphant about her treatment. “There’s going to be nothing like the period British film about it,” she gushed when she was in town this week.

“You won’t find shades of Bollywood, but there’s going to be a lovely song-and-dance, an Egyptian one, choreographed by Farah,” said the director of Monsoon Wedding, billed as author of the original “crossover” film (she uses the word unselfconsciously).

Nair said Vanity Fair has been her favourite since she was 16, adding that when she adapted it for the screen with Julian Fellowes (of Gosford Park fame), she kept in mind that this was the England that had began to feed off its colonies, and significant parts of the novel are set in India. So she also shot in Jodhpur recently.

For, the great Indian “crossover” formula — choose a piece of Indian reality and throw in a handful of firangs; or the other way round, authenticity be damned — has come of age; one can now move beyond Punjabi lives and rework canonised British authors, too.

Vanity Fair will release in 100 cinemas across the US, while a film like Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon released on only 30 screens, says Neil Prashad, a former senior executive with Hollywood actor Steven Seagal who has also crossed over and joined hands with Nair.

It is for the business that Nair and Prashad were here primarily. Nair has just floated the International Bhenji Brigade, a film production company that will create independent “Asian cinema for the global market”.

While Nair will be the creative person, choosing and selecting scripts “with merit”, she will have a strange bedfellow: Venky’s India, the company that produces the eponymous chicken. They have floated an outfit called Bala Entertainment International for which Prashad will be working as vice-president operations.

He says things are getting bigger with films from the subcontinent and Asia — which is why he is here, leaving behind an opportunity to work with the biggest Hollywood stars. They are starting with a corpus of several million dollars, he said.

The sky is the limit for entrants like him. Monsoon Wedding earned $22 million globally, but a majority of the audience was said to have been Indians and NRIs. But the new entrants are looking at a global market that a “crossover” like Life is Beautiful commanded — it grossed $222 million worldwide.

Not chicken companies alone, everyone — from ad men, to television producers, to PR persons — is producing or directing a film that wants to reach out to a global market. Here again, there is a mish-mash of cultures hurriedly punched together in the backdrop of an Indian or Indian-like reality.

In Mumbai, they are rampant — not a week goes by without the announcement of two more crossover/English-Hindi films. Over the past 10 days, there have been at least three such films. There was Hari Om, with Vijay Raj (Peekay Dubey of Monsoon Wedding) as an autorickshaw driver in Jaipur with a French couple. There was Perfect Husband, being directed by Prriya Singh Paul, where two Indian women are in search of husbands; though based in Chandigarh, one will marry an Indian and the other a British.

Last but not the least, there was All Alone, with Manoj Bajpai, Diana Hayden, a British actor, several French actors and “a technical team of biggies from India, France and U.S.A.”, set against the background of the freedom struggle of Mauritius. The director said he was looking for a background where he could set such a variety of people and hit upon Mauritius.

All of them are also looking at the big international market. As Paul put it without any trace of irony: “Indian ethnicity is such a rage.”

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