If there is one area which filmmaker Mira Nair claims to “know a fair bit” about, it’s religion. But like most of us, she remains intrigued by its connotations in society. So when award-winning screenwriter and director Guillermo Arriaga approached her with the concept of making a short-film based on “mankind’s relationship with religion”, she knew it was an opportunity. “I was not really intimidated by this idea. It is about how you find a hook into the subject,” says Nair, 57, who has contributed a short film titled God Room, as part of the larger short film anthology called Words With Gods. The two-hour long anthology will be making its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival later this month, where it is being screened in the ‘Out of Competition’ section.
The experimental project helmed by Mexican filmmaker Arriaga is a transcontinental exercise involving nine filmmakers (nine short stories) to represent different faiths of the world such as Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Shinto Buddhism, Orthodox Christianity, Umbanda, Hinduism and aboriginal spirituality. Arriaga is better known for making films such as Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel. With Words With Gods, Arriaga closely looks at people from different cultures and their belief in their religion. In some ways it also reflects the personal involvement and thoughts of the respective filmmakers involved.
Nair questions the idea of god’s existence through the story of a family that cannot decide where to place the puja room in their new house. But an eight-year-old child in the family is of the opinion that god does not have a physical place and instead is present everywhere. “Zoya (Akhtar) was once narrating a story about an argument she had heard from one of friends, about a family unable to decide where to have the puja room. It might sound trivial but it questions the thought about where god is and if god exists. It is an affectionate sideways look at people who are consumed by the rituals of religion,” says Nair, who shot for the film in Mumbai in the latter half of 2012. The script has jointly been written by screenwriter Reema Kagti and Zoya Akhtar. “In the ensuing arguments between members of the family, we notice that their values are far from from the high-mindedness that god is supposed to give you,” adds Nair, who has cast actors such as Ram Kapoor, Anand Tiwari, Cyrus Sahukar and Naman Jain for her story.
The other filmmakers who are a part of this anthology include Bahman Ghobadi, Hector Babenco, Emir Kusturica, Hideo Nakata, Warwick Thornton, Amos Gitai, Alex de la Iglesia and Arriaga. Words with God is only the first part of Arriaga’s larger film series that looks at issues related to sexual identity which is currently under production; drugs (Into the Bloodstream); and politics. Nair’s short film ties in with her efforts to be part of short film projects whenever she can. Her earlier well-known short film projects include New York, I Love You (2009), 8 (2008) and 11”9”01 September 11 (2002) about the aftermath of the September 11 attacks in New York. “I like being part of short film projects every year. The film reflects my views and Arriaga said we could do what we wanted. I am happy that God Room will be a part of my short film persona,” says Nair, who has just completed a short film with the students of her film school in Kampala, Uganda called A, Fork, a Spoon and a Knight. She is currently occupied with the pre-production work of her next feature film, The Queen of Catwe, about an eight-year-old chess prodigy who lives in the slums of Kampala and becomes a grandmaster in the Chess Olympics.