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Strength and cunning in a filthy society

Mira Nair brings a new 'Vanity Fair' to the screen

By Stephanie Snipes

Mira Nair has loved "Vanity Fair" since she was a teenager.
William Makepeace Thackeray
Mira Nair
Reese Witherspoon

ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- As a teenager growing up in India, director Mira Nair spent her days and nights voraciously reading her favorite novel, "Vanity Fair."

Thirty-one years later she's bringing William Makepeace Thackeray's story of Becky Sharp, the cunning and clever social climber, to the big screen.

Perhaps it was destiny -- though the ever-resourceful Sharp would beg to disagree.

But still: "It's an amazing privilege to have been offered this movie because I have loved this book -- no exaggeration -- since I was 16 years old. It's one of those banquets of a book that gives me something new every time I read it," said Nair.

Nair said books by Jane Austen and other 19th-century writers never interested her. Through Sharp, author William Makepeace Thackeray presented a new kind of world, one where women showed strength and resolve.

"The Austen novels [had] young ladies just sitting waiting to be proposed to, for God's sake. Becky had no time for that," said Nair. "She was born on the other side of the tracks, like most of us are, and she had to make her way."

Nair lives her life by similar principles. After leaving her hometown of Bhubaneswar, India, about 300 miles south of Calcutta, she moved to the United States to study film at Harvard. (She now splits her time between New York and Uganda).

After a quick turn in acting, Nair (rhymes with "fire") changed her focus to directing.

Her biggest films to date are 1991's "Mississippi Masala," the story of an Indian family expelled from Uganda when Idi Amin takes power, and "Monsoon Wedding," a tale of relatives trying to prepare for an arranged marriage in India.

Both films brought her critical acclaim and numerous international film awards.

'Carnival-esque quality'

With "Vanity Fair," Nair faced a new set of cinematic challenges. Perhaps the most daunting was the adaptation of Thackeray's 800-page novel, a chore she entrusted to a fellow "Fair" fan, screenwriter Julian Fellowes of "Gosford Park" fame.

"I wanted to convey the whole carnival-esque quality of the world that Thackeray presented to us. How every character had a place and had a nuance and had a contradiction and had a paradox," said Nair. "Thackeray gave us a lot of fuel for that because his characters are vivid, but he had 800 pages to make them vivid!"

The next challenge was finding a location that could support such a large-scale production. After nine months of negotiation the historic city of Bath, England, agreed to let Nair and her team of experts set up camp.

Their first task was turning Bath into early 19th-century London -- the REAL early 19th-century London, not the elegant, steam-cleaned version we're used to seeing in movies.

"What I did ... is try to make the exterior filled with life. [London] was the filthiest, the most cacophonous [city]. It had pigs, it had cows, it had [crap] on the streets," said Nair.

Witherspoon's 'total appeal'

Reese Witherspoon was Nair's top choice to play Becky Sharp.

With script in hand and the location scouted, the final component was casting Becky Sharp -- a no-brainer for Nair.

"[Reese Witherspoon] was the first, and ... only person that I thought who would play it, for many reasons. Number one, an actor who has to play from 17 to 35 and be convincing in both ranges. And two, we all know her extraordinary comic guile and her wit ... but she also has that irresistibility in her, that total appeal," said Nair.

Sharp is often not the most likable of characters. She wants to get to the top of London society and isn't afraid to use all her wit and wiles to get there. When the book came out, her behavior seemed scandalous; nowadays, the character seems more sympathetic because modern audiences are more aware of the constraints of the time.

Nair said the best part of casting Witherspoon in such an offbeat role was that it gave her an opportunity to flex her directing muscles.

"I wanted to add something that you've never seen about an actress before and this was my chance, and Reese's chance ... to make her a full-blown sensual woman. And to see also that emotional depth, that real range," said Nair.

The cast includes Gabriel Byrne ("The Usual Suspects") and Jim Broadbent, Academy Award winner for his role in 2001's "Iris."

Nair said all the chaos of writing, scouting and casting is worth it in order to introduce a new "world" to audiences.

"That's the joy I have as a filmmaker, that's what I love to do," said Nair. "I'm very fortunate."

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