Nepali Times
A thoroughly modern Becky Sharp


The opening scenes of the latest screen adaptation of Thackeray's early 19th century novel Vanity Fair take place in the teeming streets of London (actually shot in Bath), and the camera jostles with squealing pigs and other Dickensian denizens of the gutter. The mise-en-scene calls to mind Oscar Wilde's epigram that 'we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking up at the stars'-which is what its heroine Becky Sharp does.

Although on the surface one might be tempted to compare Mira Nair's opulently costumed but modestly-budgeted ($23 million) Vanity Fair to the more manicured Merchant-Ivory Productions period pieces which also have an Indian connection, but the gutsy director of Salaam Bombay, Monsoon Wedding and Kama Sutra says: "Pardon my French, but I wanted the audience to wake up and smell the shit!"

Just before flying back to Nepal, we caught the movie at a charity screening sponsored by the Indo-American Council for the Arts to benefit the Salaam Baalak Trust (SBT) which rehabilitates millions of street children in India. It was established in 1988 after the international success of Salaam Bombay. With each success Mira says she holds charity screenings and donates proceeds to SBT. Salaam Bombay's urchin hero Shafiq, for instance, is now settled and driving a taxi in Bangalore.

Nair, like her screen heroine Becky Sharp, is a self-propelled woman. Since her student days, Nair told us, she was attracted to Vanity Fair which Thackeray called "a novel without a hero"-instead of a male hero there is a heroine. The protagonist, Becky Sharp, is a young orphan girl born of an impecunious artist and French chorus girl who beomes a governess and works her way up to the highest echelons of Regency society-even dancing before the Regent and literally rubbing elbows with royalty.

Becky is played by American actress Reese Witherspoon. As Nair sees it, Witherspoon's portrayal of Becky's meteoric rise is very American.

Although English readers of Thackeray's day would have liked to have seen the brash Becky Sharp get her comeuppance, Nair would have none of it and made Becky more sympathetic and more contemporary: "Today, Becky would be championed for crossing classes."

Commenting on her admiration of Becky Sharp, whom one of the characters derides as not simply a social climber, but "a mountaineer", the director defends Becky as a modern day feminist who bucked the system. "I saw Becky as a kind of early feminist - wanting more. [Masculine] attributes like ambition or desire were perceived as wicked then, now they're not. Becky is a survivor. She didn't like the cards that society dealt her. So she created her own deck, and created it at a time when a woman was supposed to sit still in a drawing room and hope a guy was going to come and propose."

That Nair's Vanity Fair resonates with contemporary audiences should not be surprising. The changelessness of basic human nature in the face of change explains the continued vitality of Vanity Fair, and in spite of its costumes - which are fashionably stunning in the movie - it still seems as fresh as ever.

Thackeray was born in Calcutta, and concludes his novel asking the ultimate yogic questions as Mira Nair interpolates them: "Which of us is happy in this world? Which of us has our desire? Or, having it, is satisfied?" Nair ends her movie on an upbeat note in India, which the novel only alludes to and where her screen anti-hero Becky ends up, married to a merchant of the East India company and it almost looks like a grand Bollywood ending. Drawing on her Indian heritage, Nair brings out the underlying Indian colonial element of the novel.

Wonder if the premier screening of Vanity Fair in Kathmandu could also be turned into a charity event to raise money for Nepal's own abandoned children like Indo-American Council for the Arts did in New York last month to benefit the Salaam Baalak Trust?

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)