Nair discussed the new thriller in Doha, where her Maisha Lab is extending ties with the Doha Film Institute.

Mira Nair is in the final stages of casting now for her next feature, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which is gearing up for a late January 2011 start of production.

She quashed Indian press rumours that she had cast Bollywood hotshot Shahid Kapoor as her lead. “I saw about 400 young men across the world, and I am seeing one more here in Doha [on Friday], but I have actually a final list of four young men who are all brilliant. Two are in Pakistan, and the other two are from England,” Nair noted. She will also make a trip to India to meet with actors there. 

“And there are three other very meaty substantial roles to be played by Americans, those are being negotiated now with seriously A-list talent,” she said.

Speaking to Screen at the Doha Tribeca Film Festival, Nair noted that the film would shoot in Delhi (standing in for Lahore), with some work in Lahore, four weeks in New York City and one week in Valparaiso, Chile. Declan Quinn will serve as DoP.

The film is adapted from Mohsin Hamid’s Booker-shortlisted 2007 novel about a Pakistani man named Changez who is talking with an American stranger in a Lahore cafe, telling him about his life as a rising star on Wall Street who becomes disenchanted after the 9-11 attacks. The dialogue will be about 80% in English and 20% in Urdu.

“It’s an elegant cat and mouse thriller about perception and about how ‘we’ are seen by ‘them’ and how ‘they’ are seen by ‘us’,” Nair said. “It’s about his love affair with America and how it begins to change.”

“It’s taken a year and a half to get the screenplay in the brilliant place it is now,” Nair noted. “The book is a Camus-like monologue, so it wasn’t an easy adaptation, but I think it’s really something great.” The screenplay was first written two Nair collaborators and then finished by LA-based William Wheeler.

Nair is working with her longtime producer Lydia Dean Pilcher to produce the film via their companies Mirabai Films and Cine Mosaic. “Like with The Namesake, we are doing our own production, we are putting the financing together and we have a very interesting bunch of people. We are deciding now which finance to go with,” Nair said. “What we do is raise equity outside of the US and then finish the film with creative freedom and then sell to the US.”

Because of security risks, the production will only be doing about 10 days of shooting in Lahore, with a second unit. “We can’t get insured [to do the main shooting there]. But Delhi is so spiritually close to Lahore. Now in Lahore is like 50 years ago in Delhi — the music the culture, the people.”

Nair was in Doha as a regular visitor: her last film Amelia opened the inaugural 2009 festival and this year she presented a talk about collaboration at her East Africa-based Maisha Lab.

She revealed that the partnership between Doha Film Institute and Maisha would be growing.  “We joined hands from with the Doha Film Institute from last year. It shows how deeply rooted (DFI) is to film education here.”

Already, Doha has sent several participants from the region to East Africa’s Labs (two short films from those initiatives were shown at DTFF this year). And now plans are afoot to launch a Maisha screenwriting lab in Doha in February 2011.

“And then we’re talking closely [with DFI] about our permanent home. We’re looking towards the long term [with them],” Nair said.

Maisha has year-round programmes in four countries (Tanzania, Rwanda, Kenya and Uganda), and Nair noted: “Now we’re just about to put a permanent roof over our heads and build our centre in Kampala”

“Qatar and the Middle East is very similar in a strange way to the east of Africa,” she said. “We have these ancient stories and extraordinary imaginations but actually no bridge to turn that into cinema. It seems realistic that we’d come together.”