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Azaria Has Hopes for 'Huff'

Actor Hank Azaria stars in the new Showtime series Huff, about an urban psychiatrist with troubles of his own. Azaria does the voices of Apu the convenience store owner, Moe the bartender and Chief Wiggum, among others, on The Simpsons. He directed and starred in the film Nobody's Perfect, and has acted in many other movies, including The Birdcage, Eulogy, and Shattered Glass.

21:49

Other segments from the episode on December 6, 2004

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 6, 2004: Interview with Hank Azaria; Interview with Suketu Mehta.

Transcript

DATE December 6, 2004 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Hank Azaria discusses his movie career, his voiceovers
in "The Simpsons" and the new Showtime series "Huff"
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

You've probably heard my guest Hank Azaria. He does the voices of several
characters on "The Simpsons" including Moe, the bartender, Police Chief Wiggum
and Apu, the owner of the Kwik-E-Mart. You've probably seen Azaria, too, "The
Birdcage." He played the gay Guatemalan maid. In the telemovie "Tuesday's
With Morrie," he portrayed journalist Mitch Albom. In "Friends," he was
Phoebe's scientist boyfriend. Hank Azaria now stars in a new series on
Showtime called "Huff." He plays Dr. Craig Huffstodt, a psychiatrist with
plenty of problems of his own. Living his wife, teen-age son and mother
ensures there's no shortage of crisis at home. Plus, he's going through
something of a midlife crisis which is affecting him in the office as well at
home. In this episode, Huff is talking with a patient who is a control freak
and obsessive about cleanliness. During the session, you'll hear Huff knock
over a cup of coffee which sets the patient off.

(Soundbite from "Huff")

Mr. HANK AZARIA: (As Craig Huffstodt) You know, I don't think you understand
how serious this is, Neil. The ER doctor who sent you here said you'd been
keeping yourself from having a bowel movement for almost a month now. I'm
guessing Imodium and a hell of a lot of willpower. You know, if you don't
start talking to me, you're going to end up right back at the ER, we're going
to put you on a 72-hour suicide watch which means that legally they can make
you take a crap.

NEIL: Oh, you can't do that.

Mr. AZARIA: (As Craig Huffstodt) Well, if you rupture your colon, where do
you think you're going to end up?

NEIL: I can't go back there.

Mr. AZARIA: (As Craig Huffstodt) Neil, sit down. Oh (censored).

NEIL: Oh! Oh, clean it up! Clean it up! Clean it up! Clean it up!

Mr. AZARIA: (As Craig Huffstodt) Relax.

NEIL: Clean it up! Clean it up!

Mr. AZARIA: (As Craig Huffstodt) Just breathe. Paula! Focus on my finger.
Focus on my finger and breathe. You're going to give yourself a panic attack,
Neil. Take it easy.

GROSS: Hank Azaria, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Now you play a psychiatrist in "Huff" and you've said that you've been in
therapy for 15 years or so, so you know something about the therapy process
and that you even took the script to your therapist. What did he tell you
that rang true or false about it?

Mr. AZARIA: Well, you know, I wanted to make sure that it just felt
believable to him which he said it did, and he said the only thing he was
concerned about is having had--he shared that he once early in his psychiatric
career lost three patients to suicide in, like, two months and it was the
worst time of his life and it was no joke how much it affected him. And he
wanted to make sure that the script dealt with that honestly 'cause the show's
really a black comedy. The tone purposely kind of jumps around and it was
hard to get right especially at first and he wanted to make sure we weren't
being too frivolous or cheap with it.

GROSS: It must be weird when you're in therapy now because the therapist is
observing you but you're observing him probably because you're playing one
now.

Mr. AZARIA: Yeah, but, you know, I've been with this guy for so long. I've
had full transference with him. He's like another father to me, so I've
already, you know, studied him up and backwards.

GROSS: Yeah. So how much does he register interest or engagement when he
talks and have you picked up on that playing Huff? You know, does his face
remain neutral or does he register whether what you're saying seems like
interesting and potent and relevant or not?

Mr. AZARIA: My shrink, you mean?

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. AZARIA: He very much--he's sort of both. He's extraordinarily neutral
but you can tell he's absolutely with everything you're saying which is I
guess something I tried to put into Huff. You want to remain kind of
impassive and now when somebody shares some kind of horrible detail you don't
want to go, `Whoa!' but you do want to let people know that you're sympathetic
and most of all that you understand and that you are listening. You want to
make sure people get that you get it which is very similar to good acting, you
know? You just want to make sure that your scene partner is, you know,
getting that you're listening and that you want to make sure that they're
understanding what you're saying.

GROSS: So are you still doing "The Simpsons" while you're doing "Huff"?

Mr. AZARIA: Uh-huh. I'm recording "The Simpsons." In fact, I'll be
recording them tomorrow from here in New York.

GROSS: How did you get to be on "The Simpsons"? And two of the voices you do
are Moe, the bartender, and Apu who runs the convenience store, the
Kwik-E-Mart.

Mr. AZARIA: (As Moe) Yes, that's correct. Moe was the first voice I did.
There's a little Moe for you there. (As Apu) And Apu is actually the third
voice that I did.

And I was 22 years old. This was a long time ago. I'm 40 now. I was 22
years old and I hadn't worked much. There was an original voice of Moe, the
bartender, that I guess they weren't too happy with, wanted to replace, and I
had done one other voiceover at the time for a failed Fox kind of Roger
Rabbit-type pilot where I played the voice of this animated dog. And I guess
they'd known me from that so they called which is kind of like not an open
call but there was a lot of people there. And I went in. There was Matt
Groening and a guy named Sam Simon who created the show and I did this voice
and I was doing the play at the time in LA where I was playing a drug dealer
and I was sort of doing a bad Al Pacino impression in the play from "Dog Day
Afternoon." I was sort of talking like this, like kind of Al kind of sounded
in "Dog Day Afternoon." And I said, `Well, what about that voice?' They're,
like, `Well, we want Moe to be gravelly.' (As Moe) So I just made that voice
gravelly and it sounded like that.

And they were just, like, `Listen, that's great. Can you come record that
right now?' literally on the spot and I was, like, `Yeah, sure,' and I walked
over with them on the Fox lot and recorded it. I had no idea. I hadn't read
a script. I didn't--I just recorded these lines that they needed and left and
frankly thought that was the last I'd hear of it and they kept calling me back
week after week. The next week I did Wiggum (as Wiggum) Chief Wiggum, chief
of police talks like this.

And then I did Apu, and then after about midway through the second season,
they made me a--well, they gave me a contract and made me a regular. By that
point, I was doing, like, five or 10 voices.

GROSS: Did you know you could do voices? I know you do that voice on that
animated series that you mentioned, but had you done a lot of work like that
before?

Mr. AZARIA: No, I hadn't done work like that before, but I certainly--my
friends refer to me as the freakish mimic...

GROSS: What does that mean?

Mr. AZARIA: It means I can mimic a lot of people's voices almost exactly
right away and it is a little bit freakish and I've always been able to do it
since I was a child, you know, to the point where I thought everybody--you
know, when you're five, you think everybody can do it. You don't realize it's
a special talent. And it's just fortunate for me that I found, you know, the
ultimate great outlet for that particular weird skill which is like a job like
"The Simpsons" where I must have done, like, 50 voices on that show by now in
the 16 years I've been doing it.

GROSS: Do you have a favorite Moe scene?

Mr. AZARIA: Favorite Moe scene? There's been a lot--he's one of my favorite
characters. You know, one of my favorite times is when Moe is asking a girl
out and he says to her that he's (As Moe) going to go out and buy her a steak
the size of a toilet seat.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. AZARIA: That one sort of stayed with me.

GROSS: How did you come up with the voice of Apu? And he's an Indian in
America who runs the Kwik-E-Mart.

Mr. AZARIA: (As Apu) Correct. He really is just an Indian guy, I mean, in
Los Angeles. Pretty much every 7-Eleven or convenience store worker is either
Indian or Pakistani or from this area. And when I first moved to LA, these
were the people I really interacted with mostly because I didn't know anybody.
I would talk to these guys.

He's also kind of loosely based on Peter Sellers' character from the film "The
Party." I don't know if you know that but Peter Sellers in that movie plays a
character named Hrundi V. Bakshi and he's a very open, sweet, kind, innocent
guy. So sort of Apu's personality is kind of based on that character.

GROSS: Now you've had to sing as Apu?

Mr. AZARIA: (As Apu) I had to sing as Apu. It's true.

GROSS: Is it hard to sing in character?

Mr. AZARIA: It's much easier for me to sing in character. I'm doing a play
right now. I'm doing a musical version of Monty Python's "Holy Grail" that's
going to be on Broadway in February. It's much more difficult for me to sing
in my own voice. It's much easier for me to sing as Wiggum or as Apu or even
as Moe.

GROSS: Why is that?

Mr. AZARIA: I think I'm just more comfortable with, you know, the vocal
mask. (As Wiggum) You know, Chief Wiggum is like this, (singing) it's sort of
easier to sing like this.

Than it is to--I'm not embarrassed to do that, but I'd be embarrassed to do
the same thing in my own singing voice. It's weird.

GROSS: Is it any easier to do voices when you're doing it just as the
soundtrack for animation? Is it harder to do it when your body is there and
your body doesn't necessarily fit the voice?

Mr. AZARIA: No. Yes and no, I guess. I find that--you know, 'cause I'm so
vocally orientated that whenever I have to do a role in a movie or on TV that
it does have a very thick accent or some strange vocal quality. The body
tends to follow naturally from the voice you get. You know, when I did "The
Birdcage" and I played (as Guatemalan gay guy) a Guatemalan gay guy who talked
like this, your body tends to follow the way that voice is.

It's hard to, like, carry yourself in a very macho way when you're speaking
like that.

GROSS: Right. Yeah. Well, yeah, you played the Guatemalan housemaid in "The
Birdcage" and who did you base the character on?

Mr. AZARIA: That was--I just on the one hand just tried to get a Guatemalan
accent as authentically as I could and then sort of find a way to be as
feminine as I could and I sort of had it narrowed down to two voices, one that
was a little tougher than that and then I sort of presented the voice to a
friend of mine who is actually a very beautiful drag queen in LA and he sort
of selected the more fruity voice. He said--you know, I wanted to make sure
it was authentic. I wanted to make sure it wasn't too over the top and he
said I should go with that one. And then I realized, though, after about two,
three weeks of working on it that it really kind of sounded exactly like my
grandmother which sort of--it really did. My grandmother--she's passed away
but I'm Sephardic Jewish which is Spanish Jews and she spoke this Spanish
dialect, you know, (as grandmother) and she was very sweet and loving and
talked kind of like this.

And then sort of realizing that it sounded like her also gave me a good piece
of the character 'cause she was so maternal and mothering and loving that it
was very--if I sort of had her mentality, it was easy to be kind of feminine
thinking that I was just kind of my grandma.

GROSS: My guest is Hank Azaria. He now stars in the Showtime series "Huff."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Hank Azaria. He does several
voices in "The Simpsons" including Moe, the bartender, and Apu, the owner who
runs the Kwik-E-Mart and now he's starring in his own Showtime series which
is called "Huff" and he plays a psychiatrist with problems of his own.

Can you tell us something about your childhood, where you grew up, what your
parents did for a living when you were young?

Mr. AZARIA: I grew up in Forest Hills, New York, in Queens. My father is
retired now but he worked in a garment center. He had a couple--at different
times, he had different dress manufacturing businesses. And my mother is a
housewife and raised three kids, me and two sisters. I had two older sisters.
My mother really--she actually--they both loved show business, my parents,
even though they weren't in it. They're tremendous aficionados of theater and
opera and film and TV. They love everything and they exposed me to a lot
growing which is what I guess what gave me some of the bug to do it. My
mother actually was a publicist at Columbia Pictures in New York for a couple
of years before she married my father. She's bilingual. She speaks Spanish,
so she worked for their Latin country foreign distribution. She worked for
publicity with South America and all the Spanish-speaking countries, and she
loved it and, you know, so I grew up really--we were always very, very aware
of favorite actors and favorite movies and TV shows. And to this day, they
see every film that comes out. They live in Miami now, you know, but they
must see three, four films a week, and they know every television show.

GROSS: So what was your first real break acting?

Mr. AZARIA: You know, I've had so many little breaks. I've had such a
gradual career. I've skipped no steps. I mean...

GROSS: How about commercials? Did you skip that step?

Mr. AZARIA: No, not at all. I--my first job was a commercial. When I was 17
years old, the first audition I ever went on I got. It was a commercial for,
like, Italian television. Once I got "The Simpsons" fairly steadily, I
stopped going out on commercial auditions which seemed crazy at the time
'cause I needed the money, but I was making just enough from "The Simpsons" to
live and I didn't--if--I found it so demoralizing, I just couldn't deal with
it anymore. I used to always sound sarcastic when I read commercial copy.
I'd be, like, `Listen, this product is really great.' And they'd be, like,
`Can you say that again? You sounded sarcastic.' I was, like, `Yeah, I can't
help seem to help it.'

GROSS: Right.

Mr. AZARIA: I remember one day--they were doing some ad campaign for Jell-O
where they had this computer-generated animated character called Jell-O Man
that was some Gelatin O(ph) that lived in your refrigerator...

GROSS: Uh-huh.

Mr. AZARIA: ...and they were looking for the voice of Jell-O Man. And, you
know, I'm reading this thing. I'm, like, `Well, he seems like a vagrant. I
mean, he's living in your refrigerator.' (As Jell-O Man) So I did some kind of
voice like this or something, like, `Hey, I'm Jell-O Man. I'm here in your
fridge.'

And, you know, I did the take and this women went, `You know, we do want to
Jell-O Man to have a bit of an edge, but the children should also like him.
He's likeable. He's likeable. He's relatable. So, you know, do it again
and, you know, Jell-O Man's nice. He's a nice guy. You want him there.' And
I was listening to this direction and I realized this was going to be the last
moment of my commercial voiceover career. I really did. I realized I
can't--officially, I can't take it anymore and I just said to this woman, `You
know that Jell-O Man's not real, don't you?' and I left and that was it for
me.

GROSS: I want to tell you something about my reaction to you on screen and
tell me if this is unusual or typical. There's certain actors you see on
screen and you think, `Well, they look like an actor. You know, they just
look like an actor.' And then there's other actors you see on screen and you
feel like, `Wow, this person, they look like a real person when they're in
that role.' I mean, I feel like I recognize them and that's how I've always
felt about you. In whatever role I see you in, I always felt like, `Oh, that
strikes me as a real person. I might even know that person.' Do other people
say that to you?

Mr. AZARIA: Well, that--no, that's a very nice compliment. I think that
that very much comes out--I think a lot of the actors you study with, Roy
London, this guy I'm talking about, that's what we were really hammered in to
do. Garry Shandling studied with him and Brad Pitt and Geena Davis. He
forced us to not act, to really just put ourselves in the situation and just
do it as believably as possible and as realistically as possible and just
trust that whatever honest reaction is will be the most interesting thing.
That took me years to trust that that was the case, and I'm so--I think I
really took it to heart especially because I find doing characters and voices
really easy but I didn't know the first thing about acting really as far
as--but standing up in front of people and just kind of being emotionally
honest was abhorrent and terrifying to me.

GROSS: What was so bad about it?

Mr. AZARIA: You know, I was one of those people that thought that acting
meant you could, you know, not be yourself, you could hide behind a character
and that's true to an extent, but, you know, good acting really is the
ultimate baring of yourself, you know, on an emotional level. It's being
very, very honest and open and truthful in front of, you know, potentially
millions of people, and I'm a shy, private person and didn't like that at all.
And Roy spent years with many people saying, you know, `You're still BS'ing
us. That's not the real you. How would you really react to that? What are
you afraid of?' Partly why I went into therapy was because Roy used to
recommend my shrink to people when he would hit blocks that people couldn't
just unravel and ...(unintelligible). He'd said, `Look, you have such a
profound problem expressing your anger in public that you need to unlock that
for yourself before you can do it in front of other people, like, you have a
genuine block with it.'

GROSS: So was that helpful going to therapy?

Mr. AZARIA: Tremendously.

GROSS: Yeah?

Mr. AZARIA: Yeah. Absolutely. For me to--I first went into therapy because
I was having a different kind of problem. I had been getting pretty good in
class, but I would be very proficient and open and relaxed in class but I'd go
into an audition situation and I would freeze up like you wouldn't believe,
like, really badly. I'd have like almost anxiety attacks and I had to calm
down. And I never had that. All of a sudden, it just started getting me. I
think maybe because I was starting to get a little better and realizing that I
was actually genuinely displaying who I was. I found that, you know, outside
the safe environment of class I found that very, very scary.

GROSS: You know, for people who have problems with anxiety or have more
serious anxiety attacks and who are also in a position where they have to
perform, I think there's the question of, `Well, you know, do you just, like,
try to breathe deeply? Do you try to psychologically overcome the anxiety?
Or do you take a pill that can help you deal with it? And if you take a pill,
will that affect your performance in another way? Did you ever face that
particular question?

Mr. AZARIA: Yeah, I'm not a big believer in pills especially for a performer
because they sort of affect your instrument if you will. Two things I found
tremendously helpful with anxiety. Breathing is really important. Just
remembering to breathe is tremendously important. Just the simple act of
concentrating on inhale, exhale can get you through a lot. Also the genius
teacher Roy London who I mentioned before, what he taught us all about this
specific thing because that's one of the first thing actors bring is, like,
`But I'm so nervous. This character's supposed to be confident. How can I
possibly play it if I'm genuinely that nervous?' And this was his genius. He
would give this note in so different ways. He said, `Look, most confident
people are a wreck underneath. You know, what do you think that veneer's all
about? They're overcompensating.' He said, `You're going to play this
extraordinarily confident person, if what you're feeling is tremendously
nervous as somebody who inside is freaking out. Don't try to pretend you're
not that. Say, "No, no"'--my guy--the way I play this guy who is absolutely
extraordinarily insecure and I'm not going to let the person who I'm in the
scene with not necessarily the audience but the person I'm trying to impress
in the scene know that I'm that nervous. So I'm going to do what I need to do
to compensate for that.

GROSS: This is really fascinating, but I'm wondering, like, when you're doing
Moe, the bartender, is any of the psychological insight useful or is that--you
just like do a voice in a funny character?

Mr. AZARIA: No, a hundred percent. I mean, in fact, I was always (as Moe)
able to make this sound--Right?--as Moe.

But I think I only really--and this was a few years into doing "The
Simpsons"--I only really started to act these characters well when I sort of
understood this. I absolutely try to bring this to all "The Simpsons"
characters. I put myself, how would I react in this circumstance honestly,
and I imagine that and go forward (as Moe) but I just make it come out in this
voice, but it's still my--you know, how I feel I would relay all this.

GROSS: Hank Azaria, thank you so much. It's been great to talk with you.

Mr. AZARIA: Thank you very much.

GROSS: Hank Azaria stars in the new Showtime series "Huff." This winter, he
opens on Broadway in a Monty Python musical called "Spamalot."

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite from "The Simpsons")

Singers: The Simpsons.

GROSS: Coming up, politics, religion and moviemaking in the biggest city on
the planet, Bombay. We talk with writer Suketu Mehta about his new book,
"Maximum City." He grew up in Bombay and returned for several years to
research his book. During that time he wrote for Bollywood.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Writer Suketu Mehta discusses Bombay
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

The new book "Maximum City" is about the largest city in the world. It's
enormous movie industry, it's organized crime, it's religious views and how
fundamentalism is effecting politics. The city is Bombay. Author Suketu
Mehta grew up there. He left in 1977 and came back 21 years later to research
his book. As part of that research, he co-wrote a Bollywood musical. Mehta
has also lived in London, Paris, New Jersey, Iowa City and New York, where he
lives now. Mehta has written for The New York Times Magazine, Granta,
Harper's and The Village Voice. In his new book, "Maximum City," he writes,
"With 14 million people, Bombay is the biggest city on the planet of a race of
city dwellers. Bombay is the future of urban civilization. God help us."

Now you called the city Bombay and not Mumbai, which is what it's officially
known as now. Why won't you call it Mumbai?

Mr. SUKETU MEHTA (Author, "Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found"): Mumbai
only changed its name or the name was changed for Bombay in 1995 when a
nativist government that controlled the state of Maharashtra and the city, the
political party called the Shiv Sena changed its name to reflect the way its
name is said by some of the people living in the city. Now Bombay, really,
was a city created by the Portuguese and the British from a clump of
baptismal rights. And in '95, when the government demanded that we choose in
all our language, Mumbai, that's when a number of the people in the city
refused to go along with ...(unintelligible).

GROSS: So it's like a political statement that you're making by calling it
Bombay?

Mr. MEHTA: Very much so, because the politics of this particular party, the
Shiv Sena, are really nativists and exclusionists. They run against the
cosmopolitan spirit of Bombay. Today, our party--that is defined by who they
exclude--and so I and many other people in the city refused to go along with
the imposition of a name that excludes other names.

GROSS: Is it fair to call this party a Hindu fundamentalist party?

Mr. MEHTA: You know, Terry, I think the term Hindu fundamentalist is a
misnomer because, you know, nobody can really point to anything that is
fundamental about Hinduism. It's not a scripture-based religion as the
Abrahamic religions. There's really many different--you can be an atheist and
be a Hindu. So what they are really are Hindu nationalists that have--they,
along with the BJP party, which used to rule the country until the spring,
believe in a kind of national destination of India as a Hindu country, which
also runs counter to the principals of the leaders that brought India
independence.

GROSS: Now, you describe Bombay as representing the city of the future. What
are the characteristics of Bombay that you think represent the city of the
future?

Mr. MEHTA: Right. I think, Terry, that the 21st century will be dominated
by these vast mega cities mostly in the developing world. The United Nations
just came out with a report predicting that by the year 2030, 60 percent of
the planet's population will be living in cities, and two billion people will
be living in slums. Now there's a group of cities such as Sao Paulo,
Lagos, Jakarta, Conchesa(ph), Bombay, which are composed of--well, the
definition of a mega city is more than 10 million people. But these cities
have enormous numbers of people constantly coming in from the countryside and
living in these vast shanty towns. They're also marked by a kind of break
down of civic order and a constant low-level strife. So in the case of the
Brazilian cities, tremendous influence by the drug gangs over the affairs of
the city. And in Bombay, the underworld specializes in extortion, real estate
and film financing, and really don't--they've become pretty unpleasant places
to live for most of the people in it.

But these cities all sort of prevent hope for the people coming in from the
countryside. They're a beacon of hope for the young people in the
countryside. And their growth is added to because of the impoverishment of
the countryside because agriculture is less and less viable in these
countries. And part of the reason for that is also enormous subsidies given
to agriculture in the developing countries. So it means for the cotton farmer
or the wheat farmer in India can't get a fair price for his crops, and his son
will take the first train to Bombay and join the ranks of the people in the
swelling shanty towns.

GROSS: You write also about when you were living in Bombay that all around
people asked you for money--your driver, your maid, your friends down on their
luck, strangers. How is that different from New York or at the very least
there's no shortage of strangers asking you for money?

Mr. MEHTA: Well, the difference is that in New York, we're not very rich. In
Bombay we were very rich because we were coming from New York, so we were at
the top of the pyramid. And from all areas, they zoomed in on us. We were
like a low-pressure system in an area of high pressure and it got really
uncomfortable to have to continuously either bring out our wallet or refuse to
bring out our wallet.

GROSS: So what did you do more often, bring out the wallet or not?

Mr. MEHTA: Well, initially, we brought out our wallet quite a lot and we got
ripped off all the time in buying the simplest of services till we realized
that it was a form of newcomer stats. That is anybody who comes into a city,
any city, in the first year, will get ripped off. You'll get ripped off if
you're coming to New York and you don't have a network and, you know, you
don't know which movers to hire or you don't know where to shop for the
cheapest clothes. So for the first year it was really uncomfortable and we
spent much more money than we should have. But then as we got used to it, we
realized that there were ways in which we could avoid con games, for example
and know who to trust and who not to, and we discovered the best places to
shop for bed sheets, computers and oregano.

GROSS: Oregano?

Mr. MEHTA: Well, we'd come from New York and one thing we really missed was
Italian food, so we ended up cooking a lot of Italian food at home. And I
remember the heaviest item in my luggage going to Bombay was a giant can of
extra virgin olive oil.

GROSS: My guest is Suketu Mehta, author of the new book "Maximum City."
We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Suketu Mehta and his new book
is called "Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found." And he grew up in Bombay,
now lives in New York, but spent several years there in the late '90s and
early 2000s as part of research for this book.

Now you talked to so many different kinds of people for your book when you
were living in Bombay, including prostitutes, criminals, politicians,
politicians who were criminals and one of those politicians who were a
criminal was one of the deputy leaders of Shiv Sena, the Hindu Nationalist
Party that you were talking about earlier. And he actually set a Muslim or
two on fire. What--tell us first what he did.

Mr. MEHTA: This was during the riots following the demolition of the Babri
Masjid in India, which was brought down by a Hindu mob in December of 1992.
So they set up a chain of riots across the country and especially in Bombay.
And during these riots, he told me about how he met a man who used to sell him
bread every day, and he set him on fire for the simple reason that the man was
Muslim.

GROSS: And h--was there any more provocation than that? I mean, how did he
choose this particular man?

Mr. MEHTA: Well, he...

GROSS: This is one of the things you wanted to know, so that's why I was...

Mr. MEHTA: Right. There was--this was a man who--there was a mob of Hindus
who were out early in the morning looking for Muslims to kill. And they found
this one poor man coming down the road and they proceeded to assault him and
poured kerosene over him. Now as they did this, the man was weeping and he
was crying. He reminded Sunil, the Shiv Sena man, that he used to sell him
bread every day and he was begging for his life, saying that he had children.
And the Shiv Sena man, as he set him on fire, said, `When your people were
killing our people, did you think of your children,' and proceeded to kill
him. So he told me a number of such instances. He and a number of the other
Shiv Sena people told me about how they killed Muslims. And people in the
Muslim underworld told me how they killed Hindus. It was a question that I
often found myself asking in Bombay to all manner of people--Hindus, Muslims,
policemen. The question was: What does it feel like to take a human life?
And it was astonishing how openly and readily people would tell me about what
it does feel like to take a human life. And I found that if I were to
continue my inquiry, I really had to, at that particular moment that I was
listening to them, withhold judgment. And, you know, I was just recording.
After they would talk to me, I'd just write this down on my laptop, and I'd
have to remain expressionless. I could not show shock or horror or outrage or
indignation. I was there, they were telling me what they had been living with
all these years, and I was there just writing it down.

And for some of them, I felt that, you know, maybe I was performing the
function of a shrink. That is at a certain point, I knew that they had
stopped talking to me and were just explaining certain things to themselves.
So that was the point where I got the best stories, that I got to the heart of
what murder really is. When they had stopped talking to me and were just
explaining some things to themselves.

GROSS: After the riots in Bombay and Gujarat in which Hindus were responsible
for some killing, do you think that caused a lot of people around the world to
re-evaluate who Hindus are or what the Hindu faith means, since a lot of
people assume that since Hindus, you know, don't want cows killed that they
wouldn't want people killed either?

Mr. MEHTA: No, I think it runs counter to everything that is basic to
Hinduism. This kind of aggressive, political, militant Hinduism, it really is
a very recent phenomenon. And I've studied Hindu/Muslim riots for a long time
and it's--I think it's a perversion of the religion. It's not even--I think
many of the people who do the riots, they don't even justify it on the basis
of Hindu scripture, because there isn't anything that they can point to in
Hindu scripture which say people who follow Hinduism are damned or people who
follow Hinduism are saved and the others are damned. You know, there is no
generally accepted definition of what is a Hindu. So it really is a reaction
to modernity. It's a political use of certain religious symbols. It's also a
way of mobilizing different cast groups to work for a particular political
party. So the issues are vastly more complex than, you know, religious
fervor. Because if you look at the history of India, this kind of rioting is
still relatively recent, and the roots of it go back no earlier than British
times.

GROSS: My guest is writer Suketu Mehta and his new book is called "Maximum
City: Bombay Lost and Found." He grew up in Bombay and returned there for
several years in the late '90s and early 2000s to live and to research this
book.

Seeing how Muslims and Hindus do not get along famously in Bombay now and, you
know, having researched what happened in the riots and having spoken to Hindus
who described how they killed Muslims, what is your reaction to seeing the
growing role that religion is starting to play in American politics?

Mr. MEHTA: I lived in Iowa for three years and so I've seen the growing role
of the evangelical churches in the American Midwest. And if people say that
much of India as a Hindu nationalist country, then by that definition, much of
America is a Christian nationalist country. It's not something that, you
know, I see as a welcome development, but I also see that for many of those
people in the Midwest, their faith really is a reaction to the more
troublesome aspects of modernity. They really don't know how to deal with the
modern world and its changing values. And it's the same reason people in
India turn to the more extreme manifestations of Hinduism or of Islam. Except
in India, the trouble really happens in the largest cities that is in urban
India, not in rural India. You'll hardly ever hear of religious riots in the
countryside. And in America, certainly the values crowd seems to be
concentrated in, you know, fly-over countries.

The difference between the two countries also is that this spring, India voted
out the BJP. This was the party associated with Hindu nationalism. And, you
know, they were mostly voted out for economic reasons, but there was also a
large section of the country which felt troubled by this increasing enrollment
of religion in politics. And I must admit that I was hoping that the same
sort of thing would happen here, but it hasn't yet. Maybe America needs to
experience a few more years of people who want to eliminate the barriers
between religion and politics and public life to really know what it feels
like to live with such a government.

GROSS: You write, "Since moving to the US, I have never believed in boundaries
or patriotism." Would you elaborate on that?

Mr. MEHTA: Yeah, you know, when I was growing up in India, you know, we'd
all sing patriotic songs. And this was in the schools and the playgrounds.
And for a time, every time we went in to watch a movie, "The National Anthem"
would run and we would all have to stand up when "The Anthem" was played, on
pain of arrest. And then I came to America and found, you know, much the same
sort of thing. Anthems being played and the flags being waved and this
country believing it's the greatest country and the best. And I realized
really the lunacy of these notions. So I think that migration is the best
antidote to this kind of hyper patriotism. There should be some sort of pride
in place. And, you know, certainly I've got tremendous admiration and respect
for both American values and Indian values. And I also found that they're not
very different. The world's oldest continuing civilization and the world's
newest. There's always been a cross traffic of ideas of people.

You know, for example, Henry David Thoreau and the New England
transcendentalists all read the "Bhagavad-Gita". And in turn, when Thoreau
wrote "On the Duty of Civil Disobedience," that book was Mahatma Gandhi's
inspiration for launching the Indian freedom struggle. Martin Luther King, in
turn, was influenced by Mahatma Gandhi. So I always found this to be the more
important value, this looking outside into the rest of the world. And in the
end, I really believe that a passport isn't much more than a travel document.

GROSS: My guest is Suketu Mehta, author of the new book "Maximum City."
We'll talk more after a break.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is writer Suketu Mehta. His new book, "Maximum City" is
about crime, religion, politics and the movie industry in Bombay. It's the
largest city in the world and the city that Mehta grew up in. He now lives in
New York.

One of the things you got to do when you were living in Bombay is to co-write
a Bollywood musical called "Mission Kashmir."

Mr. MEHTA: Right.

GROSS: And how did you...

Mr. MEHTA: They're all musicals.

GROSS: They're all musicals, yes. How did you get to write for Bollywood?

Mr. MEHTA: Well, I wanted to study Bollywood from the inside. Now I realized
early on in my stay in Bombay that--you know, I'd always grown up at
Bollywood. I loved the movies. And I realized that I couldn't just go around
interviewing people. Most of these people are very busy. They have no time
for journalists, Indian or foreign. So the only way I could really understand
the making of this fascinating industry was to work in it. That is to follow
the construction of desire in these movies from the inside by making myself
useful to them. So when a writer friend of mine invited me to come along to a
story session that his brother-in-law, a famous movie director, was doing, you
know, I came along. And the director started asking me questions when he
found out I was a writer, and before long, I became a part of the
script-writing team for a movie called "Mission Kashmir," which is a film
ostensibly about war-torn Kashmir but with song and dance.

GROSS: So you had to show the film to the censor board of India. What are
the parameters for censorship in India?

Mr. MEHTA: All of these films are very heavily censored to a degree that
would be unthinkable in the US. That is you're not allowed to have nudity,
you're not allowed to have open sex, you're not allowed to have swear words.
So it really stifles cinema in India. And the censor board is really made up
of people often who are very ignorant about cinema. They're drawn from the
community that is respectable, middle-class people, somewhat like the
(unintelligible) Commission. So I actually sat in on meetings of the Indian
Censor Board and watched them censor films on political grounds that it would
make the police look bad or it would make the--a particular political party
look bad. And the country accepts this. So as a result, most of these
Bollywood films and even the South Indian films, they get by on lots of double
entendre and innuendo. And, you know, the famous wet sari scene in which the
heroine will accidentally get drenched in the rain and will dance around with
her sari, becoming progressively more transparent. It's really quite
disturbing when you're trying to get across political ideas, which reflect
what's happening in the country and the censor board said that the country's
absolutely not ready for this.

GROSS: Where do the songs come in?

Mr. MEHTA: The songs, Terry, I think are the most delightful part of the
Bollywood films. And there's a long tradition in India of advancing narrative
through music. So you'll find this in the folk theater of the country, in the
religious epics the way they're told, they'll be singing and dancing. And the
song isn't--it's not just a diversion from the plot. It actually advances the
plot in many ways. And even if it doesn't it's fine, because people come
there to have a complete entertainment, you know? There's a film out right
now called "zeal Zarta"(ph), which I also followed the making of, which is
almost 3 1/2 hours long. Now, you know, most Americans would be killing
themselves if they had to sit through a 3 1/2 hour film. But for the Indian
viewer, you know, he's worked all day in the villages and in the evening, he
really wants value for his money. He wants to sit for 3 1/2 hours and watch.
It is gorgeous people dance and have troubles and resolve them at the end and
have, you know, families unified. He wants it all. He wants action, he wants
a bit of titillation, he wants song and dance, because, you know, when he goes
back there isn't that much to go back for.

So the films are kind of an exaggerated reality. And even the singing--you
know, often, singing, it really escapes logic altogether. There'll be a pair
of lovers, they'll be walking down Bombay Street and one of--the man will look
at the woman and start singing and all of a sudden they'll be magically
transported to the Alpine Valleys of Switzerland and no one in the audience
will blink an eyelid and think, `Well, in this country it happens.'

GROSS: So you do think you'll ever live in Bombay again?

Mr. MEHTA: I think so, Terry. You know, when I started this book, I
really--I began it with a simple question, which is can you go home again?
And I found after 2 1/2 years living there that not only can you go home
again, you can also leave again. And now, I can go back and forth between.
You know, I realized that home for people like us isn't a geography-in-tact
entity. That is I have a room at my home in New York, I have another room in
Bombay and another one in Paris and I can move between the different rooms of
my homes as if it really were linked. And in the end, home is where my people
are, and my people are in the cities of the world.

GROSS: Your family's in the cities of the world. Your family's disbursed
around the world.

Mr. MEHTA: That's right. I've got extended family in London and in New
York, in San Francisco, in Bombay, in Antwerp, and I've got friends in other
cities, and it really--there is a sort of global city culture in which if you
take people like me--and there are many people like me--and you throw us in
just about any of these global cities, we will find our feet. And, you know,
in all of these cities, even Bombay and Lagos and Jakarta, the first world
lives right in the smack--right smack in the middle of the third world. And
that is islands or chameleons and prosperity within great field of squaller.

GROSS: Suketu Mehta, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. MEHTA: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Suketu Mehta is the author of the new book "Maximum City."

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross. We'll close with music from the Bollywood musical
"Lagaan."

(Soundbite from "Lagaan")

Unidentified Man: (Singing in foreign language)
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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