Salman Rushdie and Deepa Mehta on Midnight’s Children
“You must tell him about the greeting cards,” Deepa Mehta said to Salman Rushdie the other day. The director and the writer were sitting next to one another in a book-lined room in a midtown Manhattan hotel, and as they prepared to field a few of my questions about their new film, she urged Rushdie to share an anecdote about the movie’s source material, his famed novel Midnight’s Children.
Rushdie complied. “It’s sold millions of copies,” he said, sounding less like a boastful author than a man stating a simple fact. “And in India it’s sold zillions extra because there was a huge pirate edition of it. It probably sold 10 times as much as the legal edition. Back in the day, when the pirates were making such a fortune from the book, they got so excited about it that they started sending me greeting cards. In the mail I would get these cards would arrive that said, ‘Happy Birthday — signed, the Pirates.’ Or, ‘Happy New Year — Best Wishes, the Pirates.’ I thought that was like rubbing salt in the wound.”
Is this a tall tale? Has the great storyteller embellished a few details? Maybe, but at its heart, it’s as true as could be: Midnight’s Children, a sweeping portrait of a young Indian named Saleem and his homeland’s eventful postcolonial journey, has been a huge success story since it was published 32 years ago. For her part, Mehta, the Toronto-based director of Fire, Earth and Water — known collectively as the Elements trilogy — has long been one of the novel’s biggest fans. Over dinner a few years ago, she and Rushdie talked about adapting another of his books for the screen. As the night wore on, the idea of making Midnight’s Children emerged. Mehta knew the project would be an enormous undertaking. So did Rushdie. The famously multitudinous novel spans 30 years, and Rushdie’s first pass at a screenplay clocked in at 250 pages. By the time they were finished, the film would include footage from more than 60 locations, and almost 130 different characters would have speaking parts. Long anticipated on several continents, the result is a visually striking and emotionally rich film of which Mehta and Rushdie (whose voice can be heard as the movie’s narrator) are understandably proud.
Because Rushdie’s name still invokes the ire of some hardline Muslims — his just-published memoir Joseph Anton recounts the years he spent in hiding after Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini, aggrieved over Rushdie’s depiction of Muhammad in The Satanic Verses, called for his death — the project hit a few bumps along the way. In Sri Lanka, a government official shut down the production for a few days after complaints from an Iranian diplomat. And in Kolkata, India, a grandstanding politician scuttled an appearance by Rushdie. But in a recent interview, Rushdie and Mehta seemed unworried about any controversies that might’ve arisen in the run-up to their film’s April 26 release. Finishing one another’s sentences in the manner of old pals, Mehta and Rushdie recalled their first substantial conversation about film (it occurred, of all places, on a TV talk show); why they decided against an initial plan to tell the story over the course of two movies; and the array of filmmaking choices afforded by such an evocative 500-page novel.
Filmmaker: Deepa, you read the Midnight’s Children when it came out more than 30 years ago. What did it mean to you then, and how did you decide to turn it into a film?
Mehta: I remember just being blown away. I think that many people were, at least most people I knew. What Salman had done was reinvented the language for us. It was nothing like I’d read before — except it felt familiar to me. On a narrative or an emotional level, I think it’s the journey of Saleem that’s always moved me, because it’s the journey of a person looking for a home, a person looking for an identity. That has played a lot in my mind: Who are we? Can we have a family that’s not our family? And also the strong women — that blew me away, and it still does. Whether it’s the grandmother, whether its mother, whether it’s the aunt, whether it’s Mrs. Gandhi in her own way — these are such strong women. And mother India.
Rushdie: The women in my family are basically terrifying. My grandmother was very small, but you didn’t mess around with her. So I guess one of the reasons that the characters in the book came out the way they did is that the women I grew up around were not at all shrinking violets. There’s a sort of cliché of Indian women as being demure and recessive — I don’t know any women like that. I know these much more assertive women, and so it was natural for me to write about female characters in that way.
Filmmaker: When did you meet?
Mehta: With Water [Mehta’s 2005 film].
Rushdie: I had to be on Charlie Rose. She was going to go on the Charlie Rose show, and Charlie Rose was not well, so they asked me to pinch-hit for him. So I was him and she was her. I guess we had our first long conversation on television, about Water.
Mehta: And I asked Salman for a quote on the poster about Water. And he gave it.
Rushdie: I just genuinely loved the film.
Filmmaker: And how did you get from there to the idea of filming Midnight’s Children?
Rushdie: I don’t think either of us had given it any thought at all.
Mehta: We had spoken about Shalimar the Clown [Rushdie’s 2005 novel].
Rushdie: We talked about working together, and Deepa had mentioned her interest in that novel. It just so happened that I was in Toronto on a book tour, around the time that The Enchantress of Florence [Rushdie’s 2008 novel] came out. I had one free night, and so we said, “Let’s have dinner.” At dinner we were talking about the other novel, about Shalimar the Clown.
Filmmaker: Were you focused on that because it seemed more manageable as a film than Midnight’s Children?
Mehta: I don’t think it was a matter of whether it was manageable or not. It seemed like a very contemporary story. It’s about Kashmir [the region that has been at the center of a lengthy dispute between India and Pakistan], so it was very much in our consciousness.
Rushdie: But then she just suddenly changed the subject, and out of the blue she said, “By the way, who has the rights to Midnight’s Children?” And I said, “Well, as it happens, I have.” She said, “Well, can we do that?” It was a very, very spontaneous, instinctive decision.
Filmmaker: I’ve read that this was the dinner at which there was a high-stakes business transaction.
Mehta: Yeah, really high [laughs].
Rushdie: I sold her the option for a dollar.
Filmmaker: Canadian or American?
Rushdie: American, which at the time was worth more. Not now. It was a handshake deal. It was based on this instinctive feeling that this was the right person for it. Until this moment happened I’d really given up the idea that there would ever be a film of Midnight’s Children. There’d been a couple attempts that hadn’t worked out, and so on. And also it’s an old book.
Filmmaker: But it’s constantly relevant in one way or another. It’s 30 years old, but just a few years ago it won the Best of the Booker.
Rushdie: I know, it keeps coming back — it’s true. It’s like an unwanted relative that keeps coming to stay. I was quite happy with it just being a book. Then this moment with Deepa happened, and we thought we’d have a go of it.
Filmmaker: Deepa, did you assume Salman would write the screenplay?
Mehta: He did not want to write it at all. He said, “I’ve written the book. I don’t want to do anything. Call me when you have a screening of the film.” That’s exactly what he said.
Filmmaker: Why didn’t you want to write a screenplay?
Rushdie: I just thought I’d spent enough years of my life on this. But Deepa is very persuasive. I’ve learned through these years that if she wants something she ends up getting it. [Mehta laughs] And none of my books had been made into movies. I actually thought I’d hate it if I show up on opening night and I don’t like the film because I’d stepped away from it. So I thought: a) I’ve always loved movies; b) It’s the first time [one of my books has been made into a film]; and c) It actually is Midnight’s Children, which is a very important for me. So I thought: OK, roll up your sleeves and jump in.
Filmmaker: Is it true that your first pass at a screenplay was 250 pages?
Rushdie: Well, we had an idea that we might try to make two movies. We might try to do part one and part two. So the very, very first draft I did was with that I mind. And then it rapidly became clear that that really wasn’t an option. We wouldn’t be able to get funding. And so then there was a 250-page screenplay that ended up being 130.
Mehta: We found out that there was no way we could do a sequel.
Rushdie: A lot of people were interested in being involved with the film of Midnight’s Children. And virtually nobody was interested in being involved in two films of Midnight’s Children. So then you realize that the world is what it is. If you want to do it, then that’s what you can do. In a way it’s clarifying.
Mehta: Then you just find out what the narrative is going to be. And once that was established it was very easy, wasn’t it?
Rushdie: Yeah. I have actually written a couple of drafts of screenplays for other things that never ended up happening.
I think the one thing that I thought was different about writing for the screen is that you have to be constantly thinking about the audience. When you’re writing on the page you do think about the reader, but you don’t have to think about it quite as much. In a film, if there’s one moment when the audience goes “What?” or is confused, you’ve lost them and you may never get them back. Hopefully you grasp their attention right at the beginning, and then you can just draw them through the story in a way that feels natural and interesting to them. I thought it was an interesting lesson to learn, to think so much about how people will receive it. Will they be confused? Will they get it? Is that what they want to hear at this moment? How do you tell the story with maximum clarity? That was something new for me, I guess.
Filmmaker: Did you know from the start how big a production this would be?
Mehta: Yeah, we worked really closely together. Salman wrote the screenplay, but every draft he would send to me. Also, before we started we had decided that we would separately write down on a piece of paper what we thought the narrative flow of the film would be. Salman went off, I went off. And when we got back together we exchanged our pieces of paper and they were almost identical. We knew: OK, we’re making the same film.
When we started the whole process we knew it was going to be what it was going to be — it was going be huge. Especially with Midnight’s Children; it’s an iconic book, Salman’s an iconic writer. But fear has no place. I’m not saying I was not apprehensive or scared, I was. I said, “Holy shit, this is going to be really daunting.”
Rushdie: So she went to fitness training.
Mehta: I did, [laughs] I did. I stopped smoking, I went to the gym.
Filmmaker: In Sri Lanka you encountered some resistance. The film was shut down for a bit?
Mehta: We were shut down for three days. We were going to set and we got a letter from the national Sri Lankan film board, who had given us permission to shoot. The letter said our permission had been taken away and we could not shoot the film anymore because the Iranian foreign secretary had called the Sri Lankan ambassador in Tehran and said, “How dare you shoot Midnight’s Children in Sri Lanka?” Because of Salman.
Rushdie: They were just messing around with us. They’d never shown the slightest interest in Midnight’s Children.
Filmmaker: How did this get resolved?
Mehta: We had been given permission also by the president of Sri Lanka, and he wasn’t there at that time. So we waited it out till he got back. The minute he got back we had a meeting with him and we said, “This is bullshit. You can’t do this. We have been given permission.” “Of course, go ahead,” was the response. So that was that.
Filmmaker: And was there a problem with you going to Kolkata recently to promote film?
Rushdie: We went to India and it was fine except some local politician in Kolkata decided that I wasn’t allowed to set foot in Kolkata, which was very insulting.
Filmmaker: What was going on? Was this just an overabundance of deference to the Muslim community?
Rushdie: I think there was an electoral aspect to it. There were some local elections coming up.
Mehta: Local elections — and presuming that the Muslims would not want [Rushdie in Kolkata]. That’s such an assumption. It’s not true at all. So we didn’t go.
Rushdie: Fortunately it was kind of a peripheral part of the film’s launch. Really, we were launching the film in Delhi and Bombay. It was a literary event in Kolkata that we said we’d go to in order to discuss adaptation.
Filmmaker: Aside from little flare-ups like these, is there still a part of you that’s amazed that these days you can pretty much come and go as you please?
Rushdie: No, not any longer. Really, it’s been over for longer than it went on for. One of the reasons why I wrote the memoir when I wrote it is that I wanted to wait until I felt that I could see it was a chapter of my life, and it had a beginning and an ending. So I could write about it as a completed story. It’s never going to be entirely complete. Every so often there’s going to be someone who’s fist-shaking, but realistically it hasn’t been a part of my life — I’ve been living in New York since the turn of the century and it really hasn’t been an issue for all that time.
Filmmaker: Deepa, how conscious were you of giving little visual gifts to readers of the novel? For instance, in one scene from the book an important character turns into a lizard. And now, in your film, there are certain bits where we see a lizard, but these aren’t explicitly connected to the corresponding scene in the novel. Is that you consciously giving a nod to people who’ve read the book?
Mehta: That’s what I mean about the book in many ways being so inspirational.
Rushdie: I love the lizard. [Mehta laughs] I had no idea the lizard was coming. That just happened in the shoot.
Mehta: The book is really rich, but especially when it talks about the grandmother’s geese. So we started off with the geese, and I thought: Let me use all the animal motifs wherever I can, because it’s such a rich interpretation. In that sense, it’s a nod to the book.
Filmmaker: Salman, as you spent all this time with a book you wrote more than 30 years ago, did you find things in there that surprised you?
Rushdie: I suppose the last time I had any real look at this book was when that stage adaptation was happening. The Royal Shakespeare Company did it [in 2003]. But, on the whole, I don’t go back and read my old books. What happens when you read a book that you wrote so long ago is that there are some bits where you think: Gosh, who wrote that? And there are other bits where you think: I wouldn’t do it like that now. Which is fine. Your writing changes.
One of the reasons in the end that Deepa wanted to have a bit of narration in the film was because she wanted to put some more language of the book back into the film. Initially, we weren’t going have narration.
Filmmaker: Did you resist this, like you did with writing the script?
Mehta: Yes, he resisted. He always resists!
Rushdie: I thought that one of the great strengths we have in the film is the performances the actors give. And I thought: I don’t want to be the worst actor in the film. I don’t want to be the weakest link. I said, “Find an actor — you have all these great actors doing everything else.” But she insisted that it should be me.
Mehta: It’s the voice of the older Saleem, and who else can be that voice except Salman?