The charms of midnight

Canadian-Indian director Deepa Mehta, noted for her trilogy Earth, Fire and Water, is back in the spotlight with a new film Midnight's Children, based on the Booker-prize winning novel by Salman Rushdie. Released in 1981, Rushdie's book was named the "Booker of Bookers", as it won the top prize at the 25th and 40th anniversaries of the world-renowned literary prize.

The film, which opens in Bangkok this week, was a collaborative effort of the director and the writer, who have been friends for many years. Together they condensed the densely plotted, 450-page novel to a 160-page screenplay.

Rushdie not only wrote the screenplay, but also played the role of voice-narrator throughout the film, unspooling the long and complex story about Saleem Sinai, a child born on the stroke of midnight on the day India became independent in August, 1947. "Handcuffed" to history, Sinai's magical journey is intertwined with the tumultuous fate, social and political, of post-colonial India.

Here's an excerpt from a conversation with Deepa Mehta.

Why did you choose to film this epic novel?

Why, indeed. I first read the novel in 1982 and it touched me a lot. It was not just the language, style, and the magic realism, but the very theme of the story. It was about an individual searching for his country and his identity, and in many ways. I could identify with it. I'm an Indian living in Canada, and I'm still searching for an identity.

Even after so many years?

Yes, even after so many years. I went there to study when I was 24 years, and never expected to live there so long. But although I left India, it was very much a part of me. However, as an non-resident Indian, I always looked at India with rose-tinted lenses, and everything was filled with nostalgia. In many ways, I was an outsider. But I think Midnight's Children changed all that _ it helped me to chart my way from the outside to the inside.

How difficult was it, translating this huge novel into a film?

Firstly, I tried my best not to think of it as an iconic book, otherwise, I'd have been paralysed with fear. Secondly, every novel is difficult to translate into a film, especially a famous one like this. I learned a lot from Coppola, about adaptations. I approached this book like a classic, and thought of great "city-movies", like [Yasujiro] Ozu's Tokyo Story, or [Emir] Kusturica's Time Of The Gypsies. Different cities have different reactions, and this is what we kept in mind, when Salman and I worked on the screenplay together. The story is about how history affects communities, and that's why the scenarios of the communities were important.

Where did you shoot the film?

In several cities _ Delhi, Agra, Kashmir, Mumbai. Mumbai was the most difficult, because the skyline has changed totally, with so many high-rise buildings, and it was not easy to capture the old, post-colonial India. That's why we moved to Sri Lanka, which has many more colonial-style buildings.

That's where you ran into some problems?

Well, after a few weeks of shooting, we heard that the Iranian government had demanded that the movie not be filmed there. So we met the President of Sri Lanka [Mahinda Rajapaksa], who agreed for us to continue shooting, and that was great. We changed the title of the film to Winds Of Change, so that no one would bother us. Salman is being chased by the Muslims, while I've been chased by the Hindus [Fire and Water elicited protests and violence from Hindu groups.]

How did you handle the magic realism element of the story?

The style of magic realism does not mean making an X-Men or Harry Potter. It's not about technique, but mood. I infused the glow of realism in the children, so that they are very much in the real world, but dreaming of another.

Women are integral in all your stories

Yes, they are, and they play an important role in my films, as they do in life. But I like to think of myself as a humanist rather than a feminist. This film is not about women or men, but about individuals striving for their identity.

Are you happy that the film was released in India?

Extremely happy. People warned me the film may be banned, may have "cuts". But I would not have accepted any "cuts", and I'm glad the film was released without any. Salman and I are very happy to have been able to come to India, and promote the film. The people I have spoken too all seemed to have enjoyed the film, especially as they all thought the book was unfilmable. That's very satisfying.

About the author

columnist
Writer: Lekha Shankar
Position: Writer