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The Strokes Of Midnight
“Some books get filmed almost the week they are published, but this one took a little longer,” Salman Rushdie last week in introducing Deepa Mehta’s Midnight’s Children, based on his Booker-winning novel, at the 39th Telluride Film Festival in Colorado. “It’s been thirty-one and a half years since the book came out,” Rushdie, added in qualification.
Rushdie is an unabashed cinephile. References to movies, old Bollywood film songs and characters often appear in his novels. He wrote a monograph on The Wizard of Oz for the British Film Institute, where he referred to the film as his first literary influence. He has made guest appearances in a couple of films. In 2001, Rushdie came to the Telluride Film Festival as a guest program director. And he has maintained his relationship with the festival, visiting a few more times, including in 2008, when he introduced Nandita Das’s Firaaq.
Rushdie has made no secret about wanting his works adapted for the big screen. There were conversations with veteran British director Terry Gilliam for the screen adaptation of Haroun and the Sea of Stories. That fell through, but Rushdie did oversee the New York City Opera’s interpretation of his book for the stage. There was a theatrical production of Midnight’s Children by the Royal Shakespeare Company and the show even travelled to New York. But plans to film Midnight’s Children did not materialise till Rushdie met the Water director at a dinner in Toronto, four years ago.
Deepa was initially considering making a film based on a more recent Rushdie book, Shalimar The Clown (2005). But when she enquired in passing about who owned the rights to Midnight’s Children, Rushdie said the rights were still with him. Deepa then asked if she could have them and his response was “Done!”
At Telluride, Rushdie offered a similar account, albeit laced with his unique sense of humour: “It was a deal worked out on the kitchen table. I sold the rights for a dollar, agreed to write the screenplay for a dollar more and extended the option for another year, for one more dollar. So I made three dollars on this movie, but they were worth it.”
Rushdie: “It was a deal worked out over dinner on the kitchen table. I made three dollars on this film, but they’re worth it.”
While the real steal for Deepa doubtless was in convincing him to write the Midnight’s Children script, thereby having the best possible authority pick and choose what segments could be eliminated from the book, having the writer narrate parts of the film was no less of a coup. These victories, though, could be attributed to the warmth Deepa’s equation with Rushdie has acquired of late. “It has been a wonderful ride for me because I had a great working relationship with Deepa,” Rushdie said.
But having Rushdie do the voiceover also served another purpose, especially for fans of the book. The author’s magical words, his terrific prose, which made Midnight’s Children such a compelling read, are used very elegantly to transition the narrative in the film. Rushdie’s writing would have been nearly impossible to capture on the screen otherwise.
Midnight’s Children may just be Deepa’s most ambitious project: a 149-minute-long epic—with a large cast of talented actors from India and North America, whose shoot took her to Sri Lanka for the second time (since both her and Rushdie’s relationships with India often take on volatile, and even violent, tones, the production company did not seek permission to shoot in India)—of a novel deeply loved by fans for the role it played in redefining Indian English writing.
The good news is that the film works. With Deepa’s supple direction and the steady support of long-time cinematographer-collaborator Giles Nuttgens and production designer Dilip Mehta (the filmmaker’s brother), Midnight’s Children is a sumptuous visual delight. Transforming Sri Lanka into Srinagar for the Dal Lake scenes in the beginning, then Bombay, Bangladesh, even Karachi is an achievement in itself.
Midnight’s Children gives a rich sense of India’s history until the late-1970s. Many American viewers in Telluride appeared confused by all the historical events, although Rushdie’s name ensured sell-outs at all four screenings at the festival. For the book’s fans, though, it was a chance to relive Rushdie’s widely imaginative narrative, watching the protagonist Saleem Sinai’s life come alive as a mirror image of the young nations of India, Pakistan and then Bangladesh.
Last year, Rushdie and Deepa participated in a public conversation on the sidelines of the Toronto International Film Festival, where they talked about the challenge of casting Saleem’s mother. They had zeroed in on a leading Bollywood actress, whose identity they refused to disclose, but the star pulled out once she realised that she would be playing the mother of a 16-year-old.
Deepa finally selected Shahana Goswami to play the role of Ameena Sinai. Now, she is not a big Bollywood star, but she does a fine job carrying the substantial part of the film until we are introduced to Satya Bhabha, playing the adult Saleem. Bhabha is charming and brings in the right amount of vulnerability to Saleem, a man who often gets pulled into the swirling vortex of the post-Independence history of the subcontinent.
The other actors, the always terrific Seema Biswas (Mary Pereira), Rajat Kapoor (Aadam Aziz), Shriya Saran (Parvati), a hilarious Shabana Azmi (Naseem Aziz), Rahul Bose (General Zulfikar), Soha Ali Khan (Jamila Sinai) and two New York actors—Samrat Chakrabarti (Wee Willie Winkie) and Sarita Choudhury (the prime minister, Indira Gandhi)—all give engaging performances.
Deepa and her husband/producer David Hamilton have sold the distribution rights to Midnight’s Children in 45 countries. India remains the last major frontier. That may be a challenge, since the Indian censors could have a problem with Choudhury’s brief, but rather effective portrayal of the prime minister, a Lord Voldemort-like politician with dark grey clouds hanging over her head.
It will be truly unfortunate if Midnight’s Children does not open in India. The novel was Rushdie’s love letter to the country of his birth, long before The Satanic Verses controversy overshadowed the rest of his oeuvre. And in a way, the film is Deepa’s homage to India and its post-Independence vibrancy.