Deepa Mehta on her film Midnight’s Children and the challenge of making a cinematic version of a book.
Indo-Canadian filmmaker Deepa Mehta, best known for her trilogy of films – Fire, Water and Earth, will have the Asian premiere of her latest film, the adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s seminal work, Midnight’s Children, at the 17th International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK). This is her second film to be premiered at the IFFK. Water, was premiered in 2005. In an e-mail interview, the filmmaker talks about the film, its making and her affinity with the IFFK. Excerpts…
You premiered your movie Water in 2005 at the IFFK. And now the much-awaited Midnight’s Children… any special reasons for choosing the IFFK for the Indian premiere of two of your much-talked about films?
The IFFK has been so supportive of my films and me in the past and I can’t think of a better place for Indian audiences to see Midnight’s Children. It is a fantastic festival with a great audience and I am thrilled to be premiering Midnight’s Children here.
Salman Rushdie, the author, himself did the scripting of the film. How was the experience of working with him?
I can’t say enough good things about working with Salman. He is a consummate professional, hilarious, and generous and wrote a beautiful script. You really don’t meet people as brilliant and gentlemanly as he is. I am so grateful to call him a collaborator and a dear friend.
Why was this particular work of Rushdie’s chosen?
Ever since I read Midnight’s Children in Delhi in 1982, I was in awe of it, especially its cinematic language. One night over dinner several years ago, I casually asked Salman who owned the rights to the book and he told me he did. I asked if I could purchase them and then it was done! Salman sold me the rights to the book for one dollar. I am still surprised to this day about how it started all so casually over dinner. It was not premeditated on my part, just a gut instinct that I went with.
The challenge of shooting a film that is adapted from a book that had so much of psychedelic effects and magical realism and Rushdie’s play with words….
It required a bit of creativity and imagination to bring Rushdie’s words to life. I never wanted masses of CGI and visual effects; there are some effects in the movie, but pretty minimal. I wanted the fantastical elements to be grounded in reality. I want the audience to draw their own conclusions about Saleem’s experiences, his loneliness, his vivid imagination and the Midnight’s Children. One can never completely capture the words of such a vivid, rich text to screen because it differs for everyone, but I adapted it in a way that seemed universal.
This film, like Water, was shot in Sri Lanka…. How tough was recreating Indian cities and homes there?
Sri Lanka was the perfect place to shoot because of the nature of the architecture. Because this film is a period film, the low-lying architecture was more conducive to the time periods we were recreating. My brother, and immensely talented production designer, Dilip Mehta, completely transformed each location into another world. A lot of the production design was inspired by mine and Dilip’s own memories of growing up and there were moments I’d look at the set and be absolutely astounded at how accurately Dilip and his team had recreated the stuff of memory. Sourcing all the materials was an extremely challenging task, but the India of the past has very much come to life on the screen.
You worked with leading stars and some of the best actors in the Indian film industry. Was it a huge task to handle such a huge cast?
It was certainly the largest number of cast members I have ever worked with on one film. Like any large-scale film production, the shooting schedule determines when which actor is present, so it was sort of a revolving door of talent. Some of the larger scenes, like the Dhaka parade, were an overwhelming, but exhilarating experience just for the sheer number of people involved. I am immensely proud of the cast. Each and every one of them shines in their role.
Ritu Kumar for the lush costumes…. What was your brief to her?
Ritu Kumar designed the wedding costumes and Dolly Ahluwalia was the film’s costume designer. I worked very closely with both of them to recreate a rich, lush palate. For the weddings, I wanted the colours to be inspired by the jewel-toned feathers of a peacock, which I think Ritu captured beautifully.
If things had worked out, Shabana and Nandita would have worked together again after Fire (as Water had to be stopped in between)…
Casting is largely dependent on timing and availability. Who knows what the future will bring!
The challenge of bringing Saleem Sinai, the protagonist of Midnight’s Children, to life?
Given that Saleem Sinai is such an iconic literary anti-hero, it was a hugely important casting decision. When I met Satya Bhabha in New York following one of his stage performances, it was evident that he was capable of capturing the vulnerability, optimism and sincerity that everyone so loves about him. Satya worked extremely hard in this role, rehearsing as much as he could and was deeply engaged with both the text and his performance. I have no doubt that Satya will have a long, successful career ahead of him.
Your next work?
My next film is a film called Masterpiece about Matisse and his muse set in the south of France. It is a beautiful script and I’m looking forward to it after catching my breath!
(According to the schedule, the film will be screened on December 10 at Kairali and December 11 at Sree Padmanabha in the capital city)