As “Midnight’s Children” gets ready to grace a theatre near you, Deepa Mehta tells us how she groomed it for the screen.
With the eye of a painter and courage of a soldier, Deepa Mehta is the quintessential underdog, who keeps pushing the envelope, resolutely, discreetly. Who would have thought after dealing with the elements of nature she would nurture “Midnight’s Children” to celluloid glory. Like Yann Martel’s “Life of Pi”, Salman Rushdie’s novel has been considered ‘unfilmable’ for a long time. In terms of scale and narrative sweep it is her biggest film, but Deepa is her good old unassuming self. And thank god, this time controversy is not her companion.
In Delhi to promote her film, Deepa describes her work as a love letter to India. “For the longest time Salman Rushdie has said that ‘Midnight’s Children’ is his love letter to India and if you see the film it is evident, because the journey of the hero of the film and the novel, Salim Sinai, is the journey of the everyman, the plain Joe or what we call ghar ka aadmi, who is looking for an identity, a home. And to a degree it parallels Salman’s journey and my journey.”
As for the process of adaptation, Deepa says things became easier when Salman agreed to come on board. “He was not very keen about doing it initially. He felt he has written the novel and now I shall run with it but I felt the novel is 600 pages long. I wanted somebody to write the screenplay who is actually not intimidated by the process of elimination. And like ‘The Constant Gardner’ (1000 pages) which made a wonderful film in two hours, ‘War & Peace’ and more recently ‘Life of Pi’, the film is a précis of the novel. So when Salman agreed to do it I was very relieved.” The way they went about it is interesting. “I said he should go away and I should go away and separately we should write in point form what the film should be like. What we can take out from the novel that doesn’t impede the narrative flow of the novel. Two weeks later we got back with our respective lists and exchanged them. And much to our surprise they were almost, not completely, identical. So we knew how we wanted the film to flow. We both decided it would tell the story of Salim Sinai from the point of his birth on the midnight of 15th August 1947, paralleling the birth of India. The canvas became India and the person in front became Salim. It was such a great experience because Salman has an incredible sense of humour and he is also very cinematic. So the visual style of telling the film became something to marvel at, as opposed to something to fear. I had a good time.”
Magic realism is another feature of the novel that seems difficult to translate on screen. Deepa agrees. “To me the magic realism is not about special effects. It is a lot about what comes from inside, whether it is telepathy, whether it is about what Salim hears…. What the children can do is a metaphor for the potential of the country. I wanted to deal with the potential of the common people, I didn’t want to make an X-Men. The magic has to be rooted in reality. Otherwise it will become jadoogiri.” Some of the critics have found it too straight. “The critics who matter to me have praised it. Salman was not present during the shoot but when he watched it, he loved it.”
Partition and the Emergency are important features of the narrative because the powers that Salim gains at independence, he starts losing at the time of the Emergency. Between the lines, Deepa says, she has emphasised the power of belief. “We are who we are because of our past. There is no point in denying our past and I think as a people it is important to know what we went through. How many lives were lost in making us what you call ‘India Shining’ today. It is also about Five Year Plans, it also deals with wars with Pakistan. There is a reason that we are here today, there is a reason why we are not functioning in areas where we should be functioning. And all we have gone through is because of what we are. The cards that are given to us are beyond our control, but the way we play them is entirely up to us. The power of the children is the potential of the children and they stand for the freedom that you are writing or the fact that it is a free society. Certainly during the Emergency they were curbed. They were diminished and I am happy that we have regained them.”
Talking about her experiences with the CBFC this time, Deepa reminds us ‘Fire’ went through without a cut. “After 15 years it was a moment of enlightenment. There was real maturity in the way they approached it. They said that it is a film that Indians should see in its entirety. It was very respectful of the source material. I must say I was very impressed.”
Considering her works have been stalled in some form or the other in India, Deepa is not bitter. “You can’t have the good without the bad. I don’t know any nation that progresses without experiencing the downside of it. My coming to terms with India has a lot to do with coming to terms with a reality that there are really cool things about India even as there are stories of despair. What happened with rape is just mind blowing but then what happened with the shootout in the United States is also numbing. At this moment I want to focus on the fact that ‘Midnight’s Children’ has gone through the CBFC without a picture cut. The fact that PVR has taken such great pains to take it to the public is fabulous. I mean I didn’t have this going for me with ‘Fire’, ‘Earth’ or ‘Water’.” She insists there is nothing in the film that is not historically accurate. “The film is not about Indira Gandhi. It is just one aspect. The Emergency was a reality. And I don’t think she could be portrayed in any other way except in an accurate manner. The only concern was the map of India, which comes with the end credits. I was told it should show Kashmir as part of India and it causes me no pain to change it.”
She applauds young Indian filmmakers for changing the concept of movies in theatres. “I see maturity and there is need and desire for consumption of good cinema. Films are getting through censors and there isn’t much brouhaha about it.”
Though the film is set in India, this time she didn’t even try shooting in India. “One of the main reasons for not shooting in India and specifically in Mumbai and Delhi was that it is a period film. Wherever we put the camera there were high rises and flyovers coming in the view and this film needed the whole vistas. We didn’t have the budget of a ‘Gladiator’ to recreate those times through sets. In Sri Lanka because of the civil war, industrialisation is on a halt. It lived almost in a time warp for 20-odd years so we could find colonial bungalows in Colombo like there were on Curzon Road and Kasturba Gandhi Marg.”
She admits security was one of the concerns. “ ‘Midnight’s Children’ is a loved book in India and it has never been banned in India but if there is a problem why take a risk — but it was mainly because of the location.”
However all was not smooth in Colombo. About three weeks into the filming she was asked to close down the shooting for a couple of days because the Iranian foreign minister had called the Sri Lankan ambassador telling him you can’t film a Salman Rushdie novel in your country. “It took about three days for the President of Sri Lanka to decide that he would not be bullied by anybody.”
Casting her net wide
The film’s cast is an interesting mix of actors drawn from different streams. “I don’t go by whether somebody is in the mainstream or not. “It has never been like, should it be from Bollywood, should it be from TV or should it be from theatre. I go by who will be good for the character. I always have a shortlist of two-three people for each role. It is interesting; for instance my mother told me about Ronit Roy, whom I had not seen. She said, ‘Beta isko dekho… ‘Adalat’ mein bahut achcha kaam kar raha hai.’ She is totally right because years before she introduced me to John Abraham for ‘Water’. There are some who have never worked in a film, like Satya Bhaba (Salim). Then there is Siddharth, whom I saw in ‘Rang De Basanti’ and thought he will make a good Shiva, and Shriya Saran whom I saw in ‘Cooking with Stella’ and said my god! she is terrific and she is indeed terrific as Parvati. It is all instinctive.” It is being said she approached Imran Khan for the role of Salim, but Deepa denies it. “I just said that I would like to cast somebody like him.”