Salman Rushdie and Deepa Mehta tell Mini Anthikad-Chhibber how they disagreed and argued with each other during the making of the film, but how it was never about ego
Writing about a writer is difficult, and writing about the author of a book that changed the literary landscape forever is nothing short of terrifying. Happily, Salman Rushdie is remarkably easy to talk to and extremely matter-of-fact about the alchemy that creates those dizzying staircases of words on which he takes the reader on magic, swirling trips.
So there we were on blistery, bright afternoon in Bangalore with actor Shriya Saran, director Deepa Mehta and super-articulate Salman talking about the film version of his adamantly unfilmable baap of Bookers, Midnight’s Children.
Finding the true line
We start with the obvious — how difficult was it to condense the over 600-page novel to a 120-page script?
“Really easy, I just took out chunks,” Salman says with a laugh. “The script began at more than double the length. The first version was 250 pages, which was obviously ridiculous. It would have been a four-and-a-half-hour film! It was just a process of finding what was essential and what was not. The novel is deliberately digressional. I think some of the stories are quite interesting, but in a movie you have to find that true line that will grab you at the beginning,” he says.
About the collaboration, Salman says with a laugh, “We didn’t throw things at each other; it is difficult to throw things from New York to Toronto! It was oddly civilised. We would disagree, but then we would just argue it out.” “It was always about the film,” adds Deepa. “It wasn’t about the ego.”
Salman admits to the challenge of presenting magic realism on screen. “In a film that basically looks naturalistic, how do you integrate magic into the real world without it looking stupid? The effects were some of the hardest things to get right.”
A case of the book being the canvas of the mind while a film is on a canvas of celluloid. “Film, in general, has a problem with interiority,” Salman says. “Film is all ‘do’. You have to understand the interior life through exterior action. Here is something that is happening inside the character’s head. How do you represent that?”
The film has done the festival circuit, and Salman talks of “two of the funniest comments we heard. There was this person who said, ‘it is like Forrest Gump with brown people! I wanted to say this book was written a long time before Forrest Gump, so maybe Forrest Gump is like Midnight’s Children with white people! And someone else compared it to X-Men — you know people with magical powers!”
The author admits to enjoying his new space — promoting a film rather than a novel. “The fun thing is other people can do some of the talking! I spent most of my life sitting in a room with myself, scribbling. Suddenly to be working with other people was a very new and nice thing for me. After all these years of writing novels, I have been working on three projects, and none of them has been a novel — my book which is non-fiction, the screen play, and I am in the relatively early stage of developing a TV series. I am now sort of itching to get back into the room by myself.”
About the TV series he is working on, Salman says: “It is a bit of science fiction and a bit of politics and very, very weird. Weird is what does best in cable television drama. Nobody wants another police detective story. But a detective who is a serial killer in his spare time is good. I guess they came to me because they thought here is somebody who can do weird!”
The film has several languages, including “Kashmiri, Punjabi, Bhojpuri, some Hindi and some English”, says Salman. “There is a scene at the end of the Bangladesh war where the Pakistani general has to surrender to his Indian counterpart. In that generation, they’d all have gone to Sandhurst, and would be whiskey-soda guys, speaking whiskey-soda English—‘bad show old sport’ kind of thing. While the film is primarily in English, it is adulterated with other languages.”
Subtitles, Salman says “are not a problem anymore, thanks to Slumdog Millionaire. It showed the American distributors that subtitles don’t matter. Where possible, the subtitles are very close, if not exactly like the dialogue in the novel. So it was another way of having the flavour of the novel in writing on screen. When the Kashmiri boatman says ‘that is a nose to start a family on’, he is saying it in Kashmiri, but the subtitles use the actual line from the book.”
The flavour of the book
“When I saw the film very close to the final cut,” says Deepa, “I felt I am missing what I fell in love with in the book — Salman’s language, the quirky juxtaposition of words. I felt that maybe we should have a narrator, for the flavour of the book. When Salman started writing it, the film felt complete.”
Now all we have to do is wait for February 1 to see if the paintings of the mind have translated magically onto screen or if like the goat that chewed the film reel, we also feel the book was better!