Interview As Midnight’s Children reaches cinemas, Deepa Mehta tells us how she groomed it for the screen. ANUJ KUMAR

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.

“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,” says Deepa.

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. 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 (1,000 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. 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 .”

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. 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. ”

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.”

However all was not smooth in Colombo. About three weeks into the filming she was asked to close down the shooting 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.”

We are who we are because of our past.