It’s been a long, strange journey turning Salman Rushdie’s classic Midnight’s Children into a feature film directed by Deepa Mehta. Actors Ralph Fiennes and Liam Neeson nixed the project, as did an unnamed “celebrated” Bollywood actress who couldn’t bring herself to play the mother of a teenager, as she told Rushdie, “I hear my youth crying out to me.”
Ultimately, Mehta and Rushdie had to settle for an ensemble cast, but a stellar one. As the New York-based Booker-winning writer said, “We were lucky, we got a cast that was better than what we would have had if any of those ultra-stars had said yes.”
This was just one issue among many that confronted Rushdie and Mehta as they converted a 600 pages-plus novel into a screenplay of just 132 pages. The film should be released by October 2012. The duo detailed the filmmaking process during a 90-minute Mavericks session at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival.
It started in 2008. The project was announced during the Indo-American Arts Council’s Film Festival in New York that year. The book, of course, completed 30 years of publication in April this year.During their initial meetings in Toronto, Mehta told Rushdie: "Salman, you’re going to write the screenplay, of course. He said, never." Then, of course, he wrote it. Now, Rushdie said: "I actually do think that one of the things I could do was be more disrespectful of the book than anyone else."
Changes flowed. The frame narration where the film’s hero, Saleem Sinai, tells Padma his story at a pickle factory was excised. Another issue was that of dealing with the tangential sections of the novel. As Rushdie said, “Midnight’s Children is always going off the point. It was a very interesting discipline to try and learn what was that shining thread that goes through the story.”
It helped that the book, probably due to Rushdie’s Bombay background, was sort of ‘filmi’ anyway. As Mehta said, “It’s very cinematic. The way he has written it, the paragraphs and chapters, which are long shot, close up, voiceover.” As evidenced by the clips from the film, Rushdie does Saleem’s voiceover in the film.
Another major change is the inclusion of a scene where Saleem and his archrival, Shiva, confront each other and the fact of their being exchanged at birth — at midnight, August 15, 1947 — is revealed to the viewer.
Rushdie and Mehta met in person, often, but a major share of the collaboration came about online, as they Skyped late at night, exchanged emails and text messages. Once an exhausted Mehta sent Rushdie such a garbled text that he thought her phone had been stolen.
Mehta showed Rushdie the rushes of the film, and the writer said that as he prepared to watch them, he was “just scared stupid”. But, he said, “What you can see is the beauty of the cinematography.” Rushdie’s involvement in the project also extended to trying to raise funds. He came to the Toronto International Film Festival a couple of years ago to “smile at the money”.
Part of what makes the Rushdie-Mehta team work was the sense of “creative empathy”. Mehta’s admiration for Midnight’s Children helped, as she said, “In a way, it was such a love letter to India. That really spoke to me.”
The film is far from complete. Rigorous editing remains before the final cut is ready. The scenes shown were from a digital rough cut. It’s at that interesting stage that Rushdie described as “too long”. But, for Rushdie there’s still a small sense of satisfaction: “It’s the first of my books that’s been adapted and for someone as fond of cinema as I am, that was a very special thing.”
Its success could depend on how well Rushdie’s masterwork translates to screen. As he said, what was required was not just a “faithful adaptation” but “you want the film to establish its own authority over its audiences.” For now, though it has been 30 years in the making, Rushdie isn’t too peeved at the onerous wait. “It now feels like fate, it feels like good karma, that we waited till we got this together.”