Distilling any book that spans 550 pages and six decades of the history of a nation into a film would be fraught with difficulty. It is doubly so when the book happens to be Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie’s epic magic realist novel of independent India. But the film, directed by Deepa Mehta, which had its gala premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), has remained true to the soul of the source — and looks likely to attract the same degree of controversy.
Mehta, an Indo-Canadian director, told the Hindustan Times that the initial response to the film has been “overwhelming.” She said, “Ultimately, Midnight’s Children is about the emotional growth of a young man that parallels his country. An allegory that almost everyone is relating to, despite colour, gender, geographic boundaries.”
The film’s public release is scheduled for late October or early November, and it will be distributed in over 40 countries. Curiously for a film about India, based on a book by an Indian-born writer and directed by a person of Indian origin, the film has yet to find a distributor in its inspirational homeland.
That has certainly disappointed the filmmaker. As Mehta said, “Salman has often said that the book was his love letter to India. I think the film reflects that love. What a pity if insecure politicians deprive the people of India to make up their own minds about what the film means, or does not mean, to them.”
In the past, Mehta was prevented by Hindu rightwingers from filming the Oscar-nominated film Water in Varanasi and had to shift location to Sri Lanka. The island nation also stands in for Mumbai in Midnight’s Children. Rushdie’s novel, The Satanic Verses, after all, remains banned in India and he stayed away from this year’s Jaipur Literary Festival because of a supposed Islamicist threat to his life.
Midnight’s Children is not without a colourful past. Late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi launched a defamation case against Rushdie in 1984 in England over the book. The case was settled out of court with the author agreeing to delete one part she deemed particularly objectionable.
Rushdie’s scathing indictment of the Emergency and Indira Gandhi in the novel is reflected in the film as well — and this may have been why it was unpalatable for Indian distributors. In the film, a thinly-disguised Gandhi is played by New York-based actress Sarita Choudhury in a manner that conveys an almost Voldemort-like menace.
Filming Midnight’s Children in Sri Lanka wasn’t all smooth sailing. The Iranian government issued a demarche against Sri Lanka for allowing the filming of a work by Rushdie. Tehran has a long-standing feud with Rushdie: it was the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini who issued the fatwa against Rushdie for the supposed blasphemous content of The Satanic Verses. India banned the book as a consequence. Rushdie spent several years in hiding in the West to avoid Iran’s death threat.
“We sought help from the Canadian High Commission and moved all of our equipment and the partially edited film into the High Commission’s property, unsure as to how aggressive our opponents might be,” wrote the film’s producer David Hamilton. After a week of delay, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa intervened and gave the green light. Mehta and her crew went ahead but pretended they were filming something called Winds of Change. One “regrettable side effect” of all this, writes Hamilton, “was that it prevented Salman from visiting the production — something we had hoped for and planned.”
Midnight’s Children’s film adaptation comes 31 years after the book’s publication. An attempt by BBC to create a mini-series around the novel two decades earlier died after an earlier round of protests led Sri Lanka to revoke the filming permit. Actor Rahul Bose had been slated to play the mini-series’s protagonist, Saleem Sinai, midnight’s child. Bose does appear in this film, this time as the composite Pakistani character, General Zulfikar.
As “The Prime Minister” (Indira Gandhi is only mentioned in an early voiceover), Choudhury is part of a strong ensemble cast that includes American actor Satya Bhabha (Saleem Sinai) and Bollywood actor Siddharth as Shiva.
The killer apps for the film are the narration, which is by Rushdie, and the script, which he co-wrote. Says TIFF’s artistic director Cameron Bailey, “It’s a daunting challenge for any filmmaker to approach a novel like that. I think the great thing is that Deepa had the full participation of Salman Rushdie, he even does the narration in this film. So you feel like you still have his voice, you feel like this is still him telling the story, although she’s made it visual, she’s altered the story.”
Aseem Chhabra, director of the New York Indian Film Festival, agrees: “I think the idea of using Salman’s voice as the narrator was right. Hearing Salman read passages from the book takes the viewer back to the original source. It’s a fine marriage between the book and the film.”
The festival response signals that Midnight’s Children is likely to be a worldwide cinematic success this autumn — except perhaps in India.