Salman Rushdie & Deepa Mehta at the Met
‘Midnight’s Children’ – a major film collaboration born out of an epic book – and film-goers are waiting in excited anticipation, popcorn and soda ready. At a preview screening at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, author Salman Rushdie and director Deepa Mehta were in a fun mood, completing each other’s sentences, putting a light-hearted spin on things, and what came through clearly is the rapport they share.
Meanwhile, I think I’ll entertain you all with the goings on of that evening.
After screening ‘Midnight’s Children’ to a packed hall, they took to the stage with Navina Haidar, Curator of the Islamic Galleries at the Met, moderating the discussion. There’s an easy camaraderie between Salman Rushdie and Deepa Mehta and the whole evening had a smattering of wry humor to it. There were a lot of smiles, and spontaneous laughter from them – and the audience. Even away from his desk, Rushdie was spinning tales, and it was all quite charming.
Bringing a book to the big screen is always a challenge and it’s even more so when the book is ‘Midnight’s Children’ which has won many honors internationally, including the Booker of Bookers, and been the inspiration behind the work of a whole generation of Indian writers.
Midnight’s Children: The Journey
Asked about their collaboration, Oscar-nominated director Deepa Mehta said, “It’s been an amazing journey! I first met Salman when he came for the screening of our film ‘Water’ in New York – I was terrified when I got to know that Salman Rushdie was in the audience! But lo and behold – he loved it. He said he really liked it and I got a bit encouraged and I actually emailed him and asked him for a quote for the poster which he did – and it was wonderful. We became friends and started talking about working together.”
They met up on a free evening for dinner during Rushdie’s Toronto visit, and although she had first asked him about his novel ‘Shalimar the Clown’, before the evening was over, it was ‘Midnight’s Children’ and just as spontaneously, Rushdie said yes. “Then there was a tough negotiation,” he recalled. “They got the option to make the movie for a dollar for a year and a half- with the right to renew for another year, for a further dollar. And so this two dollar deal took us to where we are now – almost six years later from that moment. Neither of us planned it or thought about it at all until that instant.”
Rushdie added, “The thing I have responded to in Deepa was I could feel that her passion for the book was more than just her job, it was as if she had her own sense of feeling for the book and it meant a lot to her. My feeling is always to follow passion. I thought if she had that depth of feeling for the book, then she was obviously the right person to do it.”
Rushdie the Scriptwriter
How did this come about?
Deepa Mehta said flatly, “He didn’t want to write the script.”
Responded Rushdie: “She made me do it – she made me do a lot of things! It’s true – I actually didn’t want to do it initially because I felt I’ve already done it. But then I changed my mind under pressure from the director here! It’s the first of my books to be filmed – and it’s ‘Midnight’s Children’, which is an important book for me. I would hate to walk away from it and come to the opening night and think ‘I don’t like that – that’s all wrong.’ I thought it would also be my fault if I stayed away from it. I should roll up my sleeves and be a part of it, be implicated in it. And we both thought, maybe I was able to be more disrespectful to the book than anyone else.
Obviously the book is 600 pages and the screenplay is 120 pages and right there you can see this big issue. And somebody had to get hold of the book and rip it to pieces and find the film inside it. I remember this wonderful line by Michelangelo. We are talking of sculpture where he said he always felt the figure was present inside the stone. He had to take away everything that was not the figure, and what remained was the sculpture. I still have a bit of this feeling with this enormous – let’s call it raw material – book which sat there, having to find the film inside it. So I had to take away everything that was not the film until what was left was the film.”
Who Gets the Praise? The Blame?
“So if you didn’t like it – it’s his fault!’ said Deepa Mehta.
“Everybody knows that if the film is good, the director takes the credit and if it’s bad, it’s the writer’s fault!” – Salman Rushdie
On Salman Rushdie’s Strong, Badass Women
“What attracted me to the book is the incredibly strong female characters – whether it’s the grandmother, the mother, aunts, Parvati the witch, Mrs. Gandhi, even Mary Pereira,” says Mehta. “These are extraordinary women who say extraordinary things. All my films have been about strong women characters so I’m sure that somehow informed the way I dealt with them.”
Rushdie said, referring to Navina Haidar. “By the way Navina and her family know something about this. Our families have been friends for many generations – and so when I say my grandmother was a very terrifying woman she knows what I’m talking about! She knows very well that the women in my family have been very formidable women in their many ways, through the generations. So for me it was much easier to write women like this. The other kind – the shrinking violet, shy retiring Indian woman which allegedly exists – I’ve myself never encountered her. I have spent my life with these very kind of badass women – so that’s the way it came out!”
Salman Rushdie’s Contribution to Indian Cinema: “The Indirect Kiss”
“The indirect kiss here was one of my favorite bits! I have to compliment you Salman for writing it and you Deepa, for executing it,” said Navina Haidar, about a scene in the movie. To that the unflappable Rushdie replied, ” I am very proud of the indirect kiss and I am very happy to see it come to life in the movie because I believe it to be my contribution to the Indian cinema, where people are not allowed to actually kiss.
There is a film inside my novel in which all the characters invent kissing where they kiss intermediate objects to express their passion- so to actually have it in the film I feel deeply satisfied – I think it’s erotic! I hope the Bombay movies will take notice of it! ”
Midnight’s Children: Forrest Gump with Brown people?
As the film has not yet opened, very few American audiences have seen it. The film has been shown in a number of film festivals, and Rushdie remembers a funny moment at the Telluride Film Festival. “After this very first screening, as we came out, we heard people talking. One of them said, ‘You know, it’s like ‘Forrest Gump’ with brown people!’ I wanted to stop them and point out that our story was written before ‘Forrest Gump’ – so maybe ‘Forrest Gump’ was ‘Midnight’s Children’ with white people!”
Deepa Mehta – Only One Director at a Time
“The great thing about Salman is that he’s incredibly generous,” said Mehta. “There was no ego around,’ this is my work and my stamp has to be in it.’ He said, ‘Listen there’s only one director. Go and do it and if you need me, I’m here. That kind of trust was really wonderful.’
In dealing with her actors, Deepa Mehta used the teachings of the Natya Shastra, the 5000 years old Sanskrit text about drama and the 9 sets of emotions: “Using the Natya Shastra with my actors has been wonderful for me; we rehearsed intensively for three weeks. When we were on set no actor ever said to me, ‘What’s my motivation?’ They knew who they were, what they were going towards and that they had spontaneity. I feel really blessed to have really good actors.”
Rushdie gave a big endorsement of Deepa Mehta’s directorial skills and the love the entire cast had for her. “Siddharth who plays Shiva is a huge star in the South but because he’s so handsome and charismatic he always gets to play the romantic lead – This was really casting him against type, asking him to play a much darker character. He just loved it. He loved having the opportunity to do that.”
He also gave the example of the lovely Shriya Saran who plays Parvati the Witch. Her beauty has always won her the leading lady roles but Deepa Mehta had cast her in a much more complex role: ” Shriya would talk very movingly about how Deepa had seen something in her which she felt she hadn’t even seen in herself and allowed her to bring out of herself a performance that she didn’t know she was capable of. That’s what Deepa does – not to mention being a very good director with children.”
Salman Rushdie’s Lunch with Priyanka Chopra
“Priyanka Chopra was here in New York and Deepa wasn’t,” goes another one of Rushdie’s tales. Since they had been thinking of casting Priyanka in the film, Deepa asked Rushdie to have lunch with Priyanka. Recalled Rushdie: “I said ‘Deepa, I have to have lunch with Priyanka? Tough – that’s a hardship!'”
“So yes, we had a very nice lunch in what conceived of itself as an Indian restaurant – but none of the waiters recognized Priyanka – which made me feel this is NOT an Indian restaurant! She was very friendly but she couldn’t do the film because she was very booked up. So I had some treats like that. It was sad not having her in the film – but at least I had lunch!”
Shabana Azmi and Seema Biswas
“The two people we had to have in the movie were Shabana Azmi as the grandmother and Seema Biswas as Mary,” said Rushdie. “We both felt there’s nobody else who could do this. They were the first two people we offered parts without casting anyone else – we had to have them and fortunately both said yes.”
Salman Rushdie – A New Career as an Actor?
Besides writing the screenplay, Rushdie is the narrator in ‘Midnight’s Children’. What’s next?
SR: She’s threatening to cast me in a movie as an actor!
DM: It’s a movie about gangsters – and Salman is making his debut as a gangster. I sent him the script and he said ‘Yes, I’ll do it.’
SR: I’ve always wanted to be a gangster! It’s a very funny script. It’s like Quentin Tarantino for Sikhs. I get to play Marlon Brando in a turban. Who could resist that? Acting will always be a little unscratched itch for me. So if I get a chance …
DM: You will, you will. You’re booked!
Later when I got a few moments with Salman Rushdie and Deepa Mehta, I remembered his love for old Indian cinema and all things cinematic. I asked him how he felt today, getting this close to the big screen? He said, ” I’ve always wanted to be an actor – so even though I didn’t get my face in this picture, I got my voice in and that feels very exciting!”
Would we really see him acting in Deepa’s film? He certainly had the looks!
He laughed, “For a sardar gangster?”
Well, I said, there are some very handsome sardars!
“Oh thank you, thank you!” laughed Salman Rushdie and so ended the evening at the Met.
Salman Rushdie, the King of Gup City