"My father said, 'There are two things in life that you never know. One is when you are going to die, and the other is how a film is going to do at the box office'"
Salman Rushdie’s novel “Midnight’s Children” is a sprawling book that its author has described as a “love letter to India” — a chronicle of the country’s birth and occasionally troubled history as experienced by a boy born at the stroke of midnight as the country gained its independence on Aug. 15, 1947.
The novel’s scope made it difficult to adapt into a film, and so did the notoriety of its author in the Islamic world: A planned BBC miniseries version of the book in the 1990s was canceled because of anti-Rushdie protests from the Muslim community in Sri Lanka, where it was going to be filmed.
But Deepa Mehta, the Indian-born, Canadian-based director of the Oscar-nominated “Water,” persuaded Rushdie to sell her the rights for a pittance and then write the screenplay.
A 79-day shoot (much of it back in Sri Lanka) resulted in the indie epic that Paladin Film and 108 Media released on Friday in L.A. theaters.
Mehta’s film has elements of magical realism, but it also deals with the gritty politics of India — including the 21 months in the mid-1970s when Prime minister Indira Gandhi, under fire for electoral fraud, declared the so-called “Emergency” and suspended civil liberties.
Mehta spoke to TheWrap about shooting modern-day India, Islamic protestors and India's reaction to a film about a very difficult time.
This is a film about India, but you didn’t film it there.
We did shoot some scenes in Bombay and in Agra and in Delhi and in Karachi, but most of it was shot in Sri Lanka. And the reason is that India has changed so radically that if you want to find areas of the big cities that look anything like they looked 50 years ago, forget it. We would have needed the budget of “Gladiator” to paint everything out.
But Sri Lanka, because of its civil war for 30 years, it was caught in a time warp. There was not much industrialization happening at all. And it was colonized as well, so they still have the broad avenues and boulevards, and old British bungalows, and very few high-rises.
But didn’t you have trouble with Islamic protesters?
I’d love to make more out of it because it sounds so dramatic, but what happened was we were shooting without any incident for about 30 days. And then we got a letter from the film board of Sri Lanka saying that our permission to shoot had been withdrawn. We said, “How can you just do that? What do you mean?” We had 150 crew members from all over the world there, a cast of thousands, and elephants and snakes and whatever.
It turned out that the Iranian foreign minister in Tehran called the Sri Lankan ambassador in Tehran and told him that he had heard that a film based on a Salman Rushdie book was being filmed in Sri Lanka and that it was well advised for Sri Lanka if they withdraw the permission. So he withdrew it, but he didn’t ask the president, who was the one who had given us permission.
We went immediately to the president, but he was somewhere in the interior. So we all sat in the hotel for two or three days. And that was nerve-wracking. Every day of shooting practically costs you $100,000, and there’s also the fear: supposing they don’t give you permission? You’ve shot half the film — what are you going to do?
Then the president came and he looked at the letter and he started laughing. He said, “This is absolutely ridiculous. How dare they bully us. Go ahead and film, no problem.”
That was the extent of our controversy.
That’s minor, I suppose, compared to what Rushdie went through when the Ayatollah Khomeini called for his death after “The Satanic Verses.”
When this thing happened, Salman was really upset. He felt it was because of him, and he felt really awful. And then three days later when I rang him up and said, “It’s all done,” he said, “Just wait a second. Don’t go away.”
And then he came back on the phone after about 30 seconds, and I said, “Where did you go?” He said, “I was driving, and I stopped the car to do a jig.”
Obviously, this is a very difficult book to condense.
Isn’t every book a difficult book to condense? This is not any more complicated than “The English Patient” was. I remember talking to [“English Patient” director] Anthony Minghella before he died, and he said that he had decided on a strand of the book that he would focus on. And one of the themes of the book that really appealed to me is Saleem’s journey.
He was born at midnight, and went on a journey in search of family, in search of a home, in search of an identity. As an immigrant to Canada, this is something I have great empathy for. People who move from place to place, we have to reinvent ourselves in many ways.
So I said to Salman, “This is the journey that I want to focus on,” and luckily he felt exactly the same way.
Did the scope of the film make it particularly difficult?
I had to be on my toes because it’s an ensemble piece. I was working with five or six or eight or 10 major actors at a time, and I knew that every performance has to be honest and true. You have to be really alert making sure that people are well rehearsed, that they understood their character arc and that they have fun with it.
I remember thinking that for the 79 days of shooting, I had to be really fit. I had never been to a gym in my life, and I was a heavy smoker. So I gave up smoking six months before we started shooting, I joined a gym, and I started doing yoga. I felt I had to be fit in order to work with so many actors. If I was making a movie with three actors, I’d never be going to a gym.
In making a film that is so deeply about India, does it help to bring a perspective from the outside, from living in Canada for most of your adult life?
In a way. Perhaps in my earlier films it was more true than it is now. Now it’s just a fact that my vision is not as a person who lives in India now. When I look at it, it’s definitely from outside the frame. So there is a sense of objectivity.
What has the reaction to the film been like in India?
It’s been interesting. The young people love it, which is fascinating. But there’s a sense of India also not wanting to remember a very depressing period in history. It’s as if India did not declare the Emergency, and there was no suspension of habeas corpus, there was no forced sterilization, freedom of the press was not taken away, people were not arbitrarily thrown into jail.
It was a horrendous time, and India has not been the same since that. The whole system collapsed when [Indira Gandhi] did that and became a dictator. And now, in political circles, it’s like it didn’t even happen, which is strange. The government is now more or less run more or less run by her daughter-in-law, Sonia Gandhi, and it’s not something they want to think about.
What was your experience during the Emergency?
We were all in a state of shock. I remember my parents being really horrified. I was at Delhi University, and the students I remember were really appalled. It all became very secretive: You couldn’t talk, and you couldn’t gather more than five people at a place or they’d be put in jail. I remember friends of mine who were thrown behind bars because they protested. It was a scary time.
You weren’t going to school to be a filmmaker, were you?
No, not at all. I was going to do my PhD, and I wanted to become an academic. It didn’t even strike me to get into film, though I grew up with film. My father’s a film distributor. And since we were kids, that what we were exposed to, movies. My father’s mood would change every Friday depending on what the box office was like.
Why did you decide to do it yourself?
I started helping friends who were documentary filmmakers, who wanted help in the office. And they realized I made terrible coffee and had no phone manners, so they said, “Maybe you should help carry the camera equipment.” That’s how I started.
What did your dad say when you told him you were getting into the movie business?
When I told him, “I’ve decided I’m going to become a director, no more academic,” he sort of looked at me. And he said, “OK, but remember this: There are two things in life that you never know about. One is when you are going to die, and the other is how a film is going to do at the box office. So don’t have any expectations.”
And that’s really helped me, I must admit. Because it’s very practical. That is the reality of movies.