I will admit that I was reasonably nervous to meet one of Canada’s most celebrated film directors, Deepa Mehta, but I know now that I needn’t have been. The moment she walked in the room to discuss her latest epic, MIDNIGHT’S CHILDREN, all of my hesitation fell away. It wasn’t her stature that put me at ease, even though she is a tiny wisp of a woman, but rather something much deeper than that. There is just something about her spirit that makes you feel welcome. Before long, we would be discussing the merits of THE AVENGERS vs THE MASTER and debating when it is acceptable to cast Robert Pattinson in anything. This was one cool lady.
A healthy spirit, and a belief in that kind of thing, is a useful tool when tackling a work as spiritually engrossing as MIDNIGHT’S CHILDREN. The 1981 novel written by Salman Rushdie, long before he became the controversial figure we know him as today, juxtaposes the birth of a child with the birth of India’s independence in 1947. The book, which not only won the Booker Prize in the year of its release but the Best of the Booker Prize on both the 25th and 40th anniversary of the award, has been called unfilmable. That would not deter Mehta in the least from making it but she has no idea how it will be received.
“It might be really well received; it might be really trashed. It might become controversial; it might not. There is no formula to predict how any of this will do,” Mehta explains of her thoughts on the finished product. She then goes into a story about her father that endeared her even more to me.
|Mehta, at the Canadian premiere of MIDNIGHT’S CHILDREN in Toronto.|
“My father was a film distributor in India so I grew up with movies,” she begins candidly. “He said, ‘Remember this always. There are two things in life you will never know about. One, is when you’re going to die. And the other is how a film is going to do.’” We pause for a brief but necessary chuckle at this revelation. Then Mehta concludes, “There is no formula to predict how any of this will do. My dad is right. In a way, you can’t totally give up your expectations. I haven’t been able to give them up 100% but its more realistic to leave it to the powers that be.”
Mehta had wanted to work with Rushdie for some time but MIDNIGHT’S CHILDREN was not her first choice to tackle. To hear her tell how it came to be though, it seems almost fated. “I don’t know know what made me ask him, ‘Who has the rights to Midnight’s Children?’ I’ve always loved the book; I read it many years ago. It wasn’t a well thought out question. It was purely organic, purely instinctive.”
She may not have known quite what she was getting herself into at first but Mehta is very happy that it came to be in this particular fashion. “I’m glad I hadn’t thought it out because if it was premeditated, I might have been too scared. It is an epic; it is 60 years of post-colonial history. It is the parallel of a coming of age of a young man and the coming of age of a country. Sometimes it’s good to just jump off the deep end.”
|MIDNIGHT’S CHILDREN stars, Satya Bhabba and Shriya Saran|
Regardless of how far Mehta far would have to jump, there was no way she was going to miss out on the opportunity to work with Rushdie, a man she had admired for years. “It was one of the finest experiences of my life, a very interesting collaboration,” Mehta describes, in what is the closest I can see this composed woman getting to gushing. “Salman, as we all know, has a great mind. He is pretty brilliant. But also, he has a great sense of humour and he is very honest. So if something is not working, you can just explain to him why you think something isn’t working. There is no matter of ego.”
Mehta insisted that Rushdie write the screenplay, something he had never done before. And so he was tasked with pairing down an 800-page opus to a 130-page script.
“The reason I wanted him to do it and he agreed to do it is because only he could be the one who could be disrespectful to his work. It is an iconic novel; it’s the Booker of the Bookers! So, when there are aspects of the story that aren’t working in the movie, only he has the absolute authority to chuck them away.”
|Mehta on set with young Saleem, Darsheel Safari|
Rushdie’s final script focuses on Saleem Sinai (played as an adult by Satya Bhabba, whom most people would recognize from SCOTT PILGRIM VS THE WORLD), as he struggles to find his place in not only his family, but his country as well. With so much history to overwhelm the viewer, Mehta knew that Saleem’s character was the key to the success of MIDNIGHT’S CHILDREN all along. “I really wanted to focus on the life of Saleem, who is a whimsical character. We balanced what was happening to him with what was happening to India at the same time. The emotional journey is not the emotional journey of a country, but it’s the emotional journey of a person. We feel emotional about what happens to a human being, not necessarily what happens to a country.”
Not that concentrating her efforts on Saleem was necessarily any easier than painting more broadly. “Once I focused on Saleem and stayed with him, the rest became easy. In fact, it was the particular Saleem, as opposed to the universal, which was much more difficult. I mean, the big scenes are a cinch. You have a lot of extras but you get good assistant directors for that. Yes, it’s overwhelming but it’s those intimate scenes that are tough. Those are challenging and they are very, very satisfying. That’s where performance comes in and you know there is truth.”
|Mehta and Rushdie celebrating the film’s success|
MIDNIGHT’S CHILDREN is Mehta’s ninth feature film and her most ambitious project by far. The film is now playing in Canada, the country she calls home after moving here in 1973. In fact, the film also has Indian distribution secured, with a release expected later in the year. We already know that she is leaving the film’s reception to fate but before we conclude our time together, Mehta reminisces one last time at how she had to prepare for this enormous undertaking.
“Somebody asked me once how I prepared for this film and I said I joined a gym. I just looked at the script and said I had better get my act together. I got a trainer and everything. You really need that stamina to survive that kind of thing, getting up in the morning and you know you’re going to work a 14-hour day. It’s not just your wits but it’s how long can you stand on your feet.”
Apparently this lady is not only cool but hysterical too.