As one of those rare Canadian citizens with an Oscar nomination under her belt, Deepa Mehta has become one of the country’s most respected filmmakers. She initially nabbed attention for her controversial and critically acclaimed trilogy Fire, Earth, and Water, but has also slipped lighter comedic fare into her career like Bollywood/Hollywood. This year Mehta has returned with her biggest and possibly most unexpected project to date. The film is Midnight’s Children, a grand international adaptation Salman Rushdie’s famous novel.
The book was Rushdie’s love letter to India, the movie is Mehta’s. It’s a story about two children born on the stroke of midnight when India gained independence from Britain. A baby born to a wealthy family was swapped with a baby born to an impoverished family the story follows their twin journeys that mirror and intertwine with the tumultuous political climate of the India’s early days of independence. The children also share psychic powers, making the story a work of magic realism, and another thing to be added to Mehta’s repertoire. So, this is a strange, personal, and epic novel turned into a film that embodies all of those qualities as well.
We recently got a chance to chat with Mehta about the challenging production of her latest film and given that both her and Rushdie’s (who adapted his own book for the screenplay) names were on the call sheet, there was inevitably some controversy along the way.
Dork Shelf: When did you first read the book and did you instantly want to make a movie then or did that come later?
Deepa Mehta: I probably read the book before you were born. 1982. I wasn’t a filmmaker then so I didn’t think of it as a movie, but I loved it. I read the book as you would and thought it was stunning. I loved the story, I loved the style, I loved the way Salman merged the magic with the realism. It’s magic realism that’s more rooted in realism. It could be the imagination, it could be the potential. I remembered it for a long time and it’s the time of the book that you re-read. I think by the time I had asked Salman for the rights to it, I’d probably read it about four times over thirty years. I never thought of it as a film until about three years ago. Once I said, “Oh my god I can make this into a movie.” My relationship with the book changed entirely. But what I loved about it initially remains true. It’s about the search for family, the search for identity, the search for a home. Whether you read it as being about of a young man coming of age or a young country coming of age, the journey is the same.
DS: How was the relationship between you and Salman Rushdie while working on the script? Was it intimidating to give him notes about his own adaptation?
DM: When we decided to do it, I absolutely insisted that he write the screenplay. He didn’t want to write it, but I wanted him to write it. And the reason was two-fold; one is that he’s a good screenplay writer. He’d already done an adaptation for a TV mini-series that I read and thought was really good. It’s not easy to write a screenplay, it’s very different from a novel. And the other thing is that he loves movies. He’s a total cinema nut and therefore he’s very cinematic and can think in terms of showing as opposed to telling. When you adapt a book into a film you have to let go of many words of dialogue, because with a gesture you can say, “I agree with you” or “I love you.” You don’t have to say it. He understands that and has a healthy disrespect for his own words. Only he can have that. So once we both understood there was a reason to my madness and it wasn’t just to punish him, it became very easy. We had disagreements, but nothing that we couldn’t resolve. I was intimidated. He is Salman Rushdie, let’s get real here. But it went away very fast because he’s so generous. He’s not an egoist and he understands there’s only one director and he had respect for that, which was very good.
DS: How did you approach casting the film?
DM: I do my own casting, so not one brought them to me. Sometimes I find people from theater, sometimes from TV or film. Sometimes it’s just from speaking with people like you right now and I say, “have you ever thought of acting?” There are many people in the film who had never even thought of acting before. I found Satya Bhabha [who played the main character Saleem] in a play. I didn’t want someone who had the baggage of being associated with playing a certain role, which happens a lot especially in India. I wanted a fresh face because Saleem’s character is a very sweet man. He’s not a member of The Avengers or something. He’s just a nice guy who stumbles into the story. So I was looking for a combination of sweetness and vulnerability, which I think Satya really has.
DS: I wanted to get you to speak a little bit about the controversy of making the film. I understand that you had to shoot under a fake title and even then you were shut down?
DM: All these stories are the ones that catch attention. I wanted to keep a low profile with the film because obviously it’s based on a really beloved book. It’s not controversial. It’s not banned anywhere. It’s embraced everywhere. It’s a big seller in India. It was just about not attracting attention, like Water which also had a fake title while we were shooting. It isn’t because I’m scared, I just don’t want publicity. I want to make the movie first. I don’t want actors doing interviews. I just want to focus on the work. I don’t want expectations because they can never be fulfilled. Otherwise you have all these stories coming out during the making of a film that the film can’t live up to. So that’s the reason. But we were shut down for two or three days because some person in Iran complained, “Why is a Salmon Rushdie film being made in Sri Lanka?” So they said, “You can’t film for three days.” That’s a real drag, but I sort of knew it would be ok. We waited for the president of Sri Lanka to return who had given us permission to shoot. When he returned he said, “Nobody can bully us. We are our own country. The Iranians can go stuff it.” And we were back to work. So it wasn’t so bad. I took those three days and I really slept and relaxed. It was perfect.
DS: I had to ask you about the magic realism of the story and your approach. You kept it very subtle and I was wondering if you were apprehensive at all about how to depict those sequences?
DM: Not at all. I always knew that I wanted the magic realism. Salman Rushdie himself has said that when most people do magic realism, they forget about the realism part and just focus on the magic. I knew I didn’t want it to be like Harry Potter or X-Men. It’s not about superpowers or x-ray vision or that sort of stuff. It’s about potential. Magic is about potential and the imagination. So I wanted that to come from within. The kids had to feel real, but with the glow of hope. That was most important. Not the effects.
DS: I know you don’t like to storyboard, did that change at all when making a film on this scale?
DM: No. I think we did one storyboard, which was when I wanted to see Shiva coming out of a nuclear explosion. Because half of it had to be done with digital effects, that was the only time that I had to draw six panels of storyboards and I found it really boring (laughs). But they said it had to be done and so I did it.
DS: How did you feel working on a project of this scale? Something you’d like to do again?
DM: No, it isn’t really like that. I don’t do it. You know. I say, “This is the scene. We need lots of extras, ten armored cars, elephants and this and that.” Then you have assistant directors who are the ones who worry about all that. I wish I could take the credit, but I can’t.
DS: That must have brought some new challenges though.
DM: Absolutely. Every day. I’ve never worked with cobras before. I’ve never worked with so many animals before. I never worked with so many babies before. I’ve never worked with tanks before. It was the first time for many things. Scenes like the destruction of the ghetto; I’ve never done anything like that before. It was huge. There’s something really sad about building something that large. We really built a slum with our amazing production designer. You inhabit it with people and it becomes the place where so many special things happen in the movie. And then you have to destroy it. It becomes so personal that it’s almost real because its inhabited with those people and characters that you love and then it’s just bulldozed. So things like that are new experiences for me and I think I would stop making films if there weren’t new things to learn. It would get very boring (laughs).