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Epic in scale and spanning 60 years of Indian history, Salman Rushdie’s Booker Prize-winning novel, “Midnight’s Children,” was once called unfilmable by literary critics. Oscar-nominated director Deepa Mehta has never bought into that theory.
“Even with all its characters and grand themes, I could see this story as a film in my head. I never felt it was impossible to make into a movie, but it was a challenge — by far the biggest challenge of my career,” Mehta told WWD at the Toronto International Film Festival. In theatres today, Mehta’s sprawling yet faithful adaptation of Rushdie’s 1981 saga tells the tale of two boys, one rich, one poor, born at the exact moment in 1947 when India gained its independence from the British Empire. In a twist worthy of Shakespeare, the infants are switched at birth by a maternity nurse — an action that results in many tragic ironies, particularly in the life of protagonist Saleem Sinai (played by Satya Bhabha). Yet both babies, along with other children born at this precise moment in India’s history, arrive on earth possessing telepathic powers. Hero Saleem later uses these gifts as he matures to unite India’s chosen children and help them discover the true meaning behind their powers.
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“When I first read Salman’s book in 1982, I remember feeling this sense of complete wonderment,” said Mehta, 63.
“Fantastical though they were, I knew these characters he had created. They were just like aunts, uncles and other people I knew back in India. That’s why I wasn’t scared off by the book’s scale or surreal magic,” Mehta explained.
Instead, the Indian-born filmmaker focused on Rushdie’s message about family and the idea that the families we choose can be stronger than those we are born into.
“Family and hope are everything in this story. That’s what makes this exotic tale relevant in today’s world,” said Mehta.
To date Mehta is best known for her Elements trilogy: “Earth” (1996), “Fire” (1998) and 2005’s Oscar-nominated drama “Water,” which told the story of an eight-year-old child widow in India forced to enter a house of widows for the rest of her life. As in those films, “Midnight’s Children” overflows with the painterly details and lush cinematography that have become the hallmarks of Mehta’s career. “Midnight’s Children” also features a screenplay and narration by Rushdie, who signed on in 2008 to adapt what is widely regarded as the book that made his literary reputation.
“We were having dinner together one night and I blurted out ‘Who has the film rights to ‘Midnight’s Children?’ It wasn’t planned. I just asked and Salman agreed,” said Mehta. Rushdie spent two years turning his 600-page book into a 130-page script. The final result delivers a fascinating look at India’s transition from British colonialism to independence. Rushdie’s script is also bolstered by a strong cast including Bhabha as Saleem and Siddharth Narayan as Shiva, the other character switched at birth. Shot in Sri Lanka in 2011, “Midnight’s Children” was filmed under the alias of “Winds of Change” to avoid any protests by fundamentalist groups and the production delays they might trigger.
Over the years, Mehta and Rushdie have both had run-ins with fundamentalists. While attempting to film “Water” in India in 2000, Mehta received death threats and saw effigies of herself burnt in the streets by angry crowds. Hindu protesters also destroyed the film’s sets and harassed Mehta’s crew. As a result, filming was relocated to Sri Lanka in 2003. Rushdie, too, was surrounded by one of the most notorious controversies in literary history, in 1988, with the publication of his fourth novel, “The Satanic Verses.” The work inspired book burnings and protests from Muslims around the world and the fatwa calling for Rushdie’s death issued by Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989 that sent the author into seclusion for several years.
“The Iranian government did make a complaint to Sri Lanka, so we couldn’t shoot for two days. But that was it for political setbacks,” Mehta said. The Toronto-based filmmaker also prepared diligently for the physical challenge of shooting 70 days of footage — twice her usual load — in 64 locations.
“The first thing I did was get a trainer and get in shape. Then I stopped smoking,” Mehta grinned as she reminisced about the live cobras, tanks, bombers and myriad of stunts crammed into the film. “You can’t shoot a mammoth story like this and work 18 hours a day if you’re not physically prepared.”