Newly minted filmmakers are often warned to steer clear of projects that involve children, animals, or water. But that list omits what may be the most potentially lethal directorial hazard of all: a film based on an iconic book adapted by the literary lion who wrote it. But Deepa Mehta remained undaunted by the prospect of bringing Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children to the big screen, despite the fact that it was wallpapered with all the above warning signs.
In fact, Mehta, an Indo-Canadian filmmaker best known for her acclaimed Elements Trilogy (“Fire,” “Earth” and “Water”), actively embraced all of these high-risk factors and specifically sought out the most formidable of them when she convinced a reluctant Rushdie to write a script based on his 1981 Booker Prizewinning novel. She finally convinced him to tackle the project arguing that only he had the power to be "disrespectful" enough to condense his sprawling coming-of-age story about a boy’s search for identity and India’s quest for independence. She even managed to persuade the novelist to provide the film’s voiceover.
Their collaboration ultimately yielded a sweeping, multi-generational politicized war epic that maintains the emotional intimacy (and Crayola color scheme) of Mehta’s previous work. With "Midnight’s Children" due to begin rolingl out nationwide on May 3, Signature spoke with Mehta about working with Rushdie, the inspirations behind the magic sequences (hint: it’s not “Harry Potter”), and why she’ll never adapt One Hundred Years of Solitude.
Signature: What was your emotional connection to Midnight’s Children?
Deepa Mehta: I read the book in 1983 and it was a book that always resonated with me. It became one of the books that resonates forever, along with One Hundred Years of Solitude. They both really touched me somewhere. Saleem’s story about living in exile, finding a family, and finding an identity really spoke to me. Also, I really love the female characters. They’re very strong. All of them. They represent different aspects of women – the strong matriarch; the politician; the lover; the witch; the mother who actually says to the father, 'Love is not born, it’s made.'
SIG: It was a different angle on how you’ve dealt with women in your other films, which have been focused on the plight of women in India. This was centered around a male protagonist surrounded by a matriarchy who has so much power within the home and less power outside the home.
DM: Absolutely. Exploring women through the male lead was a first for me. And it in no way lessened their impact and that to me was very interesting and challenging. They made him whole.
SIG: Was that something you and Salman Rushdie discussed while working on the adaptation?
DM: No. It happened when I started production. I remember Salman saying he had strong females in his own family. So it was in the script anyways. But once I started rehearsing and got to the set and began working with the women and interacting with them, it became a whole different thing.
SIG: The visuals, music, and color scheme have always been such important elements in all your films. When and how did you figure out those aspects of this film?
DM: It usually happens when I get the script. Salman and I had a really good working relationship. And I must say that he did not want to write the script at all. I had to really convince him. He’d say, ‘I really don’t want to do it, I think you should do it.' And I said, ‘I think the way you can be disrespectful to your own work, particularly Midnight’s Children, someone else would have a really difficult time doing that.’ And he got that. So once he understood why it was important to write it, it really worked well. And one thing I suggested was, ‘Let’s go our separate ways and come back in two weeks' time and write what we think is the narrative of the film and then we’ll exchange our ideas.’ So we came back after two weeks with pieces of paper with what would be included and excluded. And they were more or less identical. So then I knew we could work together. Because otherwise it would have been very difficult. And he was very relieved too. Because obviously it’s such an iconic book and it would have been very difficult if he’d given it up to someone who had a totally different take on it than him.
SIG: What was that take?
DM: It was to follow Saleem’s story. Where did Saleem come from and where did he go to? If we followed the personal story, then the bigger story – India finding its identity, India finding its place in the world – would become the canvas and Saleem would be the character in front and the driving force. He’s not a macho guy. There’s a sweetness and vulnerability and he’s someone in exile and deeply hurt and trying to find his place in the world. India had to reflect that as well. Then when I got the final draft from Salman, I put it away for a couple of weeks. This happens with every film. I read it and I try and understand or vocalize what the color palate of the film is. I put on my director's hat and I start thinking in colors. I go to the corner store and get some crayons and determine the color palate. I felt very strongly that the color palate of this film would be a deep red, a royal blue, and a deep green. Red was for passion, the blue to portend the darkness that had to come, and the green for fertility and hope. So if you look at any frame of the film, one of these colors will always be dominant.
SIG: Was it hard to apply that intimate approach to a movie that turns into what’s essentially a war epic?
DM: Everything starts out very intimate and you take that and say that’s what the foundation is going to be. Whether you build a hut or you build a palace.
SIG: Do you have music in your head while you’re shooting?
DM: I knew who the composer was going to be and I gave him a draft of the script before we even shot one frame of the film. And in this case it was Nitin Sawhney, who lives in England. I’d sent him a few songs I’d heard from the ‘50s so we could start a dialogue. I also wanted something Indian semi-classical. I asked him what he feels the emotional center of the scene is. I know what it is for me but I want to know we’re in the same ballpark.
SIG: Can we go back to why you were so dead set on having Salman write the script and what you meant when you said, he could ‘disrespect’ his own material?
DM: He could be rough with it. He has a distance from it having written the book twenty years ago. But he also understands cinema very well. He really is a movie buff. He knows about cinema, writes about cinema. A lot of Midnight’s Children is written through the lens of a movie. He was an actor in Cambridge. He understands that a film is not a facsimile of a book and is a totally different genre. He’s not tied to it so emotionally. If someone else would have written it, it would have been difficult to say, 'Okay we will not have these ten chapters. We cannot have these five characters.' It’s a bit tough to say that to Salman Rushdie, I’d imagine.
SIG: So he wasn’t attached to keeping it a literal adaptation?
DM: Not at all. That’s why I think he’s totally amazing. Because he understands it’s a totally different genre.
SIG: What do you mean when you say the book was written through the lens of cinema? What were the references?
DM: There were so many areas of the book where he says, 'No, there’s a tight shot and now it’s a close-up.' He talks like that. The scene where young Saleem sees his mother in a restaurant kissing through the window, that’s how it was described in the book. It’s almost like through the lens of a camera.
SIG: It’s like an old French movie.
DM: You’re so right. He was channeling Godard.
SIG: How did you end up having him narrate the film?
DM: He really didn’t want to do that either. We didn’t have a narration in the script at all. But I felt there was something missing. I really missed the language of the book. Because in a film you show rather than talk about it. But one of the main strengths of Midnight’s Children was Salman’s use of language. So I spoke to him about it and he agreed. I asked him to put in a narration with all that lovely language. So he wrote it and I tried a few actors and they just didn’t work. So one morning I had this bright idea that maybe Salman should try it. He’s acted before and he’s got a lovely voice. And there’s a lot of Salman in Saleem. So I called him up and he said, ‘Absolutely not! I will never do it. All the actors are so great and I don’t want to be the weakest link.’ And I said, ‘You will not be the weakest link, I promise you. If you’re bad we will not use you.’ So he said, ‘Okay. I reserve the right to fire myself.’
SIG: What were your creative touchstones?
DM: I really wanted to capture the classical look of the films from the ‘60s and early ‘70s. I was particularly thinking of Visconti’s "The Leopard" because it’s extremely political and it’s also about a family and very contained. The other film that was really helpful was a film by Emir Kusturica called "Time of the Gypsies."
SIG: How did you decide on your approach to the magic realism?
DM: I always knew I wanted it rooted in reality as opposed to something like “X-Men” or “Harry Potter.”
SIG: What other books have had a profound impact on you besides this and One Hundred Years of Solitude?
DM: I like Atonement very much. And there’s a book I read about a week ago which moved me profoundly; it’s called Wave and it’s about the tsunami that hit the south coast of Sri Lanka. It’s such a beautiful memoir. It’s not sentimental. It’s so pure.
SIG: Would you consider adapting it?
DM: Oh no. There are some books you shouldn’t touch and this one is so personal. I think would almost be sacrilege.
SIG: Would you consider making One Hundred Years of Solitude?
DM: Oh, no! Definitely not. If someone would do it I think it should be someone from that part of the world.