New Delhi: While authors and book lovers from around the world gathered in Rajasthan to attend the first day of the Jaipur Literature Festival, author Salman Rushdie and Toronto-based film director Deepa Mehta spoke in an interview in Delhi about the forthcoming film adaptation of Rushdie’s novel Midnight’s Children , which releases in India on 1 February. Rushdie has written the screenplay himself.
Last year’s Jaipur festival was marred by the controversy generated over Rushdie’s planned visit, which eventually had to be called off owing to the threats and protests. This time around though, his visit to India doesn’t seem to have raised too many hackles. Edited excerpts:
Life seems normal now. You are in India, you are visiting Delhi, you are being handled by PR guys and you are giving joint interviews with Deepa Mehta to promote your film, just like any other…
Rushdie: Oh yes, I’m now just like any other person.
The other day, you went to the ‘Hindustan Times’ office to talk about the film to journalists. You were following the footsteps of actors Akshay Kumar and Shah Rukh Khan who drop in there each time a new movie of theirs is on the verge of release.
Rushdie: Exactly! I felt like walking in the shoes of Shah Rukh Khan.
Mehta: I think he’s being ironic.
Why did you pick Deepa Mehta (to direct the film adaptation)?
Mehta: It was instinctive.
Rushdie: She had great passion for this book. We also get on very well together. I was in Toronto a few years ago for a book tour. I had a night off so I went to her place for dinner, and from nowhere she asked me who had the film rights for Midnight. I said I have the right, and she asked if she could make a movie out of it. It was literally two sentences. Both of us made an instinctive leap of faith, but, of course, it was based on knowing each other and valuing each other’s works.
How much of Salman Rushdie is there in Deepa’s Mehta’s Midnight’s Children?
Mehta: The film is not a facsimile of the novel; it would have been six hours long. But it has got Salman’s essence.
Rushdie: It is her film.
Mehta: The film belongs to both of us. During the first few weeks into the shoot, I would occasionally ask him, “Salman, this line is not working. Can you change it?” Finally, he said, “Just do whatever you have to do. You can do it.”
Would he come to the sets?
Mehta: No, and he never interfered. Salman is really bright…but I should not say that. We don’t want him to get a swollen air. By the way, I also love some of Salman’s non-fiction. Imaginary Homelands is superb.
Rushdie: But it cannot be a movie.
Mehta: Oh, I also love Anton. I mean, I loved reading Joseph Anton.
Rushdie: There has been some interest by a couple of production companies in adapting it into a film. There isn’t a deal yet. We will see.
Who will play Rushdie?
Rushdie: Who should play me?
What’s your fantasy?
Rushdie: I have no fantasy. I have no idea.
Mehta: Pankaj Kapur is the most brilliant actor alive in this country. He should play the older you…but there is no older you in the book!
Rushdie: I’m not very up on Hindi cinema, I have to say. We saw clips of many movies when we were casting for the film…to look at the actors. I saw that kid…Darsheel (Safary) in Taare Zameen Par and was very interested in him immediately because I knew we needed a very exceptional child actor. And I think he was that. In Taare…he had his teeth all over the place, but fortunately the braces came off in time for him to do this film. Otherwise we probably couldn’t have used him with those bad teeth.
Is there any Indian filmmaker who inspired your writing?
Rushdie: There is (Satyajit) Ray. Each time I’m asked about the best film ever made, I always place Pather Panchali above Citizen Kane. After he passed away, I visited Calcutta to meet his family. They showed me his incredible workbooks in which he would write the script on the right side and drew images on how a scene had to be staged on the left. I actually held the work notebook of Pather Panchali in my hands. It was an extraordinary experience. Pather Panchali is one of the great portraits of childhood. And after all, Midnight is also a story about childhood.
According to reports, you cried after watching Midnight for the first time.
Rushdie: You must understand that we had a year in the cutting room and the film came together by stages. There arrived a moment, pretty close to the final, final cut, when everything seemed to go “click”, and you knew that here was the film.
Mehta: But he wasn’t bawling. His tears were discreet.
Rushdie: There was a lump in my throat for sure.
While being driven through Delhi’s traffic, what did you make of the city?
Rushdie: My father’s family was from Old Delhi. They lived in Ballimaran mohalla, in the same street where Ghalib’s haveli is situated. But my parents moved to Bombay before I was born. Sometimes, my father would take me to Delhi on his business trips. We would stay at Marina Hotel in Connaught Place. But it is Bombay…even though it has expanded enormously and there are parts of the city in which I cannot make my way…I still feel a connection to it.
Any other Rushdie novel you may like to turn into a movie?
Mehta: Shalimar the Clown is a meeting of two worlds. It’s about America and Kashmir. The novel is political, smart and has complex characters. It has a love story.
Rushdie: It also has a murder.
I purchased this book a few weeks ago from a second-hand bookstall near Jama Masjid (a hardbound, first edition of ‘The Satanic Verses’).
Rushdie: Satanic Verses in Jama Masjid. Perfect.
The man—he was a Muslim—charged me more than is usual. He said that the book is pricey because it has excessive sex in it.
Rushdie: Absolutely, completely. This novel is full of sex.
(Both start laughing.)