'Midnight's Children' - a very collaborative affair: Salman Rushdie
Celebrated writer Salman Rushdie is all over the film version of his acclaimed novel "Midnight's Children"
He has himself done the screenplay and also serves as the film's all-knowing narrator.
Yet he says it's Indo-Canadian director Deepa Mehta's film. She "absolutely" took over once the script was done, Rushdie told IANS in an interview on phone from New York, where both he and Mehta were for the special kickoff screening of the film in conjunction with the New York Indian Film Festival.
"A film can be only one person's film and not two," he said. But they talked often on the telephone during the shoot. He went to Mumbai to help with casting, and from Sri Lanka, where much of the shooting took place, Mehta sent him pictures every day, and he talked with the actors over Skype.
Though the book is set in India and Pakistan, they chose to shoot in Sri Lanka as the cities depicted have changed beyond recognition. In many ways, Colombo made a better Mumbai than the real city does as more of the century-old architecture has survived there, Rushdie said.
But some scenes were shot at the Dal Lake in Kashmir, Mumbai, Karachi and Agra too. "How else can you show a man cycling past the Taj Mahal if not shoot in Agra?" he asked.
The allegorical tale on the partition of India told through mysteriously intertwined lives of two babies switched at birth as India attains freedom at midnight on Aug 15, 1947 will be released in the US beginning with New York on April 26.
It will be followed by Los Angeles and Washington DC (May 3), Boston, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Dallas, Phoenix, Seattle, and Portland (May 10), and San Francisco Bay Area, Denver, Minneapolis, and Memphis and (May 17).
Rushdie said at first he was hesitant about doing the screenplay adaptation himself as "I am a novelist and not a professional screen writer".
But Deepa was very persuasive and convinced him to do it as she feared no one else could do it justice given its almost intimidating pedigree - having won both the Booker of Bookers and the Best of the Bookers. In the end he was glad that he did it.
Screenplay writing was a very collaborative affair. First both Mehta and Rushdie made separate lists of what to keep and what to discard from the novel with a staggering scope, from 1917 to 1974, and 62 locations from Karachi to Kashmir to Old Delhi to Bombay.
"In the end we found how identical our lists were," said Rushdie describing Mehta as the "perfect" director to take his book to film. "It was Deepa's passion for the book that attracted me, as well, of course, as my admiration for her work."
The actual writing too was a "very back and forth" process. "I would write a draft and send it to her. She would comment on it and I would write back," he said.
Turning a 446-page novel into a 130-page screenplay was "an immense challenge," he said. But since he was looking at it after more than 30 years, he could do it more dispassionately.
"The problem was, so to speak, how to find the movie inside the book, while preserving the essence - the heart and soul - of the book," he said. "Maybe I could be more disrespectful to the original than anyone else!"
The idea for Rushdie to also do the narration/voiceover for "Midnight's Children" was also entirely Mehta's. First, they did not want to have any narration, but then found it necessary to string it together given its range and scope.
"We tried a couple of professional actors at first, but were not satisfied. So finally Mehta asked me to try it."
So what's Rushdie's verdict on the finished product? "Well, I am very biased. But I think it's good," he said looking at the response to the film at the Toronto, Vancouver and the BFI London film festivals.
Luckily they did not have any run in with the Indian censors over the depiction of the 1975 emergency or any other issue. "They passed it without a single cut. They had, in fact, called a historian, who said it depicted an accurate picture of an unfortunate phase of Indian history."
"You may disagree with one's interpretation, but you are entitled to it," they said. "But then the problem with the Indian censors is, they are so unpredictable," said Rushdie referring to the issues faced by Kamal Haasan's spy thriller "Vishwaroopam."
It was indeed true that he gave away the film rights of "Midnight's Children" to Mehta for just one dollar! It makes an interesting story, but it's not unusual for independent filmmakers, who find it hard to raise money, to sign up someone with a token amount and then pay them later, said Rushdie.
"It's more like a handshake," he said though he for one was yet to be paid.
Rushdie is currently developing a TV serial for Showtime called "Next People" - a kind of "paranoid science-fiction series, people disappearing and being replaced by other people."
"There is a pilot I wrote for Showtime. They were happy about it. But we are still awaiting that little green light!"
So which one of his works would one see on the big screen next? "Right now there's a project to make a film of my memoir 'Joseph Anton,' but I am absolutely not planning to write the screenplay" because unlike "Midnight's Children" he was too close to it.
"If we are lucky, if it goes really fast then it may be ready at some point next year. But it may take longer, I don't know," said Rushdie.