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An Epic Of India Gets A Canvas Its Own Size
Originally published on Thu May 9, 2013 6:54 am
In the 1970s, Salman Rushdie was an unknown writer living in London. He decided to return to the country of his birth and rough it across India on what he describes as "extraordinarily long 15-hour bus rides with chickens vomiting on our feet."
That trip inspired Midnight's Children, the Booker Prize-winning novel that many consider Rushdie's literary masterpiece. Now, more than 30 years after it was published, Midnight's Children arrives on the big screen in a glittering film adaptation from Oscar-nominated director Deepa Mehta.
The film charts the story of Saleem Sinai, a young man born precisely at the stroke of midnight on Aug. 14, 1947 — the moment India and Pakistan came into the world, dividing a former colony into two nations free from British rule. In Rushdie's words, Saleem Sinai's life is "handcuffed to history"; and the novel explores his tumultuous journey across decades as characters' lives tumble and rise alongside their nations.
"That is one of the great classic subjects of literature," Rushdie notes. "What does history do to the individual, and what can the individual do to history? Can we change the world we live in, or are we simply tossed and turned on the storms of history?"
Anupama Rao teaches that subject at Barnard College, and she says Rushdie's writing "opened up South Asia to a number of people who hadn't thought about that region as having indeed this kind of extremely complex history but I think also this complex culture."
Rushdie also complicated the idea of the English-language novel, infusing his pages with Hindi words and stewing the narrative in magic realism. Indian-born filmmaker Mehta says she still remembers the high she felt as she turned the last page of a novel that seemed to capture her generation's story.
"That's what happens when you read a book and it moves you, or it infuses you with some kind of enthusiasm," Mehta says. "You glow internally, because you feel you've sort of imbibed something that's mind-blowing."
Mehta lives in Canada now, and her films often explore the complexity of South Asian history and society. She says Midnight's Children has remained an inspirational work for her, not least in how seamlessly it marries the historical with the personal.
Three years ago she hosted Rushdie, who's a friend, at a dinner in Toronto. When the conversation turned to film rights, she was shocked to discover that he was open to selling her the rights to his most acclaimed novel for as little as $1.
A Screenwriter With Just Enough Disrespect For The Material
"I've always responded very much to passion, and it was really Deepa's passion for the subject that made me feel that OK, maybe we could have a go at this again," says Rushdie, who'd written an ill-fated televised adaptation for the BBC years before. "It wasn't just that this was a book that she wanted as a job to make a film of; I thought that the book had come to mean a lot to her, and she would make a personal film."
Mehta knew it wouldn't be easy to condense and visualize a 500-page novel that spans three wars, charts the lives of dozens of characters and covers decades of tumultuous history. So she asked Rushdie to personally adapt and edit the novel for the screen.
"He really didn't want to write the screenplay," Mehta says. "I had to absolutely twist his arm — literally — to say he must write it, because I knew very early on that ... he could be sort of ... disrespectful, let's say, to his work [as] few other screenwriters could be."
Beyond the script, Mehta had to re-imagine Rushdie's storytelling moods for the screen. She commissioned the British-Indian composer Nitin Sawhney to write original, semiclassical Indian music for the score. She focused on the novel's language in visual terms — as sets, costumes and colors.
"For me it's always been, 'What emotional color does this script evoke?' And I felt there was really a lot of red, green and blue ... fertility, blood and darkness."
A Shared History, And A Similar Distance From Home
A dark, complex trilogy of earlier films about India — Fire in 1996, Earth in 1998 and Water in 2005 — earned Mehta international acclaim. Two of those films were also condemned and attacked by Hindu fundamentalists, who burned down sets and cinemas showing her films. Rushdie's own legacy is likewise tied forever to extremism, courtesy of the fatwa of 1989, when Muslim fundamentalists threatened his life and forced him into years of hiding. But Mehta says that in their collaboration on Midnight's Children, they didn't dwell on that shared past.
"Maybe because we've both been through it," she muses. "We never spoke about it because it's such a drag, it's such a downer. ... Why do you want to share in such misery?"
Today both writer and filmmaker live outside India, and say that distance helped them return to the novel and objectively look back at that time in history.
"Objectivity for me, or stepping out of the frame for me, has meant to me that I can look at something that is really important — like India, the place of my birth and the place where I grew up ... with a certain amount of distance," Mehta says. "So it's not being handcuffed to history as much as having the opportunity to take off the rose-colored glasses."
Midnight's Children was released in India earlier this year, and both Mehta and Rushdie went back to unveil the film. And for Rushdie, who started that journey as a young, unknown writer backpacking across India, the premiere in his hometown was especially poignant.
"There I was, this boy from Mumbai, which is after all the great movie city of India ... growing up to write a novel which took its inspiration from the spirit of that city," he says. "My being able to bring it back to the city as a film, it did feel like an act of closure. It felt like bringing a big circle back to its starting point."
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
A decade before Salman Rushdie's novel "The Satanic Verses" was denounced by Muslim fundamentalists, he wrote a book that many consider his literary masterpiece, "Midnight's Children." It imagined the lives of those who were born at midnight on August 14th, 1947, as Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru announced the end of British rule.
JAWAHARLAL NEHRU: At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom.
GREENE: Now, three decades after "Midnight's Children" was first published, it has been turned into a film.
NPR's Bilal Qureshi has the story of the collaboration between a filmmaker and an author.
BILAL QURESHI, BYLINE: In the mid 1970s, Salman Rushdie and his girlfriend went backpacking through India.
SALMAN RUSHDIE: We lived in very cheap, kind of, flop houses and traveled around the country, on extraordinarily long 15-hour bus rides with chickens vomiting on our feet.
QURESHI: Rushdie was in his 20's, living in London and reconnecting with India for the novel that became "Midnight's Children."
Filmmaker Deepa Mehta still remembers the high she felt when she turned the last page.
DEEPA MEHTA: You know, that's what happens when you read a book and it moves you or it infuses you with some kind of enthusiasm. Or you glow, internally, because you feel you've sort of imbibed something that's mind-blowing.
QURESHI: What was mind-blowing about "Midnight's Children" for so many readers around the world was the way that Salman Rushdie told the story of the bloody partitions and politics of modern India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.
Anupama Rao is a professor of history at Barnard College.
ANUPAMA RAO: It opened up South Asia to a number of people who hadn't thought about that region as having indeed this kind of extremely complex history, but I think, also, this complex culture.
QURESHI: Rushdie also complicated the idea of the English-language novel. He infused his pages with Hindi words and rhythms, stewed the story in magic realism; a story of a young man uprooted and forced to move across South Asia as it burns with change.
RUSHDIE: That is one of the great classic subjects of literature. I mean, you know, what does history do to the individual and what can the individual do to history? You know, can we change the world we live in? Or are we simply tossed and turned on the storms of history?
QURESHI: And according to Deepa Mehta, history is the perfect backdrop for this kind of story.
MEHTA: It's a search for a identity and, you know, I - the search for identity really needs some kind of historical anchor, as to where we came from, what happened to us, who are we.
QURESHI: Fast forward 30 years. Rushdie was on a book tour in Toronto where he met his friend Deepa Mehta for dinner. By the end of the evening, she'd convinced Rushdie to sell her the film rights to his most acclaimed book for just one dollar.
RUSHDIE: I've always responded very much to passion and it was really Deepa's passion for the subject that made me feel that, OK, may be we could have a go at this again. It wasn't just that this was a book that she wanted, you know, as a job to make a film of. I thought that the book had come to mean a lot to her and so she would make a personal film.
QURESHI: And Deepa Mehta says she wanted Rushdie to personally adapt the novel to the screen.
MEHTA: He really didn't want to write the screenplay. And I had to absolutely twist his arm, literally, because I knew very early on that they way he could be sort of disrespectful to his own work, few other screenplay writers would be.
QURESHI: She also convinced him to narrate.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "MIDNIGHT'S CHILDREN")
RUSHDIE: (as Narrator) I, Saleem Sinai, was mysteriously handcuffed to history. My destiny forever chained to my country's; and I couldn't eve wipe my own nose at the time.
QURESHI: "Midnight's Children" is told on a grand scale. Its two and a half hours long, spans seven decades, three wars and features a cast of hundreds.
RUSHDIE: There were bits of it that reminded me of films like "Doctor Zhivago." But also to switch from that to very closely observed intimate details of family life.
QURESHI: To bring that detail to screen, Mehta had to re-imagine Rushdie's words visually - as sets, costumes and in colors.
MEHTA: For me it's always been what emotional color does this script evoke. And I felt there was really a lot of red in the film and a lot of blue, and a lot of - should be - and green. And, you know, fertility, blood and darkness.
QURESHI: Deepa Mehta's dark and complex trilogy of films about India beginning with "Fire" in 1996 earned her international acclaim. Those films were also condemned and attacked by Hindu fundamentalists; cinemas were burned down, sets destroyed.
Salman Rushdie was of course famously a target of Muslim fundamentalists for years. But Mehta says they didn't dwell on that shared past.
MEHTA: May be because we've both been through it, we never spoke about it because it's such a drag, you know. And it's just such a downer. Why do you want to share in such misery?
QURESHI: Instead, they kept the mood light. They broke from shooting to celebrate the book's 30th birthday over Skype. And Rushdie still remembers the day he finally saw a finished cut in Toronto.
RUSHDIE: Deepa keeps telling me that I burst into tears...
RUSHDIE: Which I...
QURESHI: You don't remember the tears?
RUSHDIE: I remember a lump in my throat, yes. I think she may have slightly magic realist way exaggerated the amount of tears that there were.
QURESHI: Today, both the writer and the filmmaker live outside India. And they say that distance helped them return to the novel and objectively look back at that time in history.
MEHTA: Objectivity, for me, or stepping out of the frame for me, has meant, to me, that I can look at something that's really important - which is India, the place of my birth, the place where I grew up - and with a certain amount of distance. So it's not being handcuffed to history as much as, you know, having the opportunity to take off the rose colored glasses.
QURESHI: "Midnight's Children"' was released in India earlier this year and both Mehta and Rushdie went back for the opening. And for Salman Rushdie - who started that journey as a young, unknown writer backpacking across India - the premiere of "Midnight's Children" in his hometown was especially poignant.
RUSHDIE: There I was, this boy from Bombay - which is after all the great movie city of India - growing up to write a novel which took its inspiration, in large part, from the spirit of that city. And then eventually that novel being made into a film and my being able to bring it back to the city as a film, it did feel like an act of closure. It felt like bringing a big circle back to its starting point.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
QURESHI: And with this film version, "Midnight's Children" allows a new generation to see South Asia at its starting point, the stroke of midnight, 1947.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
QURESHI: Bilal Qureshi, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GREENE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
And I'm Steve Inskeep.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.