“Most of what matters in our lives takes place in our absence.” So says Saleem Sinai, the protagonist of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. Similar to Saleem, my journey towards midnight started well before we started working on the Midnight’s Children screenplay. The work I have done and choices I have embraced all led me to this film.
When I emigrated from India to Canada, I became a part of what I now recognize as the culture of the Diaspora. We Indians are a sentimental lot, generally accused of having overactive imaginations, a trait that drives my Canadian-born daughter crazy. Indian immigrants insist on viewing the motherland largely through their memories and imagination. Nostalgia and curiosity led me to write the screenplay of the film Fire (1996) on my kitchen table in Toronto. Set in contemporary Delhi, a city I grew up in, Fire explores the fallout of a choice two women make in regards to their sexuality.
When the film was released, all hell broke loose in India, an outcome that left me totally bewildered. The response from the “real” India, as opposed to the India of my imagination, caught me completely by surprise. Movie halls were trashed, the film was banned and the government of India described it as an affront to Indian culture and a total fabrication, as there were no lesbians in India. I had hurt the “sentiments” of the Indian people. Despite the heartache caused by this reaction, I learned valuable lessons that prepared me for Midnight’s Children.
Number one: All art by its very nature is political. It is not the artist’s responsibility to create a product that is ideologically aligned with the current politics of their country. Secondly, I learned to despise the word “controversial.” This was the beginning of a long personal battle of living with the demeaning and extremely bizarre brand of being perceived as a controversial filmmaker, a term that ensured that my work will be judged based on perceptions of me being outrageous and offensive, rather than on its content.
No movie halls were burned next during the release of my next film, Earth (1998), despite its potentially incendiary subject of Hindus and Muslims, Pakistan and India and interracial love. Bapsi Sidhwa’s harrowing book told the story of the Pakistan partition from the perspective of a young girl. This was the first time I worked with children, and my first time adapting a novel and collaborating with the author on the subject of sectarian war, which also prepared me to work on Midnight’s Children. Interpreting Bapsi’s characters made me grow as a director. I learned how to talk to children rather than to talk down to them, a valuable lesson. And if that wasn’t enough, Bapsi taught me a mean way to make fish curry and boil perfect basmati rice. I’d like to note that Salman to date has shown me no such culinary skills.
Years earlier, I sat on the ghats of Benares and the banks of Ganges River, prepping for an episode of Young Indiana Jones (yes, you heard right). It is there that I learned about Hindu widows, who were left to lead the most dismal lives possible. Water (2005), which I started after finishing Earth, was the third film in the Elemental Trilogy, based on a script about these Hindu widows. Nothing had prepared me for the backlash. The burning of movie halls in protest of Fire seemed like child’s play in comparison.
As is mandatory, the Indian government had approved the script. Yet two days into the filming, we had to stop the shoot. Right-wing political groups disrupted the filming by shouting slogans, throwing the film sets into the Ganges, burning my effigy and stoning us. The police, meant for our protection, watched the mayhem with general amusement. I remember the perfect smoke circle that one cop blew onto my face as he said, “Madam, India is a democracy. People can do what they wish.” The mob screamed that the film was anti-Hindu. The politicos said Water was blasphemous and offended Hindu culture, a missile from the West aimed at the heart of the Indian nation. Hindu widows, they cried, were treated with utmost respect. Their mistreatment came from my corrupt imagination, from Deepa, a pawn of the West. The film was shut down.
Five years later, we completed Water in Sri Lanka under the radar, using the silliest pseudonym we could think of: River Moon, which is not nearly as bad as the pseudonym we had for Midnight’s Children when we filmed it in Sri Lanka. We called it Winds of Change. Salman was not amused.
The Water debacle resulted in me becoming, as Saleem Sinai says, “Tougher, stronger and not so sentimental.” My relationship with India changed drastically. The rose-colored glasses were off. I still loved India and its people, in fact more so, now that I could see past the nostalgia. India’s flaws made it more vulnerable and real, less of a tourist poster or a Bollywood number or a yoga ashram.
Salman saw Water in New York City, liked it and gave a quote for the poster. I was thrilled and so were the distributors (except in Kuwait, when they took one look at the poster and banned the film). We became friends and often talked about working together. During a dinner conversation, I told him I would really like to make Midnight’s Children into a film. His immediate response was, simply: “Done.” It really was as easy as that. He sold David Hamilton, the producer of Fire, Earth and Water and now Midnight’s Children, the option to the book for $1.
Why Midnight’s Children? Well, maybe because I am a sucker for punishment. Water was just a lark, compared to financing such an epic. The expectations from its fans would be huge, and to fulfill them might endanger its cinematic experience, by making it too literary. But I love Saleem’s journey, which is intertwined with that of independent India. The sweep of the story—its humor, its magical realism, its characters—all held an uncanny attraction for me. Nothing mystical, but when I read the novel, I know it, I can see it, I can feel it.
Fire, Earth, Water and Heaven on Earth (2008) all in their own way made it possible for me to take on the task of directing Midnight’s Children. If one film gave me courage, another forced me to explore my own limitations. But all of them reinforced in me the reason I make films. I have an insatiable curiosity about the world, whether it be exploring magical realism or figuring out where the hell to put the camera when I do a Bollywood number.
Deepa Mehta’s nine feature films include Water, nominated for an Academy Award for best foreign language film.
Sri Lanka, 2012, 149m
Director: Deepa Mehta
Adapted from the novel by: Salman Rushdie
Starring: Satya Bhabha