Film Director Deepa Mehta talks to Momtaz Begum-Hossain about her new movie Midnight’s Children
It’s hard to believe a film adaptation of the Salman Rushdie Booker prize winning Midnight’s Children hasn’t already been made, maybe it’s because it was waiting for the right director at the right time? Canadian filmmaker Deepa Mehta (62) is the obvious choice. Loved by the Western audience as much as the Indians, whom her stories usually focus on, her elements trilogy; Earth, Fire and Water have gained her an international reputation for creating independent films that represent marginalised issues and people.
I met Deepa Mehta inside a London hotel, two months before the release of her new movie. She’s every bit as eloquent as you would imagine but with a ‘hippyish’ edge; 70’s style, long soft wavy hair, a colourful ethnic top and patterned bag. Her first comment is about my boots, they’re yellow and she says she likes them. Grateful for the icebreaker, I’m told we have seven minutes together to summarise her career as one of the most influential female directors of all time and to find out something about the film, which as yet, no one had seen. No pressure then…
The obvious questions to start with are when she first encountered the book, followed by how the film came about. Deepa recalls: ‘Oh, I remember it vividly. It was 1982, the book came out in 1981…but it wasn’t until three years ago that I realised I wanted to picturise it. I loved the book when I first read it; I was 21, or 22. I had known Salman for a number of years, I knew if I was going to make the film, he would have to write the screenplay.’
Allowing for a long enough gap to recover from the aftermath of his controversial Satanic Verses, Salman re-visited the novel he wrote over 30 years ago and worked closely with Deepa for two years to condense his epic 600 page novel into a film script of just 130 pages.
It was no easy feet; after all it’s no easy story. Some people may recall reading Midnight’s Children at school. I remember trying to decipher it in my post-colonial literature class at university; the truth is, I got so confused that I skipped pages and ended up fast-forwarding to the conclusion.
The story begins at the stroke of Midnight, August 15th, 1947, the very moment that India gained independence from Great Britain and the same time two children are born; Saleem Sinai, the son of a poor single mother and Shiva, born into a wealthy family. The pair are switched at birth by a nurse, altering their destinies forever. Handcuffed to history, for being born at such an auspicious time, the two children develop telepathic powers allowing them hear each other’s thoughts and those of other children born at the same time. Part a historic record of the birth and development of India as a nation, with autobiographical references (Salman Rushdie was also born in 1947) and fantasy elements it’s a contemporary classic that remains one of the most original tales ever written.
With the significance of dates and superstitions so important to the story, I ask Deepa if these are of relevance in her own life? She replied; ‘Dates. No, no, none at all! I think everybody is superstitious in some way or other but I have to think deeply about an example so I think that means I’m not a superstitious person!’
The film is reported to have run into several controversies during the filming which led to it being filmed in Sri Lanka, rather than India, yet these are issues Deepa doesn’t wish to focus on, other than admitting Sri Lanka is a great country and she loves their food. She also denies rumours of numerous cast changes sticking only to talking about the key members. ‘Shabana Azmi brings incredible warmth to her role of Naseem, Anita has made Emerald very saucy, Satya brings a genuine sense of vulnerability to Saleem, Siddharth brings power to Shiva and Shriya brings strength to Parvati.’
With the novel being a cross-cultural success story, I’m interested to what Deepa considers the genre of the film to be. She explains: ‘It’s a historical dramatic film - its not an age defying genre you don’t need to be a rocket science to find out what the genre is.’
Does Deepa feel the audience should read the book before seeing the film? She reveals: ‘It doesn’t make a difference. I would rather people saw the film and read the book.’ As we’re given a warning that we have just a minute left, I regret not having asked Deepa more about her own life. She’s one of the most interesting women I’ve ever met, though I feel she would have opened up more if we weren’t in such a controlled environment. She’s not much of a talker, but then I learnt it’s not just me, with whom she gives brief answers to. She reveals: ‘I’m a quiet director and a quiet person but very focussed. I make films that tell amazing stories but when I’m not making a film, then I Ieave directing behind and I'm just me.’
Someone I hope I will have more than a brief encounter with next time.
Midnight’s Children directed by Deepa Mehta is released on December 26th 2012.