Mehta says 'cultural connection' allowed smooth 'Midnight's Children' adaptation
TORONTO - Throughout the lengthy and beleaguered journey of Deepa Mehta's ambitious historical epic "Midnight's Children" there was frustration, elation and exhaustion.
Now, there is relief.
Mehta says she's eager to finally bring her big screen take on Salman Rushdie's acclaimed novel to a hometown crowd at the Toronto International Film Festival this weekend. She revels in the fact that it's already secured a global theatrical release, allowing her to soak in the festivities as just another movie fan.
"I'm actually enjoying myself because I don't have to worry about sales," Mehta says in a recent interview while juggling early media requests and finalizing VIP guest lists at her downtown production office.
"I just have to hope that people enjoy it and go for the ride.... This is a very specific film that is also very universal because the emotions in it could be yours, mine, they don't have geographic boundaries."
Paramount in Mehta's approach was capturing the essence of Rushdie's sweeping, magical, comic-tragic novel about India's early days of independence.
As in the Booker Prize-winning book, the tale unfolds through the eyes of the telepathic Saleem Sinai, the son of poor parents who tumbles into the world at the stroke of midnight Aug. 15, 1947 — the same moment India arrives at independence.
Arriving at that moment, too, is the rich-born Shiva, destined to rise through military ranks due to a gift for battle but also condemned to a life of hardship when a hospital nurse switches him with the newborn Saleem — awarding the poor, illegitimate Saleem a life of privilege intended for Shiva.
Still, Saleem's path to adulthood is hardly a smooth one. It eerily mirrors the tumult of India's own lurching journey from one crisis to another, including three wars and a devastating state of emergency that proves tragic for Saleem and other magical children who share their nation's birth date.
Although magic plays a significant role in the tale, Mehta says she strove to keep fantastic elements in check.
"I told Salman about this — that I don't want to make it a 'Harry Potter' or 'X-Men' (type of film). This is not that kind of a CGI film," she says, referring to eye-popping computer-generated imagery typical in super-hero fare.
"It's actually very judiciously used and when I thought about magic it was magic in the sense of the Japanese film, for example, 'Ugetsu,' where it's rooted in realism as opposed to the other way around."
Rushdie adapted the screenplay from his own book, and by and large, they agreed over what stayed and what had to go, says Mehta.
For one thing, the film had to dispense with the unreliable narrator of an ailing Saleem, who is recounting life to his beloved Padma at the pickle factory where they work. Instead, Rushdie delivers a straightforward voiceover as Saleem's story unfolds.
"That felt like a literary device," Mehta says of the novel's story-within-a-story. "Why would we want to stop the film to go back into another room to tell (it)? It would work well for theatre, I think, but both of us felt very strongly that we didn't need it."
Shiva is also given greater prominence in the film, with the overall tale more directly building to a Saleem-Shiva showdown.
"In the book Shiva's always a threat but he's just not present so we wanted to make him front row-and-centre," explains Mehta, adding that such changes only serve to highlight core themes.
"I think that the film is very true in its essence to the book and so does Salman, which of course is the biggest compliment because if anybody could be irritated it would be the author. I'm really happy he loves this."
British-born Satya Bhabha stars as Saleem, actor-singer Siddharth plays the villainous Shiva, South Indian star Shriya Saran is fellow "Midnight's child" Pavarti the Witch, while frequent Mehta collaborator Seema Biswas plays Saleem's regret-filled nurse, Mary Pereira.
Canadians include actor Zaib Shaikh ("Little Mosque on the Prairie") as a poet in love with Saleem's mother while Anita Majumdar portrays Saleem's vain aunt Emerald.
The 148-minute film required meticulous planning — it includes 64 locations, 127 speaking parts, thousands of extras, plus newborn babies, pythons, monkeys, goats, insects, water buffalo and an elephant.
Not to mention its fair share of controversy, producer David Hamilton adds in production notes.
Much of the filming took place in Sri Lanka, where political interference nearly derailed the entire project, he says. Roughly 23 years after the late Ayatollah Khomeini famously issued a fatwa calling for Rushdie's death over 1988's "The Satanic Verses," Iran protested this new incarnation of "Midnight's Children."
Hamilton says four weeks of peaceful shooting had already been completed when he was forced to stop everything and temporarily move all equipment into the Canadian High Commission.
He and Mehta appealed the order to halt production and after several days, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa permitted shooting to resume.
But extreme precautions were taken, nonetheless.
Hamilton says Mehta and the actors stayed in hotels under pseudonyms, sending any press requests to a German film shooting at the other end of the island. Meanwhile, "Midnight's Children" was referred to as "Winds of Change" and for all intents and purposes, there was no evidence that anything involving Rushdie's work was underway.
Many things about the production were challenging, Mehta admits, including a lengthy shooting schedule lasting 70 days, twice that of her typical projects.
"Usually, we shoot for 35. Just the length of the script and the length of what we would need, an epic quality of the screenplay, required that we shoot for many more days," she says.
As such, Mehta prepared for the shoot with regular workouts to build stamina — a new discipline for the now 62-year-old.
"I gave up smoking, I went to the gym, I got myself a trainer and I started doing pushups and I started running," Mehta says.
"I had to get into shape. This film required not only my mental focus but also for me to be physically really in shape."
There was no effort required in connecting to the characters or the film's grand themes of love, family, freedom and hope.
Mehta — who first read the novel in 1982, roughly a decade before attempting her first feature film — speaks of a strong "cultural connection" to Rushdie that allowed for a smooth adaptation from the moment they agreed to work together in June 2008.
"We have cultural reference points which are very similar — the kind of family that Saleem grew up in, I identify with it immediately," says Mehta.
"I also grew up in India, I know these aunts, I have an aunt like Emerald."
And now that it's ready to reach a wide audience, she's ready to let "Midnight's Children" be embraced or dismissed by an audience.
"I don't feel I have to justify anything — people will either like it or they won't and it doesn't matter," she says.
"What (can) you do?"
What matters most for Mehta is that the film captures all that she loves about Rushdie's acclaimed 1981 novel.
"In the final analysis it's about hope and families that we form and are not necessarily born with, who do we bond with and can go through our trials and tribulations (with) and as Saleem says at the end, it's all about acts of love."
"Midnight's Children" debuts Sunday night at Roy Thomson Hall. It hits Canadian theatres Nov. 2.