Salman Rushdie and Deepa Mehta on Midnight's Children


Director Deepa Mehta and author Salman Rushdie arrive together at the Toronto International Film Festival. (Associated Press)

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First aired on Q (12/9/12)

One of the most buzzed-about films at this year's Toronto International Film Festival was Midnight's Children. Deepa Mehta directed the adaptation of Salman Rushdie's Booker-winning 1981 novel and this powerhouse team wrote the screenplay together. But there's much more to the film than the splashy red carpet welcome it got at TIFF: there was the creative challenge of turning a beloved book into a big-screen flick and the political difficulty that arose during filming. Salman Rushdie and Deepa Mehta joined Jian Ghomeshi on Q to discuss the story behind the story.

How the project came to be was relatively simple: Mehta read the book, loved it, and asked Rushdie if she could turn it into a film. Rushdie had the movie rights and agreed to sell them to Mehta for a dollar. "It was something that I really wanted to do," Mehta told Ghomeshi.

"[The book] changed my life. It really did." midnightschildren-movieposter.jpg

Rushie was not only keen to see Midnight's Children become a movie, he wanted to help make it happen. "You either sell the rights, walk away and say, 'I'll see you at the premiere' or you do everything," he said. So Rushie chose to do everything, including narrate the film. As a movie fan, he was eager to see what goes on behind the scenes, and he appreciated the opportunity to revisit a book he wrote 30 years ago. In fact, it was because so much time had gone by that he was able to write the screenplay. "The man who wrote Midnight's Children was 33 when it came out," he pointed out. "I'm 65."

That doesn't mean the screenwriting process was easy. The first draft was 276 pages long. "It was an exercise in discovering the essence of the book," Rushdie said. "The screenplay, in a way, has to fillet the book down to the bone, but also down to the heart, to find the line through the book which is the pure story around which everything else is hung."

But the film also meant an opportunity to add to Rushdie's story. "It can add smell, it can add colour, it can bring the characters to life," Mehta said. Rushdie agreed: "The emotion comes through the film very powerfully." He points to the protagonist Saleem as an example. In the book, "you have to read through what he is saying to get the sense of what he feels," Rushdie said, but "in the film it's right there on the screen."

The filming process was difficult as well. Rushdie wasn't on the Sri Lankan set because he was concerned his presence would only draw attention and conflict to the project (he has been the target of many death threats and has difficult relations with several Muslim countries, including Iran). Indeed, the project was halted for a few days in the middle of filming, a move both Mehta and Rushdie attribute to political troublemakers just wanting to harass Rushdie. "It made no sense," Mehta said. The cast and crew were devastated by the setback, but Mehta wasn't deterred. "I felt it would be fine." she said. "I just knew it was going to be all right."

Mehta was right, and, after a year of editing, she found that the final product was better than she and Rushdie had imagined. In fact, it made Rushdie cry. "Everything just went on. Click. Everything just worked. The funny bits were funny and the sad bits were sad," he said. "By the end of the film, I literally had a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes."

The story -- both the one being told on screen and the one that began over 30 years ago when Rushdie sat down to write a novel about his country and the generation that came of age as India became independent -- had become more than the author had dared to hope. 

"It wasn't crying for sadness. It was crying for beauty," he said. "I thought 'There it is. There's the film for Midnight's Children.'"

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