In 2006, Sir Salman Rushdie sat in to guest host "The Charlie Rose Show" to interview Indo-Canadian filmmaker Deepa Mehta about Water, the third film of her Elements trilogy. A beautiful friendship began, which ultimately brought Rushdie's celebrated 1981 novel Midnight's Children to the big screen.
In advance of the film's theatrical release, opening in Atlanta on Friday, May 10, at the Regal Tara, Rushdie and Mehta sat down to discuss their unique partnership, the challenges of adaptation, how zealots "infected" them both, and how outsiders like Danny Boyle just don't "get" India.
This is your first foray into creating a work of cinema. Why pick the one novel many called "unfilmable?"
Salman Rushdie: Nothing is unfilmable. Some things are easier to film than others. When we began kicking around ideas, Deepa said she wanted to do Midnight's Children. I taught a course [at Emory] on literary adaptation.
When you look at films like Visconti's The Leopard, Scorsese's The Age of Innocence, John Huston's The Dead, the films are every bit as good as the novels. In the case of Lord of the Rings, the films are better than the Tolkien. When you accept the challenge to adapt Midnight's Children, you try and make a film that sits as an equal alongside the book.
Is it better to be involved in the process, or just sell the rights, cash the check, and hope for the best?
SR: I considered the two routes — but then I thought, "This is the first of my books to be adapted. I'd hate to go to the premiere and think, 'Oh no ... this isn't what I wanted.'" So I'd rather roll up my sleeves, and get involved.
As the director [Deepa Mehta], what was it like for you to work with the author of the work itself? To collaborate with a Salman Rushdie — or in this case — the Salman Rushdie?
Deepa Mehta: First, let's be clear. It was never an option for Salman to "take the money and run" because there was no money! I felt very strongly that the only person who could write the Midnight's Children [script] that I want to direct is Salman himself. That's the best thing about working with someone of his caliber — he knows movies, and he understands the screenplay cannot be a facsimile of the book. It must become its own entity. This is an iconic work. He was the only one who could remain true to its essence while making the changes necessary for it to work as a movie.
We didn't always agree, but we developed a way of communicating that was really challenging, exciting, and strangely civilized. We would try things out. We were brutally honest with each other throughout the process.
You share Indian roots but now both live in the West. You've also both inspired violent backlash to your work from zealots. Is there a link between controversy and your cross-cultural identities?
SR: Controversy is the disease we've both suffered from. It's not the subject of our work. It's not how we think of ourselves.
DM: We're both "survivors."
SR: Growing up in Bombay, the mixture of cultures is already there. It's a very cosmopolitan city. It is not ancient; rather it is the city the British built. Mixed culture is intrinsic to Bombay.
DM: I spent my formative years in Bombay as well. Whether it's reading Dickens, the influence of British culture didn't disappear when the government changed hands.
How do you feel about Slumdog Millionaire and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, films set in India, told from decidedly British perspectives?
SR: I don't like them. Slumdog has a kind of energy to it. I haven't seen Exotic Marigold. I saw the trailer and didn't think I could bear it.
DM: I saw Exotic Marigold Hotel, and found its treatment of India cringe-worthy.
SR: Danny Boyle is a gifted director, but when Slumdog came out, he said that he'd never been to India before and he didn't know anything about it. Imagine an Indian director coming to America to make a film and saying such a thing. How easy a ride do you think he'd get?
When I write a novel like Midnight's Children, I want it to feel like an "insider" book. I want the reader to feel like the book comes out of the shared experience of being an Indian in that generation.
Midnight's Children comes out of that same spirit.