FILM director Deepa Mehta is no stranger to controversy. Two of her movies – Fire and Water – were hit by protests from right-wing groups in India, and there were fears her latest cinematic offering would meet a similar fate.
Midnight’s Children, Mehta’s adaptation of the Booker Prize-winning novel by Salman Rushdie, opens in Indian cinemas this week.
The film, which chronicles the story of an Indian family living through the tumultuous events of India’s recent past, features a voice-over by Rushdie.
The book’s depiction of former prime minister Indira Gandhi’s role during India’s Emergency in the 1970s had thrown the film’s screening into doubt. Rushdie’s even more controversial 1988 book, The Satanic Verses, which many Muslims deemed blasphemous, remains banned in the country.
Mehta, 63, spoke to Reuters about Midnight’s Children, adapting a book for the screen and “un-filmable films”.
Q: Many people had said that Midnight’s Children might be un-filmable. Was it an easy book to adapt?
A: “This is not the first book that I have adapted. I worked on Bapsi Sidhwa’s book for Earth. All books, by their very nature, don’t have to make good films. I think it depends on the film-maker – if the film-maker finds that something in that inherent story has resonance for them, then you say let me try to do it. One of the things you have to be aware of is that the film is not a facsimile of the book. It was the same with Midnight’s Children. Yes, it was an iconic book. Yes, people said it was un-filmable. For me, it was a very clear narrative.”
Q: Were there parts that you wanted to leave out?
A: “Absolutely. Early on I told Salman (Rushdie) to write down in narrative form what he thought the flow of the film should be and I’ll do the same. Separately, we wrote down what we felt the progress of the story should be in the film. We found, much to our surprise, that the points were almost identical. You know then, that your vision is the same.”
Q: There’s always been a debate between book lovers and moviegoers whether books are better. What do you say?
A: “Some films are better than the book. I think The Constant Gardener, the film, was much better than the book. And some books are so much better than the films. There have been some disastrous adaptations. I think it depends on what the film turns out to be. There is the adaptation police, a group of people going “this book should never have been made into a film”, but if Salman had no problem, what’s theirs?”
Q: This was also a difficult film to shoot, right? You had to shoot in Sri Lanka under a fake working title because of security concerns?
A: “That’s not true at all. We came to Mumbai, looked at locations and realised that if I wanted to shoot here, it would be very difficult because nothing looks period. There are high-rises everywhere, BMW cars on the streets. That’s why it was important to shoot in Sri Lanka – it’s very similar, except that it isn’t as built-up. There are lovely bungalows, etc. And the reason we had to shoot under a fake working title was because I didn’t want to attract press, because it distracts the actors.”
Q: You’ve made a lot of films about women and attitudes towards them in India. What do you think is behind these skewed attitudes?
A: “Patriarchy. We’ve always felt that the girl child is worth nothing and should in fact be aborted even before she is born. The boy can do no wrong. If the girl is treated as a sub-human, or the boy is raised to believe he can do no wrong, then this is what will happen.”
Q: Do you think films can help change these attitudes?
A: “I don’t think so. They can be an instrument of looking at things differently, but then films also become old-fashioned and people move on.” – Reuters