Interview: Midnights Children dir. Deepa Mehta
Based on the Man Booker Prize winning novel by Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children spans generations of a family against a backdrop of real events in Indian history. Rushdie not only adapted his magical realist text, but also performed the voiceover narration which runs through the film.
Born at the exact moment when India broke from British rule, Saleem Sinai (Satya Bhabha) is one of many babies born with special powers. Calling themselves ‘Midnight’s Children’, the group have varying degrees of power depending on the proximity of their birth to the stroke of midnight. Saleem and Shiva (Siddharth) are the strongest of the set, born in the same hospital at the same time. After a damaging act from a hospital nurse (Seema Biswas), their destinies become inextricably linked not only to each other, but to the tumultuous transformation of their country.
BEVer Sonia Zadurian chatted with Deepa about the distinctive look of the piece, the complex form of the narrative and the unconventional beginnings of the film.
Had you previously read the novel?
Yes, I read it in Delhi in 1982. I was very struck by it and it left a huge impression on me.
How did you come to be involved in the project?
Salman and I were having dinner at my home in Toronto one night when I asked him, rather out of the blue, who owned the rights to Midnight’s Children. He told me that he owned them at which point I asked him if I could buy them. And then it was done. Salman Rushdie sold me the rights to the book for a dollar in my own dining room!
Salman Rushdie performs the voiceover narration in the film. Was this always your intention?
I tried a couple of actors to do the voiceover, including Satya, but it just didn’t work. Salman was over to see the final cut of the film when I had the idea to try his voice for that for the older Saleem. It made perfect sense to me. Salman has been an actor, has a great voice and knows the character of Saleem intimately. All was good except Salman refused to do it! He was not confident he could pull it off and that it might be ‘too much’ of him. It took time to convince him to give it a shot. Luckily it worked out in the end. The intimate quality that Salman brings as the older Saleem telling his story is invaluable.
How did you approach the form of the story? As you were routinely tasked with endearing the audience to certain characters, before removing them from the narrative.
There are many more characters in the book that do not make an appearance in the film simply because there is not enough time for a two hour film. It was necessary for the narrative to be pared down to the essential story we were trying to tell which was Saleem’s journey. Salman wrote the script, and he more so than anyone was equipped to focus on who or what was necessary to propel the narrative forward.
The film looks and sounds fantastic, giving an almost tangible sense of the setting. How did you set out to achieve the particular look and feel?
I am so proud of the production design and the music. The production designer (also my brother) Dilip Mehta managed to create and bring to life a rich and accurate visual landscape to each place and period in the film. Dilip was tireless and resourceful in his pursuit of accuracy and I think it has paid off. You watch the film and feel transported to another time and place. Nitin Sawhney, who did the music for film, is very well known and is a musical genius. His score is evocative, magical and haunting and set the perfect tone for the film. I feel privileged to have both of the take the film to another level.
What advice would you give to women just starting out in film? Be it in front of, or behind the camera?
Do what you are good at, in front of or behind the camera. Work as hard as you can. Don’t dumb yourself down and get to work like everyone else. Eventually, your work and commitment will speak for itself.
Finally, can you tell us anything about your upcoming projects?
My next project is a film called Masterpiece about the artist Matisse and his muse. It is set in the south of France so I’m looking forward to it! It’s very exciting.