Interview: Deepa Mehta on 'Midnight's Children" the film

Interview: Deepa Mehta on 'Midnight's Children” the film

Mongrel Media presents Midnight’s Children - an epic film from Oscar-nominated director Deepa Mehta, based on the Booker Prize-winning novel by Salman Rushdie. It is releasing in theatres November 2nd, 2012

Midnight's Children the film by Deepa Mehta

Why this book? This story?

I first read Midnight’s Children in the winter of 1982 in Delhi. I distinctly remember talking about the wonder of it all with a friend while we walked around Lodhi Gardens. It had an enormous impact on me. It uncannily echoed my own upbringing, and for a novice filmmaker in the early ‘80s the book seemed to read like a movie -full of cinematic language and rooted in popular Indian cinema. The novel’s fearless dark humour combined with its affection for all human foibles stayed with me. Salman and I often talked about working together. One night, over dinner, I asked him who had the rights to Midnight’s Children. He said he did. I asked to buy them and he sold the option to me for one dollar. It was not premeditated; it was just gut instinct.

What is the film about?

It is a coming-of-age story, full of the trials and tribulations of growing up, and of the terrible weight of expectations. What separates it from other similar thematic films is that this coming of age story is not only about a boy but also about his country, both of whom are born at the very same time at a pivotal point in Indian history. Saleem’s journey as our vulnerable, misguided hero is always intertwined with the struggles of the newly independent India, as it finds its own voice in the world.

Art by its very nature is political and I believe that Midnight’s Children says something important and universal about survival, freedom and hope.

Watch the theatrical trailer of Midnight's Children HERE!

Why this movie now for you?

There is a saying – luck favours the prepared. The choices that I have embraced in life and the movies that I have made previously have certainly given me the technical and emotional confidence to tackle an epic about my homeland, but in many ways, I felt that I was learning the film making craft all over again. My desire to make this film came from a gut instinct. I knew I wanted to do it but it required a huge amount of chutzpah to then wrap my head around actually filming it. I think that my producing partner David Hamilton’s dedication and leadership really did make it possible. Some of the most meaningful decisions in life are based on that indiscernible feeling of just knowing it’s time. And it was.

My core team: design, camera, wardrobe, editing were all available and wildly keen to work on Midnight’s Children, as was the wonderful ensemble cast. But I think the most vital factor of all is the pure delight and fun of working with Salman, and how profoundly in synch we are about the heart of the story. Salman and I have both made our homes in the Indian Diaspora; I in Canada, he in Britain and America, and we have similar complicated intertwined roots in India. Those shared perspectives and memories, plus his creative generosity and wit, kept me, and the movie, going. Salman once said, about Indian born artists who have emigrated, “ Our identity is at once plural and partial. Sometimes we feel that we straddle two cultures; at other times, that we fall between two stools. But however ambiguous and shifting the ground may be, it is not an infertile territory for a writer to occupy.”

Is this film a “love letter to India” from you?

Salman has often said that the book is his love letter to India. I hope the film reflects the same sentiment. The last lines are, “The truth has been less glorious than the dream. But we have survived and made our way. And our lives have been, in spite of everything, acts of love.” The story, in its detail, becomes universal in its message of love and redemption.

How did you and Salman work on the adaptation, and what are the key changes from the book?

After Salman sold us the option to the book, he agreed, reluctantly, to write the screenplay. The book is inherently visceral and cinematic; the problem is length. The novel is 533 pages long and first drafts of the script were 260 pages. Early on, at our most important script meeting, Salman and I both brought handwritten lists of the dramatic moments which absolutely had to be preserved. One might spot some karma or magic at work here -our lists matched, in almost
every way. The ruthless surgical decisions about cutting had to be Salman’s alone: whole swathes of story and characters – gone. And then the intricate balance of what to shape, change, or add was our shared task. I suggested scenes, moments, emotions. Drafts went back and forth as they do. Painful cuts continued to be made right up to shooting and also in the cutting room. We preserved and protected the central thread of the story and tied it always to Saleem.

The biggest changes from the book are that Saleem and Shiva are now inextricably linked throughout and Shiva is given greater prominence; the story builds towards the Saleem-Parvati-Shiva triangle. Recalibrating and reshaping the last scenes during the Emergency and afterwards are important shifts, but it would ruin the ending to say anything further about those specific changes. We also deleted the overall narrator (from the novel), and in its place Salman wrote a
spare, precise, evocative voiceover, which he performs – wonderfully.

Learn how to qualify for a FREE pass to a private screening of Midnight's Children Thursday, Oct. 18, 2012 in Mississauga! Click HERE for details.

How did you prepare for Midnight’s Children?

I have the terrible reputation of spending my down time not moving unless I have to. Devyani, my daughter, has often said that her mom’s favourite exercise is “turning the page of a book”! Well, a slight exaggeration but somewhat true. All that changed about six months after Midnight’s Children was green lit. I found an empathic, encouraging trainer and went to the gym every day (reluctantly!) before production. I felt I needed every bit of stamina and awareness, and this physical preparation was perhaps the most essential of all. This film, more than most, because of its sheer scope was going to need not just my focus but also my stamina. The wisest decision I made.

Preparation with the cast is a given. A month before shooting there was an intensive workshop in Mumbai with the actors and me, led by my friend Neelam Choudhry, a theatre director from Chandigarh. This was not a rehearsal of the script; it was work based on the Natya Shastra, a treatise written in India in the 4th century AD about the art of drama, which includes a rasabox or grid of nine essential mental states and emotions: love, repulsion, bravery, cowardice, humour, eroticism, wonderment, compassion, and peace. This intensive work knitted us together as a group and grounded us in the emotional arcs of the film.

I don’t use shot lists or storyboards; the actor motivates my camera. From the actors I know what the emotional centre of the scene will be and then we shoot it. By now my long time DOP Giles Nuttgens and I have a finely honed shorthand.

But the most important preparation (except perhaps for the gym!) was meticulously planning the world of the movie. In Midnight’s Children we meet four generations over five very distinct time periods; there are three wars, 64 locations, and 127 speaking parts, plus animals, babies, snakes, cockroaches [Well, that didn’t really work out. Our cockroach wrangler failed]. And everything in the world of the film had to be shipped or found or designed or built in Sri Lanka. My closest ally and second brain/eyes is always my brother Dilip, who is responsible for the entire “look” of this film. He fought for authenticity in every aspect of the movie: visuals, historical period, class, accents, religious backgrounds…no detail too large (wars, helicopters, parades) or too small (ants, lizards) to escape his scrutiny. There is no one else whom I fully trust who knows the historical landscape and the “real” India, and who could create all of this flawlessly and with such a passion for accuracy and for beauty. 

Toronto International Film Festival runs from Sept. 6 - Sept. 16, 2012

Did you have any film making touchstones or influences as you planned the shooting of Midnight’s Children?

During the script process I thought a lot about classic elegant films like The Leopard, which is also a historical/political film. As we got closer to shooting Midnight’s Children and I got more inside the script and the energy needed to keep the story going, I began to think about movies like The Conformist -movies with tougher and more immediate storytelling. All along Giles and I planned on a traditional camera department, and many extra tracks and dollies had been shipped to Sri Lanka. A week before shooting I realized that we had to ramp up the energy of the movie, keep constantly moving psychologically, always have a sense of immediacy and fluidity, and free ourselves from time consuming set ups. There was just too much to cover. So we ditched most of the equipment and Giles shot almost the entire movie handheld, up close, intimate, and full of energy. This was a major liberation for all of us, especially because I do all of my blocking with the actors right on set.

How did you want to deal with the magic or magic realism elements?

I always wanted to show the fabulist as realism. I never wanted masses of CGI and visual effects; there are some effects in the movie, but pretty minimal. I wanted the fantastical elements to be grounded in reality. Salman has described the Children as “gifted or cursed with telepathy”. It’s up to audiences to draw their own conclusions about Saleem’s experiences, his loneliness, his vivid imagination and the Children’s corporeal reality.

The movie intentionally plays around with time shifts, foreshadowing, dreams and witchcraft. The most significant magical item is probably Parvati’s basket of invisibility, yet it is used in very practical and credible ways. Or at least Picture Singh believes so…and magicians are the last to believe in real magic. For me the film magically changes the definition of family. By the end of the movie, Saleem’s concept of family (and perhaps ours) is truly transformed.

How did you pull all the aspects of this complex story together in the edit?

When we came back from the shoot my editor Colin Monie and I knew Midnight’s Children had to be constructed in stages, and that we had to get each stage right before we moved on. These stages were: 

1) The flesh and blood: Saleem and the character/family saga stories had to be shaped first;
2) Then the history-wars-time periods had to work within the overall story and be clear;
3) Then the theme, politics and what the film says about India, had to be woven in…and that actually is how the movie came together: cut by cut, screening by screening. From intimate personal story to family saga to epic.

We protected the personal, the intimate, and the emotional core of all the characters inside this roomy canvas, full of disasters, wars and shattering events. That was not always easy, nor was figuring out how much of the history and politics to include. This is a movie for audiences all around the world who will have very differing amounts of knowledge about India and we did not want to over explain, or under explain.

Click HERE for more information on the film.