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Free speech is very eroded in India now

Does Salman Rushdie still see himself as a Bombay boy? With his film Midnight’s Children about to be released in the UK, it seems a natural question to ask Salman about the beloved city of his birth where he has set part of his epic tale.

“(I) always thought of myself as a boy from Bombay who has travelled a lot,” he tells me.

He finds the city has changed radically since he left more than half a century ago to go to Rugby School in the UK.

“It’s changed so much that the last so many years I have been trying to rediscover it because the Bombay I grew up in is now almost marginal,” he says.

Neither Rushdie, who is in London to talk about his film, nor his director, Deepa Mehta, has any regrets that Midnight’s Children was shot not in Bombay but in Colombo.

“There are neighbourhoods in Colombo which are stuck in a time warp,” he points out. “They look like Bombay used to look like in the 1950s and 60s; so it was actually easier for us to find the locations in Sri Lanka than in Bombay.”

It is a general rule that an author should never write the screenplay of his own novel but Salman offers a clever answer: “If the novel had been written recently I would not have done the adaptation. I would be wrong for it. That was a much younger self that wrote that book.”

In fact, over 30 years have passed since Midnight’s Children caused a literary sensation by winning the Booker Prize in London in 1981. “Of course I have changed — (I’m) 30 years older. Who has not changed? That distance is what made it possible for me to do it; that I could look at this book almost like somebody else’s book. I also think I was the one who could tear it apart best — I am not cursed with respect for it. I am the one who can say, ‘Tear this out, throw that away, change that around, tell the story in a different way.’”

Many would say that Midnight’s Children, with its authentic sounds of India, is probably the most important book to have come out of the country since Independence, so I ask Rushdie if he still feels Indian on the premise that you can take the boy out of Bombay but you can’t take Bombay out of the boy... etc, etc.

He is honest. “I am not Indian in the sense of Indians who never leave India. But the Indian diaspora is a very well known phenomenon now — there are millions of us and we all have that double belonging. We all have that feeling that, yes, there is that place where we all came from. That sense of belonging never completely goes away — it doesn’t go away for me.”

Perhaps his life would have been calmer though not so achieving if his father, Anis Ahmed, had allowed him to return home to Bombay after Rugby.

“That’s because I had been unhappy at school,” explains Rushdie. “I would have been very happy not to have gone to university in England but to have gone to an Indian university. He (Anis) had been to (King’s College) Cambridge; he was very keen that I should go there too. I had this place at Cambridge. He didn’t want me to give it up. I had a great time at Cambridge — I loved it. It was a great antidote in many ways to Rugby. It showed me another England — I did a lot of acting; I wanted to be an actor.”

Rushdie does do the voiceover in Midnight’s Children but the idea was Deepa Mehta’s. Nor was he tempted to have a “Hitchcock moment” and stick himself in the film. Just briefly, he considered playing a fortune teller and Mehta agreed but then Salman changed his mind. “I thought if the audience at that moment is going, ‘Isn’t that Salman Rushdie?’ it pushes the attention in the wrong place. In the end we cast an actor and shot the scene and then the scene did not make it in the final cut, anyway.”

He and Mehta pored over the shooting script “scene by scene” in New York and Mehta was also heavily involved in the postproduction, but he stayed away from the actual shoot in Sri Lanka. “I said only one person says, ‘Action’ and ‘cut’. Unless it is the Cohen Brothers you have only one director. I said. ‘Go do it.’”

He agrees that Rahul Bose as General Zulfi almost steals the show.

“Extraordinary!” he enthuses. “Rahul, of course, in the original BBC series (which was planned in 1996 but junked) was going to play Saleem. He’s fantastic. I think this girl Anita Mazumdar who plays Aunty Emerald is wonderful — she’s a real find, I think.”

He also praises “Siddharth who plays Shiva — he’s a big star in south India. Because he’s so good looking he always plays the romantic lead; so suddenly he’s asked to play the bad guy. He was thrilled that he got to broaden his range. He is mesmerisingly charismatic because he is so handsome. That was an actor going outside his comfort zone in order to take on a new dimension.”

Some scenes shot in India — Dal Lake in Kashmir, the Taj in Agra and the Jama Masjid in Delhi — have been worked into the film.

Salman does get a teeny weeny bit prickly when I suggest that the section dealing with the Emergency is perhaps not the best part of what otherwise is an eminently watchable film.

“Remember, a lot of this book was written during the Emergency, so yes the mark of that event is on the book very much,” he responds.

I find Salman remarkably relaxed for someone who has lived in the shadow of a possible assassin since 1989.

What does he think of the direction India is taking 35 years after the end of the Emergency?

“I am very worried,” he admits. “There is so much talk now about corruption in India that we don’t need to reiterate that. I also think that the area of free speech is very eroded in India now — it seems like there are almost constant attacks on forms of expression, whether it is a cartoonist or a painter or a filmmaker or a university scholar or a writer: Rohinton Mistry’s book being taken off the Bombay University syllabus because some Shiv Sena goons objected to it, cartoonists being put in jail for satirising — for goodness sake, India has such a powerful tradition of political cartooning that the idea that suddenly it is something you can be jailed for is very worrying. The failure of the Indian state to protect those freedoms is very worrying.”

Salman skips off to have lunch with bigwigs from PVR Pictures who are hoping to release the film in India early next year. But Midnight’s Children is set to premiere tomorrow (December 10) at the International Film Festival of Kerala.