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Deepa’s project of a lifetime

Even as Midnight’s Children awaits its India release in January-February next year, director Deepa Mehta was in the country for its premiere at the International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK). An email chat with t2...

In 2005, you premiered Water in Kerala. Now (December 10), Midnight’s Children has premiered there. Any special reason for choosing it for the Indian premiere of both films?

I have a fondness for IFFK because I had such a great experience with Water in 2005. I think it’s a really warm, hospitable festival with a great audience. I’m happy Indian audiences saw the film for the first time in Kerala.

Why and when did you decide to make Midnight’s Children into a film?

I first read the book when it came out. Many years later, in 2008, Salman (Rushdie) was having dinner at my home in Toronto and I asked him, rather out of the blue, if I could have the rights to Midnight’s Children. He then sold them to me for a dollar and then we were off! I was shocked that the words were coming out of my mouth, but I guess I just went on an instinct.

What did Salman Rushdie — both as the author of the book and the scriptwriter of your film — bring to the table?

Salman was crucial to all of this. He served as the screenwriter and he is an executive producer of the film. His involvement was so important to making sure this was done in the best possible way. He was generous, understanding and so supportive of the entire process. I feel like he was the perfect collaborator and partner in crime. He has an incredible sense of humour to boot.

Midnight’s Children must have been a tough book to film, what with the magic realism and the fact that it is so multi-layered. What were the biggest book-to-film challenges?

The book is complex, there’s no doubt about that. The script really pared down the narrative to its core, which was important in terms of setting a narrative focus; Saleem’s (Sinai) journey. For the magic realism elements, I used a bit of imagination and a bit of special effects to create something that captures the essence of the magic of the book but is also believable. I’m not out to make an action film. I’ll leave that to Michael Bay (maker of the Transformers films).

Bringing Saleem Sinai to life must have also been quite a challenge. What did stage actor Satya Bhabha bring to the role and why did you choose him to play such an important character?

Satya has a thoughtfulness and intelligence that were important. He also has this quality of vulnerability and strength that draws you in and makes him the perfect Saleem. I had seen him in Scott Pilgrim vs the World and then in a stage production in New York. I knew his talent was formidable enough to play this role, but he very much embodied the quality of Saleem, which was the most important thing. The audience needs to connect with him.

Though the book is based in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, you had to shoot in Sri Lanka. How tough was it recreating the Indian scenario there?

Shooting in Sri Lanka actually worked out really well, for the architecture of Colombo is more conducive to shooting a historical film. Mumbai would not have worked because it’s too modern; too much to get around. It was a great experience in Sri Lanka and it allowed us to be a little bit removed, too.

The film has been dogged by controversy ever since you announced the project. Your first choices for many roles could not be a part of the film for various reasons. At any point of time, did you have second thoughts?

I never had second thoughts. The moment Salman sold me the rights to the book, I was committed to the project, come hell or high water!

What did the huge starcast bring to the film?

Each of them brought unique qualities to the film, but each and every one of them was required to work hard, be passionate about their role and challenge themselves. This film was unique because of the size of the cast and in many ways we became this loving, dysfunctional family of sorts. They all have such talent, such different personalities and senses of humour, but I admire all of them.

The costumes (by Dolly Ahluwalia and Ritu Kumar) have been singled out for praise. What was your brief to both?

For the wedding costumes, I wanted a colour palette that resembled the feathers of a peacock — rich jewel tones. Ritu did a stunning job with the costumes. The intricacy and detail of each piece is breathtaking. Dolly (who played Ayushmann Khurrana’s mother in Vicky Donor) is one of the most talented wardrobe designers I’ve had the pleasure of working with. She has enough experience to know exactly what the character needs to be wearing in each scene. This is such an important part of getting the actor into character. They both deserve all the praise.

If you had the chance of making another Rushdie book into a film, which would it be?

I think this was quite the project of a lifetime, so with a little bit of downtime, I may be able to wrap my head around it! I have always loved Shalimar the Clown though.

Priyanka Roy


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