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World watches but India waits

- Soha laments delay in releasing Midnight’s Children

London, Jan. 7: The film Midnight’s Children has gone on general release in the UK but not as yet in India — something that Soha Ali Khan, who has a cameo role in the movie, wants corrected.

It was due for release in India at the end of December, roughly the same time as in the UK.

But after Midnight’s Children got mired in controversy at the Kerala Film Festival, the release date was pushed back to early February by PVR Pictures, which have the distribution rights for India.

In an interview, Soha expressed her regret that the film was being seen by people outside India but not in India.

“People say India is this vibrant democracy and people have freedom of speech and opinion but we have seen that being subverted in various instances,” Soha said.

It is believed the film’s release in India was held back after some politicians saw Midnight’s Children at the Kerala Film Festival on December 16 and caused controversy by describing it as “anti-Indian”.

Explaining why she wanted the film released as soon as possible in India, Soha said: “I would like to see this film released, having read the book and having acted in the film and knowing that everyone who is associated with the film is a big fan of India, especially its society and culture — and (we want to) celebrate that.”

“I want to share that with the people of India so it would be such a tragedy to see it being released everywhere else and enjoyed everywhere else and not being enjoyed in the country it was made for,” Soha added.

In Kerala, some politicians took exception to a sequence in the film dealing with the harsh state of emergency that Indira Gandhi imposed on India from 1975-77.

For example, a senior Congress leader and former minister Pandalam Sudhakaran was reported as saying that the negative portrayal of Mrs Gandhi could not be accepted.

“There is an effort in the film to portray India as a country of slums and snake charmers and we doubt (suspect) that some foreign hand is behind this one sided portrayal,” he alleged.

The central character in the film is Saleem Sinai, who “tumbles forth into the world” just as the clock hands strike midnight on August 15 in 1947. Soha plays Jamila, Saleem’s sister.

Jamila is shown dancing with her brother and at his hospital bedside when he has a nose operation and later as a classical singer before Pakistan’s posturing military leaders.

The film is a screen adaptation by Salman Rushdie himself of his Booker Prize winning novel, Midnight’s Children, which many literary critics in the West consider to be the most important book to have come out of India since Independence.

Soha emphasised that “anyone who is interested in actually seeing the film or reading the book (will understand) it is quite a celebration of India. There is nothing to get so worked up about. Our political system is strong enough to be able to withstand healthy, historical review.”

Soha herself has not seen the film, which was shot by the director Deepa Mehta not on location in India but in Sri Lanka.

“The book (Midnight’s Children) has been around for a very long time,” Soha pointed out. “I tend to think a lot of these instances (of artistic censorship) tend to be some kind of political opportunism the timing always seems to be to be a little suspect. People seem to get offended at just the right time. So, I sometimes take the nature of the offence or the cause of the offence with more than just a pinch of salt.”

Soha gave the example of America where filmmakers had the freedom to pick controversial topics.

“We have all seen a film called Death of a President which portrays the assassination of George Bush in a kind of theoretical way — that must have been a controversial film,” Soha said.

She went on: “I know because of certain political parties it is difficult to make (political) films in this country. There are certain subjects people don’t want to invest in because they will make this film and it will never be released. I know the argument is India is only 60 years old and may be 100 years from now we will be able to handle all of this in a more mature way.”

It is fair to say the film has attracted some hostile reviews in mainstream British publications but that is partly because Rushdie has not been forgiven for winning the Booker Prize and the “Booker of Bookers”, not once but twice.

Rushdie arouses deeply negative feelings among British commentators who simply do not like him and take every opportunity to berate him.

In marked contrast, many Indians who saw Midnight’s Children when it was shown at the London Film Festival in October tended to think the film was “wonderful”.

Soha said she believed ordinary cinemagoers in India should be given the chance to make up their own minds.

Commenting on political issues and sticking her head above the parapet carried personal risks, said Soha. “I am just a single working girl in a big city and I am most concerned about my safety and my ability to keep working and have an uninterrupted life and that is my primary concern. I need to be able to look after myself. I am not particularly keen on drawing a huge amount of attention to myself. Ultimately, I am an artist and I want to be able to express myself as a citizen.”