|Satya Bhabha with co-star Shriya Saran in Midnight’s Children
Imran Khan was considered for the part. But it is British-Indian actor Satya Bhabha who brings Salman Rushdie’s Saleem Sinai to life in the Deepa Mehta-directed Midnight’s Children.t2 caught up with the theatre-turned-film actor when he was in Mumbai recently.
How did Midnight’s Children happen?
This is a book that has a huge significance for me and my family at large. So, it was a dream come true when I was offered the lead role of Saleem Sinai. Everyone calls this book ‘unfilmable’, but I didn’t think so. To even hear that a film on Midnight’s Children was being made excited me. And then to have a chance to portray Saleem Sinai was really a huge high, though slightly daunting I must add.
To tell you the truth, I jumped at it and anybody who wouldn’t is a complete fool. Deepa and I had met in Toronto over a meal and spoken about our mutual love for Bombay. And that really turned out to be the connect that got us started. It was a social meeting and we never talked about the film or the part. But then to be told later that she was considering me for the role was a real surprise. I was really adamant to do just about anything to secure this part (laughs)!
You are half-Indian but have never lived here. Did the film help you connect with your roots?
It actually did. I have always been close to my grandmother who lives in Bombay. When she was young, she was an actress on the Parsi theatre circuit. She influenced me to become an actor. But honestly, I never considered myself an Indian because I have never really lived in India. But while shooting the film, I realised that I would have to understand more of the culture and the country to portray my role better. In the process, I really connected with my roots. I met up with cousins in Bombay whom I had last met when I was a boy. I walked the streets; I learnt the language; and I just embraced the city like my own. I now love Bombay.
How would you describe Saleem?
Saleem is quite an enigmatic character. He’s a great observer and a great commentator, but we don’t really learn a lot about him through other people’s eyes. That was quite a challenge... just understanding and filling in details that were not in the book. I had to find confidence and the connection so that I could add different aspects to this character. I needed to find other aspects of Saleem that maybe weren’t required to be fleshed out in the book… figuring out his hobbies, his sense of aesthetics, tone…. Also, things had to be simplified. There is so much in the book; Saleem has different thought patterns at different points in his life. In the film, it’s much simpler; it’s just a story of a boy searching for his family. To crystallise that, we had to focus on specific parts of his character.
What kind of research did you do to become Saleem?
I broke the research into two categories. Academic research required me to read everything, from A Passage to India (EM Forster) to The Discovery of India (Jawaharlal Nehru) to Freedom At Midnight (Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre) and Ramachandra Guha’s India after Gandhi. I also read a lot about Bombay. I studied Hindi so that I could communicate with the people on the street.
Deepa never explicitly mentioned it but I guess it was understood that we would turn to Midnight’s Children time and again. I read it a couple of times and before I met Salman (Rushdie) in New York (prior to the shoot) I burned through the book furiously. At the time I was speaking to Deepa and Salman, they still hadn’t released the script and I could only turn to the book.
Then there was the emotional research. I play Saleem from age 16 to his 30th birthday, which also happens to be the 30th anniversary of India’s Independence. I travelled around the country to create a host of memories for myself that I could tap into when playing the character. I live in Los Angeles and I had to work a lot to get that out of my system and believe that I had lived in India all my life.
Was it disappointing that you couldn’t shoot in India?
Contrary to the talk that we weren’t allowed to shoot in India, I would say it was a completely artistic decision because it would have been impossible to recreate the Bombay of the ’60s. We shot in sync sound and that would have been difficult considering how noisy Bombay is. The billboards and the highrise blocks wouldn’t have fitted in. Sri Lanka gave us beautiful colonial architecture and relatively calm and controlled surroundings.
How was it working with Deepa Mehta and Salman Rushdie?
Deepa was our connect with Salman because he never really visited the set. Like I said, I had met him before the shoot, but never during it. But we would keep hearing from Deepa how excited he was about how certain scenes were being shot. With Deepa, it was a wonderful, challenging and, at times, a difficult experience. We were in very intense shoots in multiple locations with a large amount of actors and a huge story to tell, but she just made it all so smooth for the large part.
How much have you been affected by the controversies surrounding the film?
You don’t make films in vacuum; you want to share your work. The response was very good in Canada and England, but we all wanted the film to release in India and see how viewers here react to it. It is a love letter to India and it has to be seen here. There was a time when we weren’t sure whether it would release here at all, but now that it is, we are so excited to be able to share it with India.