Empire 7 at the World Exchange Plaza, acted as our venue for the Ottawa film premiere of Deepa Mehta's audacious adaptation of Salman Rushdie's landmark Midnight's Children . Rushdie had also recently released the memoir Joseph Anton - an alias made up of the first names of Conrad and Chekhov. It was a name he had to adopt to avoid suspicion while under the protection of the British police after the infamous fatwa or religious edict from Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini, while on his deathbed, for the publication of his other well known novel, Satanic Verses . It is a remarkable feat that Rushdie has not only survived in the physical sense, but has been able to project an equally staggering body of work to counteract the ignominy and notoriety of "the Rushdie Affair" as the whole brouhaha came to be dubbed. Haroun and the Sea of Stories , which Rushdie wrote for his son following a separation from him in the aftermath of the fatwa, is not only remarkable for the conditions under which it was written in, but also for being one of the finest children's book of any era. Yet out of all his numerous opuses, it is Midnight's Children, as one of the most decorated novels of twentieth century, that stands apart.
Deepa Mehta herself, being no stranger to threats and suppression of her art, found a kinship with Rushdie whom she met relatively recently in Toronto when Rushdie was promoting The Enchantress of Florence . While enthusing about a potential collaboration, Mehta had suggested Shalimar The Clown , possibly Rushdie's most film-able book. Then almost as a self-whispered dare, Mehta said, "How about Midnight's Children?" to which Rushdie quickly consented. Rushdie, as Mehta would tell us in her Q & A session after the film, sold the rights to the script for just a dollar.
Midnight's Children is the story of Saleem Sinai, and how by virtue of being born at the very same moment of his country's independence at the midnight of August 15th, 1947 he is "handcuffed to history." Saleem and 420 other children are bound by magical powers which bind them to each other, but ultimately to their country. Rushdie explores the emergence of not only modern day India, but also of Pakistan and Bangladesh.
The film itself is a wondrous palette of colours - with Sri Lanka being the setting for over 64 locations as diverse as Kashmir and Bengal spanning several decades. Mehta stated the her focus on particular colours and slowly intensifying them were thematic choices. For instance, in the part signifying The Emergency of Prime Minister the Indira Gandhi, blue particularly resonates over the grim darkness, caressing the viewer's eyes with a sense of calm. Rushdie himself narrates, his voice exhibiting the calm energy of a man thrilled to bring a work which is almost 30 years old to a new generation.
The Walrus feature on Mehta in the November 2012 issue, written by the very observant and thoughtful Stephanie Nolen, states that Mehta, "loves the book, and understands it deeply." At the Writers Fest event, she called it the "first great novel of post-colonial literature." Hari Kunzru goes on to say that it was Rushdie through Midnight's Children who "proved, once and for all, that English is an Indian language." While any literary hyperbole for Rushdie is usually warranted, this overreaches. Early Indian writers such as Mulk Raj Anand and particularly R.K. Narayan have defined India in English in a way that is as relevant today as it ever was, decades before Rushdie. Moreover, A House for Mr. Biswas , by Indo-Trinidadian Nobel Laureate V.S. Naipaul, is a more likely claimant of the first great post-colonial novel.
The integrity of the film is assured by Rushdie's own close involvement. The acting in the film, is understated and superb. Satya Bhabha exhibits a tenderness and toughness which is a jarring contrast to Matthew Patel in the peerless Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Shriya Saran and Shahana Goswami are impossibly elegant, and makes one wonder why every wedding isn't Indian. The breakout role may be the one of Darsheel Safary in his precocious portrayal of a 10 year old Saleem.
When prompted by a question by a local filmmaker Jith Paul, Mehta describes how she trains her actors based on the ancient Indian arts text the Natya Shastra. The rasabox from the shastras consist of 9 key emotions, her favourite being "wonderment." Mehta describes how she challenges actors to learn how to say "I love you" while being in the grid of hatred. "Every emotion carries nuance, even love has parts of revulsion and doubt in it." It is indeed her and Rushdie's exploration of nuances which seem to dent their popularity, particularly in India, a culture still not used to critical self-examination, particularly to outsiders.
Apparently Rushdie shed a few tears when he saw the first screening of Mehta's film. It's not hard to understand why.