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Midnight's Children - Salman Rushdie interview

Midnight's Children

Interview by Rob Carnevale

ACCLAIMED author Salman Rushdie talks about some of the challenges of adapting his own Booker Prize winning novel, Midnight’s Children, into a film and why he’s pleased with the results.

He also shares his views on the current state of India, how he thinks the film will be received there and why he regrets turning down the chance to play himself in Will Ferrell’s Talladega Nights. He was speaking at a press conference held during the London Film Festival.

Q. This is not the first time someone’s tried to make a book into a film or even a TV series. Why did you think Deepa was the right person to trust your baby with?
Salman Rushdie: I guess we met around the time of Water. I got invited in New York City to a screening, which I really loved. She heard I really loved it and that helped. I actually had to interview her on television and then we just gradually got to know each other over a couple of years.

Q. The Charlie Rose Show?
Salman Rushdie: Yes, Charlie Rose was unwell and I had to sit in for him. So, I got the job of interviewing Deepa and it was a treat [smiles]. And then we gradually got to know each other better and then we talked about sometime working together and we discussed other novels too as possible things to do. And then she asked about Midnight’s Children. I could see her passion for the story and that it felt personal to her as well. And I think people direct good films when they feel personal to them, not because it’s a famous book or something. It has to something move over that and somehow become personal to the director. And I think it was clear that that was so. So, I thought it sounded perfect to me and that was four and a half years ago.

Q. You obviously wrote the book when you were in your 20s, and you had to cut down your story to turn it into a film, so how did you choose what to cut out?
Salman Rushdie: It’s interesting. It was just a question of finding what was the narrative line that went most clearly through the book. So, for instance in Saleem’s mother’s family in the novel she has not only two sisters but two brothers as well. In the film, the brothers have disappeared I’m sorry to say. I’m quite fond of them. I’m especially fond of the film director and his crazy actress wife. So, of course there’s things I feel sad about. But in the end, the story of the sisters seemed to be indispensible because without that, you can’t actually tell the story of the book. And the story of the brothers felt that you could separate that. The novel is quite deliberately digressive. It’s always going off in all sorts of directions and telling all kinds of stories but with the film you have to be more clear about the line you’re following through. So, the process of selection was based on what is it that allows us most purely to tell the central narrative line of the book.

Q. Is it strange going back and revisiting your earlier work?
Salman Rushdie: It was. I think one of the things that allowed me to be the script writer was the fact there was such a long gap. I think that if it was a book that I’d just written, I would not have done the adaptation. I think I would not have even been the best person to do the adaptation. But because this was this younger self that I could go and look back at what that guy did all those years ago when nobody knew who the hell he was… There were moments when I looked at it and thought: “Gosh! That’s good!” But there were other moments when I thought: “No, not so much.” But the ability to have that distance from the book was, I think, what allowed me to do it.

Q. How was working with Deepa?
Salman Rushdie: I think both of us were nervous about sitting down to work with each other. And that was a very reassuring thing because it meant we were actually thinking about this down the same line.

Q. This film has been censored for the Indian market? How and what do you feel about that?
Salman Rushdie: No, no, it hasn’t been censored. It just has to go through the board of censors, which every movie released in India has to do, including Indian films. You need a certificate. It doesn’t mean that anything is going to be cut.

Q. How do you feel about where India is today in 2012 given that you got release of this movie? Does it suggest that India is on a fast road to democracy at this point?
Salman Rushdie: It is a democracy but it’s a flawed democracy. I think one of the great things about India has been the way in which people take great pride in their vote and use it. There is a much higher voting percentages in Indian than in the United States, for example. But it’s a flawed democracy. There are people in India over the last few years who have complained a great deal about corruption and so on. It’s a big subject there. I don’t think the release of this film is here or there. It’s a book that’s been well liked in India for three decades and now there’s a movie. What I think is great is that the cast are very excited. And, of course, the Indian audience will be very excited about this cast because while they may not be very household named outside of India, they are household names inside India. So, it really is for Indian audiences an all-star cast and I think people are really excited to see how the film is with these wonderful actors.

Q. Are you happy with the film?
Salman Rushdie: I am, otherwise I wouldn’t be sitting here! I’ve told a couple of times today the story of this gentleman who was sitting next to me when the first screening had taken place at the Telluride Film Festival and when the lights came up at the end he had tears on his cheeks. I said: “I’m sorry I made you cry.” And he said a lovely thing in reply. He said: “No, these are tears of beauty.” And I thought what could be a better review for a film. I’ve watched audiences now in the US, Canada and here responding to the film and they all respond the same way… they’re deeply affected by it. I would prefer that than for it to be purely cerebral.

Q. Which films more comfortable to you, providing the voiceover for Midnight’s Children or playing yourself in something like Bridget Jones?
Salman Rushdie: I think playing yourself is something that gets old very quickly. There’s one that I’m very sad not to have been able to do. I was asked to be in one moment of the film that eventually became Will Ferrell’s Talladega Nights. They had this idea of having some very, very inappropriate people dressed as NASCAR drivers, in the full uniform, with the slow motion and with the helmet, etc, looking like a scene from Top Gun. I think I’m right in saying they wanted me, Julian Schnabel and Lou Reed [laughs]. But it didn’t happen. We could all not do it for various reasons. But in hindsight, I’m sad about that.

Midnight's Children

Q. At which point did the voiceover come into play?
Salman Rushdie: Quite late. Initially, we thought we could do it without a voiceover. I think one of the rules that we had was that the voiceover should not be there to tell you what was going on because you were seeing that anyway. So, the voiceover should be there to add another layer.

Q. Didn’t you turn it down at first?
Salman Rushdie: Well, I didn’t want it to sound amateurish. But I’m reassured that people seem to be OK with it. I originally sent an email saying: “We’ll try it but if we put it on the film and it sounds amateurish then I’ll fire myself and we’ll find an actor.” But I didn’t have to fire myself.

Q. What is insensitive that has caused a reaction to this novel?
Salman Rushdie: Nothing. The problems around me have not to do with this novel, they have to do with another novel. But sometimes there’s a kind of spill over. I think the answer to one of the earlier questions about why this film wasn’t made before is that there was a long period in the aftermath of the fatwa against The Satanic Verses where it was probably difficult to make a film associated with anything that I had done. But that created a sort of wilderness of a dozen years or more during which it wasn’t possible to make a film – not just The Satanic Verses but anything else. So, any problems that were associated with producing this film had to do with the remnants of that problem rather than anything to do with this book. And fortunately we were able to overcome them.

Q. Do you think the actors do justice to the book?
Salman Rushdie: Yes. There were moments when we were casting the film when actors would be proposed or would walk in the room and you really couldn’t imagine a better… for example, Seema Biswas, who is playing Mary. She was the first person we saw. And Shahana Goswami, as the grandmother, was another first person. I mean Shahana is just as fierce as my grandmother [laughs] – better looking, but just as fierce.

Q. You’ve both suffered at the hands of religious extremists in the past. What do you think about the recent case of the 14-year-old girl who arrived in the UK from Pakistan after being shot in the head by extremists because of her views? Do you think the reaction in Pakistan suggests a tipping point about this kind of bullying?
Salman Rushdie: I hope so. For a girl to get shot in the head because she wants an education is horrifying and shows how bad things have become in Pakistan because of Pakistan’s tolerance of these extremists within its boundaries. Yeah, I think at least the reaction has been horrified and hopefully it will be a moment that that country understands that it needs to solve these problems. If you give safe haven to terrorist groups, they are going to behave like this and, in the end, that’s your fault.

Q. Are you worried about any possible adverse reactions from fundamentalists in India to this film?
Salman Rushdie: There is nothing in this film, or this story, that is not discussed every day in India. There is nothing in the story that is in any way taboo. This is part of the history of India and we all know it. And this is a drama which, in part, talks about great historical events and all of this is a matter of record.

Q. Was there ever any discussion about doing Midnight’s Children as a mini-series, in order to preserve more of the book?
Salman Rushdie: No, it’s too late now [laughs]. But the simple fact is the book’s still there. The book hasn’t gone anywhere. And if there’s scenes that you like, then go read them! I like all the scenes in the book because I wrote the damn book [laughs]. And yes, I think there were moments that we both wanted in the film that haven’t made it into the film. One or two of them might end up into the deleted scenes because there were some that we shot that didn’t make it into the final cut. For instance, there’s the scene where Amina visits the fortune teller who tells her this weird fortune, which ends up being virtually the plot of the novel. We shot that scene.

I think if you look at any films of books, this is an inevitable side effect. If you look at the film of Anna Karenina, there’s a great deal of Anna Karenina that’s not in the film. And in The English Patient, the novel is much more focused on the character of the Sikh bomb disposal expert and the nurse… not so much on the English patient. The film makes a huge shift from one to the other. And I think Michael Ondaatje was OK about it. He felt that it worked cinematically. But the book is still there. So, that’s what I would say to the fans. Nothing has happened to the book.

Midnight's Children

Q. Where do you think the Indian and Asian masses are heading whether it’s to do with their written word or what’s shown on TV?
Salman Rushdie: I don’t think the problem is with the audience really. I think sometimes there’s a problem in between the work of art and the audience. I think the Indian audience is pretty sophisticated nowadays – and more and more so. And from what I’ve heard coming out of India is that people are dying to see the film. These negative things get brought up in press conferences but I don’t hear that coming back from India. All I hear is ‘when is the film coming out?’ ‘When can we see it?’ ‘When is it on?’ That’s what people are asking.

Q. Do you think more of your books might now be adapted for the screen?
Salman Rushdie: I won’t expect the floodgates to open yet. I don’t think that all of my books are actual movies. But I’ve always thought that Haroun And The Sea of Stories could be a movie and I’ve always thought that The Enchantress of Florence could be a movie. And Shalimar The Clown. So, I don’t know. But I was lucky in this case to find a fellow creative artist who had a passion for the thing. And I’ve always thought that my books are going to happen in that way rather than big studios coming in. I’m not sure that these are big studio books. They’re too complicated.

Q. But you don’t know of any plans afoot at the moment?
Salman Rushdie: At the moment there isn’t anything. I wish there was. I’m developing a drama series for American television but that’s not based on any of my books. It’s an original idea.

Q. How did you tackle the magic realism on film?
Salman Rushdie: When people use the term magic realism, usually they only mean ‘magic’ and they don’t hear ‘realism’, whereas the way in which magic realism actually works is for the magic to be rooted in the real. It’s both things. It’s not just a fairytale moment. It’s the surrealism that arises out of the real. So, if you can make it feel like that, then it works.

Read our review of Midnight’s Children

Read our interview with Satya Bhabha and Deepa Mehta