The reports sounded ominous. Speaking at the Toronto International Film Festival over the weekend, director Deepa Mehta mused aloud that Midnight’s Children, her lush film adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s novel about the early history of post-partition India, might not land a distribution deal there because of political pressure.
“What a pity if insecure politicians deprive the people of India [of the chance] to make up their own minds about what the film means, or does not mean, to them,” she was quoted as saying by the Hindustan Times. Other news outlets picked up and ran with the story, including the Daily Telegraph, the BBC and the New York Daily News.
But the story behind the story might say as much about contemporary India, and the West’s perception of it, as the story itself. Because while the film does not yet have a distribution agreement in India, it appears to be following the usual path of a feature that had its world premiere less than two weeks ago at the Telluride Film Festival.
“I’ve spoken to distributors myself who have expressed an interest in distributing the film,” said producer David Hamilton in an interview on Tuesday afternoon. “We have sold in over 50 countries already, so I’m confident there will be offers on the table [from India].”
So why did the story of the film’s potential troubles get such mileage? In part, it may be that it fit a familiar narrative about India. Indeed, a section of Midnight’s Children takes place during the so-called Emergency period in the 1970s, when then prime minister Indira Gandhi suspended civil rights, banning many books and films, and severely restricting journalistic activity. In the aftermath, some people believe journalism has gone overboard in exercising its freedom.
“I don’t tend to read the Indian news, because most of it is fabricated,” said Hamilton, who recalled that, when he complained to a reporter there about coverage he and Mehta were receiving during a controversial shoot on their film Water, he was told: “This is a democracy. We have a right to lie.”
Then, of course, both Mehta and Rushdie are lightning rods. Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses was banned in India, and last year’s shoot of Midnight’s Children, which took place in Sri Lanka to avoid the scrutiny of the Indian press, was almost suspended after a complaint by Iran.
“I think anything that Salman does or Deepa does will always have the possibility [of controversy],” said Hussain Amarshi, the president of the film’s Canadian distributor, Mongrel Media.
“I think the media in India love to make Deepa controversial,” said Hamilton, “because I guess it sells a lot of papers and they know there’s a certain bias in the readership toward believing that.” The controversy over Water, he said, was largely engineered. “They made it seem like an uprising of the local populace but it actually wasn’t true.”
And the West is happy to follow that narrative. But during a discussion on Monday about bridging the East-West divide, at TIFF’s Asian Film Summit, the Indian filmmaker Dibakar Banerjee disputed the idea that movies that are critical of India will have a tough time. He said that Shanghai, a cynical thriller he directed that depicts India as corrupt, had no difficulty getting past the censors and becoming a critical and commercial success.
“When you hear about a certain filmmaker being shut down, it is not about that filmmaker having any problem with India as a society,” he said. “What that means is that one particular political group has conveniently decided that filmmaker or that film or that book is a soft target, [for the group to use] to come into the news and to champion themselves as the upholder of some issue.”