Deepa Mehta steps from the shadows between two slum shacks, into the path of a young man a foot taller and 30 years younger than she is.
She plants a swift right hook on his jaw, then a knee in his gut. He slumps forward, and she pulls his limp body onto her slight shoulders and hefts.
“There,” she says, brushing hands briskly against her cargo pants. “Like that.”
And then one of Canada’s most celebrated directors releases the body of her star and steps back into the shadows. Now her two young actors know just how she wants them to brawl, and Mehta can resume her customary on-set demeanour, a sort of Zen pixie in braids, poised to roll the camera on a pivotal scene.
The fight scene comes a few days before Mehta wraps her film version of Salman Rushdie’s 1981 novel Midnight’s Children. It’s the largest production ever by the controversial Mehta, of the book that won the even more controversial Rushdie the Booker of Bookers prize. Because of that potent combination, the filming had to be kept ultrasecret, hidden away in Colombo, Sri Lanka, in an effort (only partly successful) to keep the fundamentalists at bay.
“He’s got the Muslims,” says Mehta, wryly assessing the field of people who might want to stop this film. “And I’ve got the Hindus.”
The book is set in India and Pakistan – but it would have been a huge risk for Mehta to try to shoot the film in either country.
Cinemas in India were burned when her movie Fire was released; production of the last film in her “elements trilogy,” Water, was delayed for four years after she was shut down by Hindu militants. Rushdie, meanwhile, has had few fans in the Muslim world since The Satanic Verses and the furor around the Iranian fatwa. That ruled out shooting in Pakistan.
The filmmakers soon thought of Sri Lanka, where Mehta had found a refuge to finish Water. In many ways, Colombo made a better Mumbai than the real city does – more of the century-old architecture has survived here, while much of what Mehta and Rushdie were looking for in Mumbai has been swallowed by its frenzied building boom.
But the long reach of the fundamentalists has found them here, too. Two weeks into the 69-day shoot, Mehta’s husband and producer, David Hamilton, received notice from the government saying permission to film had been withdrawn after displeasure was expressed by Iran. (Sri Lanka’s government, increasingly isolated from the West, has been cultivating the friendship of China and Iran.) Displeasure from Tehran was enough to shut the shoot down.
Distraught, Mehta and Hamilton appealed to Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who decreed they could go ahead. So they changed the working title to Winds of Change (“Very Hallmark,” says Mehta, acidly) and they have kept secret as much as they can – a huge challenge, when there are 800 extras in the crowd scenes. The Globe and Mail was the only media organization permitted to visit the set.
“We really wanted to do this film,” Mehta says. “And the price is silence.”
THE MIDNIGHT’S CHILDREN CONFERENCE
Midnight’s Children is a vividly cinematic book, but like most of Rushdie’s work, had never been made into a film because of hesitancy over his reputation. The BBC tried to make it as a five-part miniseries in 1997, but the government withdrew permission for that production after Muslim protests. No one has tried to film it since.
Three years ago, however, Rushdie was in Toronto on a book tour, and dropped by Hamilton and Mehta’s house for dinner – they have been friends for about seven years. She had been daydreaming about filming his Shalimar the Clown; Rushdie said, “Let’s work together.”
But instead of Shalimar, she said, “The only book I’d like to do is Midnight’s Children.”
She was aghast as she heard herself speak – she loves the book, but it’s as fantastically complicated as it is adored. “I don’t know why I said it – it came from some place that amazed me. It was like committing hara-kiri.” Just as quickly, she tried to retract. “I said, ‘No, forget I said that.’ ”