But Rushdie was already answering: “Done.”
Hamilton, she says, was fortunately out of the room at the time, and didn’t learn what Mehta had just committed them to until later.
Rushdie was initially resistant to the idea of writing the script, but, Mehta says, she insisted, fearing no one else could do it justice; she added her “director’s two cents” along the way. She had huge trepidation every time she made a suggestion, or, once, added a whole scene. “You don’t say to Salman Rushdie, ‘I think you forgot this one scene.’ ”
Rushdie, by e-mail, says that turning a 600-page novel, which he wrote more than 30 years ago, into a 130-page screenplay has been “an immense challenge” but a pleasurable one. “It’s a question of preserving the essence – the heart and soul – of the book, but then making a film rather than adhering slavishly to the book. Maybe I could be more disrespectful to the original than anyone else!”
Once they had a script, Mehta and Hamilton turned to the challenge of how on earth to film it: The script requires 62 different locations – with a staggering scope, from 1917 to 1974, from Karachi to Kashmir to Old Delhi to Bombay. The logistical challenges have been unending and near-Biblical.
They needed, for example, seven cobras, which were obliged to rear up and hiss in unison, next to an actor who has a pathological terror of snakes. No animal wranglers here; instead, they brought in a snake charmer. Nevertheless, two of the animals escaped. “They found one of them,” Hamilton points out in the voice of a determined optimist.
The roof of a crucial location collapsed in heavy rains. They littered a meadow with fake corpses for a “killing fields” scene, and stuffed them with fish heads to lure crows – but inadvertently also drew an infestation of nasty monitor lizards.
When they arrived in the vast warehouse where they were to shoot, the temperature was more than 43 C – and their local production company had supplied three window air conditioners. Their child actors were limp and miserable. Overnight, Hamilton had 30 tonnes of air conditioning installed. He declines to provide a precise total on the film’s budget.
Mehta roped her younger brother Dilip, a Delhi filmmaker, into acting as her production designer. A brooding, chain-smoking presence on set, as dour as his sister is prone to cackles of glee, Dilip scrutinized everything from locations to belt buckles for authenticity. While Colombo is more atmospherically South Asian than any of their other production options, it’s also not India in many crucial ways – the people have much darker skin than those in the cities of Midnight’s Children; women wear their saris differently.
“If it wasn’t for Dilip, I would be dead,” Mehta sighs, pacing between shacks in the slum they built. “Curtains, photographs, wall paintings, props from Delhi, the right kind of fireworks … He’s making it look right.”
To add another complicating layer, Mehta brought her core crew from Canada – 20 people, including assistant director Reid Dunlop, most of them a close-knit band who have worked on many of her films, but they do not share the Mehtas’ intimate knowledge of India. Filming a scene where police rampage in the slum, Mehta watches a take and then says she wants one fleeing man to jump down from the roof. Dunlop frowns – “What would he be doing on the roof in the middle of the night?” he protests.
Dilip, slumped in a plastic chair by the camera, does not look up, but interjects. “Because he’s sleeping on the roof on a summer night,” he snaps. Dunlop pauses, then speaks into his radio: “Let’s get a guy on the roof.”
Dilip also oversaw the construction of the slum on a dirt playing field abutting a real slum. The crew shot there for weeks – then they bulldozed it, and burned it to the ground. For Mehta, this was particularly nerve-wracking, since there could be no second takes.
The last of the flames went out just before dawn a few days ago, and Mehta was suddenly filled with doubt. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, it’s going to be crappy. What have I done? The most beloved book of all time – I’m an idiot. Salman is going to hate it.’”
She texted him to say all this. Rushdie immediately texted back: “Every time I finish a book, I think it’s crap. And sometimes it isn’t.”