INDIA, WITH IRONY
Mehta’s cast includes some big names in Bollywood, but for the main character of Saleem Sinai she chose a near-unknown, Satya Bhabha, a half-Indian, half-German-Jewish actor who grew up in England and the United States and has the mushy, ever-shifting accent to match that pedigree. Mehta had dreamed of a Bollywood megastar such as Imran Khan playing Saleem, but couldn’t afford that. She heard about Bhabha (who had a brief breakout role in last year’s Scott Pilgrim vs. The World), saw footage of him in a play, tried him in front of a camera, and sent him to see Rushdie, who approved.
Mehta is motherly and gentle on the set, full of gifts and pats and words of praise for her actors. The theatrics of the extras – slum residents who embrace their new jobs with gusto – make her hop up and down in delight.
But she can also be impatient, narrowing her kohl-lined eyes at Dunlop over perpetual delays with the lighting. And she is demanding, barking at Bhabha when he insists on rushing an entrance in a scene that has half the slum burning.
“She is intensely emotional, while at the same time cold almost to the point of clinical in terms of getting what she wants,” says Siddarth (he goes by that single name), a heartthrob in the huge Telugu and Tamil-language film communities, who plays the role of Shiva, Saleem’s nemesis. Used to swooning scenes where he gets the girl, he relished the chance to play a range of emotions for Mehta. “She makes you want to be a better performer and a better technician.”
Rushdie says Mehta was the “perfect” director to finally take this book to film. “It was Deepa’s passion for the book that attracted me, as well, of course, as my admiration for her work. She is able to work on both an intimate and an epic scale, she has a great sense of humour as well as of history, [and]she is famously a great director of actors, including child actors.”
Mehta wanders her huge set frowning in concentration, dressed in bright print shalwar kameez, or cargo pants and flannel shirt. She wears her hair – a mane of black curls streaked with grey – pulled back in braids and tied with chunky Punjabi ornaments, like a girl’s. Hamilton is usually nearby, slouching in jeans and golf shirts, as unprepossessing as Mehta is striking. At 61, she looks barely past 40; the girlishness is a contrast with her air of authority. Her chin is almost always tilted up, her gaze is a challenge. Yet she also has an almost tangible shyness, as if braced at all times for disaster, or at least mild unpleasantness.
Mehta originally wanted Rushdie to have a cameo role in the film, but he deemed that gimmicky. They both hoped he would spend much of the shoot on the set, but after the Iranian threats, they scrapped that idea, too. He came to Mumbai to help with casting, and from Sri Lanka, Mehta sent him pictures every day, and he talked with the actors over Skype. “Now I hope he likes it,” she frets, scuffing her feet through another delay for lighting.
The two have a similar sense of irony that unites them in their telling stories of India, the land they left so long ago and can’t stop talking about. And irony, Mehta notes, is in short supply in India these days, as the country crows about its growth and successes even as the poverty that stifles half its billion citizens remains unchanged.
“It’s all ‘Shining India,’ and you can’t talk about anything but that,” she says.
The film is presold in a half-dozen countries including Canada, Britain, France and Japan; it has significant Canadian investment, including over $4-million from the Canada Feature Film Fund. (Mehta says with a shrug that people are willing to invest in a project by her and Rushdie, although it seems risky, because the controversy will help market the film.) But their Midnight’s Children is still without a deal for distribution in India.
Clearly this troubles Mehta, and Rushdie, too, she says. “It is a pity – because I’d like to hear what people say about it in India.” Midnight’s Children will be released in the second half of 2012.
Mehta plans to sleep for this entire week, then plunge into editing. Talking about seeing it all knit together as a film, she drums her broad hands on the table in front of her, sending the red and gold bangles that line her wrists jangling.
Rushdie, for his part, articulates but one hope for the film: “That it’s good.”