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Deepa Mehta works with photography director Giles Nuttgens on the set of Midnight's Children, Mehta's adaptation of the Salman Rushdie novel. (Stephanie Nolen / The Globe and Mail)
Deepa Mehta works with photography director Giles Nuttgens on the set of Midnight's Children, Mehta's adaptation of the Salman Rushdie novel. (Stephanie Nolen / The Globe and Mail)

Film

Mehta at midnight Add to ...

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.”

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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.’ ”

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.”

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.”

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