It’s the cinematic splash, then, that commands our immediate attention. The movie was conceived over a dining-room table: “I was in Toronto four years ago in September and Deepa and I had dinner. I had the rights to Midnight’s Children, and we signed a contract for, like, $1, with an option to renew for another $1. Initially, I didn’t want to do the screenplay, but if I had said no we wouldn’t have been able to raise the money. Also, I knew you had to adapt it by not being overly respectful of the text, and the person who can be most disrespectful of the book is me.”
It took two years of disrespect to prune the novel – a sweeping account of partition-era India and of the magically realistic children who were born at the painful stroke of midnight’s declared independence – down to a feature-length script. He’s enamoured of his movie, of course, but not of the movies, not any more: “Certainly, the Hollywood cinema, there’s almost nothing of interest coming out of there.” His tone isn’t accusatory, just regretful, because film once played a huge role in both his life and his fiction. A near midnight’s child himself, born in 1947 in Bombay, Rushdie got packed off to put the Anglo into Indian, schooled at Rugby and later Cambridge where, in the tiny arts cinema, he surfed the multiple New Waves.
“I always felt I got a lot of my education in that little room. When I was teaching at Emory last year, I tried to tell them about what it felt like when those were the new movies – La Dolce Vita, Masculin Féminin, The Seventh Seal, then a Visconti movie, a Truffaut movie, Satyajit Ray, every week from all over the world, including America. As a writer, one of the things we all learned from the movies was a kind of compression that didn’t exist before people were used to watching films. For instance, if you wanted to write a flashback in a novel, you once had to really contextualize it a lot, to set it up. Now, readers know exactly what you’re doing. Close-ups too. Writers can use filmic devices that we’ve all accepted so much that we don’t even see them as devices any more.”
Back then, Rushdie was himself part of a cultural renaissance, a gifted generation of British writers that included Amis, Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes, Kazuo Ishiguro, Timothy Mo. He took longer to find his voice, but when it came – in Midnight’s Children, Shame, The Satanic Verses, The Ground Beneath Her Feet, Shalimar the Clown – the timbre was distinctive. These novels vary in quality but not in method: riven characters, shifting locales, politically explosive yet wryly comic in tone, Western realism injected with levitating doses of Eastern magic.
So a factual memoir is a radical departure for him. The writing process, though, remained similar: “Really, you have to make people live on the page, whether they’re people you actually know or ones you’re making up.” Oops, a quick check for commandos, and he changes the subject, back to another radical departure and another cultural renaissance, this time in cable television. Salmon Rushdie, meet Showtime. Yes, he’s writing a pilot for a proposed series called Next People. Here’s the What: “It’s a science-fiction series but with no rocket ships or aliens. Ideas fiction.”
And here’s the Why: “Television is allowing work of a kind that has somehow been forced out of the cinema. A lot of it is much more a writer’s medium – David Chase, Matthew Weiner; these are the creative forces, the showrunners. Also, unlike 10 years ago, you can approach any actor with an idea for a TV series and they won’t throw you out of the room.”