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When Deepa met Salman Add to ...

Deepa Mehta first met Salman Rushdie three years ago when friends of hers invited the author to an advance screening in New York of her film Water, the film that went on to an Oscar nomination.

The avid reader (Mehta) and the exuberant cinephile (Rushdie) immediately hit it off, and over subsequent months, the two became fast friends - e-mailing often, and grabbing meals or drinks together whenever they were in the same city.

Earlier this year over yet another (this time, home-cooked) meal at Mehta's Toronto home, the friendship blossomed into a professional collaboration, with the director and her producing (and life) partner David Hamilton acquiring the film rights to Rushdie's 1981 Booker Prize-winning novel, Midnight's Children.

And so, starting in mid-March, the pair plan to hole up in Rushdie's current hometown of New York for a month, where they'll hammer out a screenplay of the multilayered novel. Given that the book has often been called "unfilmable" - its 650 pages are a fantastical allegory that span three decades, innumerable voices and historic events - Mehta readily admits the big screen adaptation will have its challenges.

But , reached by phone at her mother's home in Delhi, Mehta says she believes they can pull it off. "Both Salman and myself feel one of the reasons that makes Midnight's Children 'filmable' is because the book is multilayered! Think Tristram Shandy!" (The 2006 Michael Winterbottom film-within-a-film - adapted from the classic 18th-century novel - that went on to be nominated for numerous British film prizes.)

"We speak the same language. … We understand each other," adds Mehta, who was originally booked to fly to India on the same day terrorists attacked multiple locations in Mumbai, but postponed the trip for three days after her mother pleaded with her to stay put.

"He grew up in Bombay. I grew up in Toronto. He's in New York and I'm in Toronto. Our sensibilities are very similar. We can talk in shorthand and we know the language of India."

Midnight's Children, a historical novel of modern India, is one of Mehta's favourite novels. It is a complex allegory combining three main tales: the turbulent history of 20th-century India, Pakistan and Bangladesh; the saga of a Muslim family; and the story of one man, Saleem Sinai, (pronounced SEE-nigh) whose telepathic powers allow him to communicate with other children born at the stroke of midnight on Aug. 15, 1947, the date of India's independence from Britain.

It is a highly imaginative, sweeping tale in which Rushdie places Saleem at the site of every significant event that occurred on the Indian subcontinent in the three decades after independence.

In recent weeks, Mehta has already begun plotting the structure of the screenplay in her head. After they hammer out the draft in April, she will then shift her focus to her next $20-million-plus film, Exclusion - about the Komagata Maru incident in which more than 300 Indian nationals were refused entry into Canada - which is slated to begin shooting in Vancouver this September. And she is still involved with her last film, Heaven on Earth: This week, she will be heading to the Dubai Film Festival where the movie is in competition with her brother Dilip's documentary, The Forgotten Woman.

Midnight's Children will get under way in 2010, mostly likely filming in Sri Lanka or India, or both.

"Salman is very easy to work with," says Mehta, of the man whose fourth novel, The Satanic Verses (1988) earned him death threats from Muslims in countless countries as well as a fatwa (religious edict) issued by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, then Supreme Leader of Iran. As a result of the latter, Rushdie spent nearly a decade underground, appearing in public only sporadically to criticize the fatwa as a threat to freedom of expression.

"He is somebody who is so brilliant and decorated, and he has a wonderful sense of humour. He's not at all precious, and he's a very hard-working and generous man. Both of us feel it's so much easier to be good friends working together as opposed to two people who don't know each other.

"What Salman wants from me is to actually do a treatment," further explains Mehta. "What I want from him are the details and his sense of dialogue. He is an amazing writer and talker. I will provide the structure, the skeleton [of the screenplay] and he will provide the meat - or the skin and bones.

"I've started a skeleton thing as images come to my mind, and I feel I know how to start the film, and how to condense the characters." The first week of co-writing, Mehta adds, she and Rushdie will walk through the treatment. Then they will each go away and communicate by e-mail. The fourth week, they will do the draft together.

Like Mehta, Hamilton readily concedes the interwoven material in the book will "stretch our ability to create … in a way that visually expresses the richness that is in Salman's voice, a lot of it which is almost his stream of consciousness.

"But they're confident they can do this together. Salman says it won't take too long because he's written it three times now," says Hamilton with a chuckle.

The triple effort that he's referring to? Rushdie wrote a BBC television adaptation of his own novel in five episodes, which was about to begin filming in Sri Lanka when the government abruptly withdrew its permission. The project was abandoned. He then took that pared-down television script and co-wrote a theatrical version which appeared - to mixed reviews - in January, 2003, at London's Barbican Theatre, where it had a five-week season. It has since toured.

Mehta believes this is a book that was meant to be filmed. "I've always loved this book - on one hand it's very particular. On the other, it's extremely universal at the same time. It never talks down to anybody. It just holds you and takes you on a journey with this young man who has the conceit to think he's linked to the history of India - with humour and such an incredible sense of imagination. It's historical as well as personal, and I love that combination. One informs the other.

"With dark humour, Salman challenges many things that we take for granted politically. I see this as a political book. But then I think everything is political these days."

When Mehta arrived in Delhi late Saturday night, the airport was still on high alert and grenades were being lobbed at the Taj in Mumbai. She says she watched the news until 5 in the morning, trying to make sense of the violence that killed 195.

"There has been lots of bomb blasts and terrorist attacks in India in the last few years, but they've been nothing like this," she says. "This was so blatant. So co-ordinated. It's a very particular kind of terrorism that makes everyone feel vulnerable. But the people's feelings of vulnerability turned to anger very fast.

"The public was very voluble about the politicians letting them down. The accountability factor has become huge. And as an Indian and a Canadian I'm really proud [of this reaction]" adds Mehta, referring specifically to the resignation last Sunday of India home minister Shivraj Patil, the first high-profile casualty of the terrorist attacks. "It's people saying, hold on, we don't have to take this.

"Wanting - and demanding - answers is a very good thing," the auteur filmmaker says. "Politicians - everywhere in the world, including at home in Canada - are feeling vulnerable right now, which is great. As they should."

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