Midnight's Children. Directed by Deepa Mehta. Starring Satya Bhabha, Shriya Saran, Shabana Azmi, Anupam Kher, Siddharth Narayan, Shahana Goswami, Samrat Chakrabarti and Rahul Bose. Starts today at Cineplex Odeon Park & Tilford Cinemas.
MIDNIGHT'S Children was born over dinner.
No, that won't do.
Filmmaker Deepa Mehta and author Salman Rushdie were enjoying a meal. Mehta, perhaps best known for directing the Academy Award nominated film Water, had expressed an interest in adapting Rushdie's novel Shalimar the Clown, but for some reason, her mind drifted to a different book.
"I turned to him and said: 'Who has the rights for Midnight's Children?'" Mehta recalls. "I think he said he did, and I said, 'Well, I'm interested in making it into a movie.' And he said, 'Sure.' It was that simple."
Four years later, the film version of Midnight's Children tumbled forth into the world. A political fairy tale and a merging of history and magic, the film tells the story of a child who is born at the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947, the date of India's independence from British rule.
The film spans 60 years over love, betrayals, wars, poems, political assassinations, and a form of telepathy made possible by the protagonist's nasal cavity.
"It was completely impulsive, and I'm glad it was, because if it wasn't I would've been too scared, it was such of a mammoth task," Mehta says. "For me, the film is not only the coming of age . . . of a young man, but it's also the coming of age of a country."
Speaking from a hotel room in Toronto, Mehta struggles with a case of laryngitis as she reflects on the first time she cracked the spine of Midnight's Children.
Reading the novel in India in 1982, Mehta was moved by the story's humanity.
"It became the definitive book on post-colonial literature for me," she says. "The book was very familiar to me because I felt that many of the characters were like my own family members. My grandfather, my mother, my father."
Midnight's Children begins with a nose, a 'mad plantain' with a bridge that could almost let you cross a river. But when casting the picture, it was a pair of eyes that struck Mehta.
Port Moody actress and playwright Anita Majumdar plays Emerald, a character who is either vicious, practical or romantic, depending on your point of view.
"I loved her range," Mehta says of Majumdar. "She's got very expressive eyes. When I auditioned her she understood the humour in the character of Emerald. Everybody just went for her darkness and nobody went for her quirkiness, and I felt that Anita really captured that."
Majumdar plays Emerald with grace, while being completely unaware of possessing a heart that could freeze the spice out of curry.
"I loved Emerald. I still love Emerald. Everyone who talks to me tells me, 'Oh, she's such a spoiled brat,' or 'She's so mean,' and I've never seen her that way. I think she's fascinating," Majumdar says.
In one of Emerald's defining moments she chooses her prospective husband over the safety of a political dissident.
"It looks like she sells out her family and she does, but at the same time I don't think she thinks of it that way, she thinks of it as her family sold her out," Majumdar says. "No one thought to ask Emerald."
That pridefulness is evident in Majumdar's physicality.
"For me as an actor there was a lot of really thinking as though there's a string attached to my sternum because there's this sort of puffed chest, puffed sense of ego, and at the same time, propriety," she says.
Majumdar was first introduced to Rushdie's work as a student at UBC.
She was studying theatre, English, and South Asian languages when a professor told her about the way Rushdie plays with both Hindi and English phrases.
"I went to the bookstore and got Midnight's Children and started reading it because of that reason, but then became really engrossed in the actual book," she says. "For me, and my connection to my culture, and my connection to . . . ancestry, it was all really, really important."
The Partition of India, installed during the time of British rule, formed a religious divide between India and Pakistan.
"As a young person living outside of India I've always been deeply fascinated by Partition and the effects that we live with today in sort of a neo-colonist regime," Majumdar says.
The film centres on Emerald's nephew, Saleem. Born at midnight and using the power of his nose, Saleem is able to summon all the other Indian children born during the first hour of India's independence into a shared dream. Emerald is close to that magic, but never truly inside of it.
"Emerald is someone who actually attains everything, so she doesn't actually need magic." Majumdar says. "I think she's a dreamer as well, it's just that her dreams are very rooted in reality."
Majumdar's own dreams and reality collided when she got a phone call from Mehta.
"Deepa called me directly and said, 'I think you would make a great Emerald. Come to my office,'" she says, recalling Mehta's words. "Within six hours of me being taped, it was official. I had got the part."
Asked how often an actor wins a role that way, Majumdar replies: "It never happens that way, ever. . . . Deepa's kind of spoiled me. Now I go to auditions and I just expect, 'Well, obviously you want me, so why haven't I heard from you within four hours?'"
The actors rehearsed extensively, according to Majumdar, who says Mehta would host intricate discussions on the nuances of each crucial scene. But on the day of filming, everything could change.
"There's a kind of magic in that that allows you to take new risks," Majumdar says.
While primarily set in India, the film was shot in Sri Lanka.
"Sri Lanka has a lot of old colonial architecture, and India just doesn't have that architecture anymore," Majumdar explains.
"It's also sadly been in a civil war, which has stopped now, for 30 years," Mehta explains. "The result of which was that there was no rampant industrialization or development of real estate the way it has been in India. So when we tried to look for locations in India we just could not find anything that would fit the era we were looking for because everywhere you looked there were highrises, flyovers and monorails. It was impossible. But because of Sri Lanka being in the situation it was in, sort of a time warp, and it's rapidly changing now, but we could find locations that were really perfect for us."
The shoot was halted for three days after a protest was lodged from either the Iranian embassy or the foreign ministry in Iran, according to Mehta. Filming resumed when Sri Lanka's president returned to the country.
"He said, 'This is rubbish, I'm not going to be bullied by anybody, so carry on,'" Mehta recalls.
Filming in slums and forests and colonial mansions gives the film an authenticity lacking in many epics. For inspiration, Mehtra drew on Visconti's The Leopard, an Italian film that deals with the last days of an aristocrat and his aristocracy, as well as Mizoguchi's Ugetsu, a Japanese picture dealing with warfare and survival.
Midnight's Children is narrated by Rushdie. Like the decision to make the film to begin with, the decision to have Rushdie narrate was an instinctive one.
"When we finished doing the film . . . I really felt there was something missing and that was: I missed the words. One of the main things I'd fallen in love with in the novel was the words," Mehta says. "I wanted to capture the magic of his words."
Despite achieving fame as a writer, Rushdie was initially resistant.
"He said, 'Absolutely not,'" Mehta recalls. "Then I convinced him and he said, 'OK, but only if I reserve the right to fire myself.'"
Rushdie finally decided to let himself keep the job. "He's got such a beautiful voice and it works so well, makes it so personal. He likes it too, now," Mehta says.
As the author of plays like The Misfit and Fish Eyes, Majumdar believes being part of Midnight's Children has changed her.
"Saying more with less is one of the big lessons," she says. "As a young playwright in this country, I'm awestruck to think that one man can have so many stories and tell those stories with such impactful phrases and such economical sentences. It's pretty inspiring."
For Mehta, she hopes her film crosses lines and attracts moviegoers from all walks of life.
"I think it's pretty much a universal song. I feel it's very timely because it's the search for home, search for an identity, search for family, those are all subjects that are all so universal today," she says.