Salman Rushdie, Deepa Mehta: Movies Not to Blame for Real-World Violence (Q&A)

Salman Rushdie Deepa Mehta H

The British author and Indian director discuss their adaptation of Rushdie's best-selling book "Midnight's Children" and the plight of women in India.

NEW DELHI -- Deepa Mehta's latest film Midnight's Children is based on the best-selling, Booker Prize-winning 1981 book by Salman Rushdie, which revolves around the partition of India and Pakistan following the end of British rule in 1947.

Both Rushdie and Mehta have faced their share of controversies over the years. Mehta's hard-hitting 1996 film Fire had to be pulled out of Indian cinemas as women's groups protested against its lesbian theme, and 1998's Water -- which looked at the state of widows in the country -- had to be filmed outside India after its set was ransacked by protestors. Rushdie's 1988 novel The Satanic Verses became the center of a major international controversy, after Muslims accused it of blasphemy and protests erupted in several countries. In 1989, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Supreme Leader of Iran, issued a fatwa calling for Rushdie's death. The author has had to live under security ever since, and the book still draws strong protests, such as in 2011 when Rushdie was forced to cancel his appearance at the Jaipur Literature Festival following reported threats by Muslim groups.

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Midnight's Children, which was scripted by Rushdie, was cleared late last year by India's censors without a single cut. On the eve of the film's opening in India on Feb. 1, Mehta and Rushdie sat down with The Hollywood Reporter to share views on their collaboration, the state of Indian cinema and whether movie violence and the way women are depicted in film can be attributed to real-world violence, such as the recent brutal gang-rape of a medical student in India and the school shooting in Sandy Hook.

The Hollywood Reporter: The film rights to Midnight's Children were sold for a dollar. Is there some message in this for studios and agents?

Salman Rushdie: [Laughs] Well, yes, it's a funny story and it's true that the film options were actually for two dollars. There was a two year option for a dollar and the option to renew was for another dollar. It was a really tough negotiation! The truth is that in order to make independent films, very often people have to defer money because you have to raise the money to make the film. You own a share [of the project] and hopefully make something with the back-end. In this case, it was never about the money. Midnight's Children is too important a book to me for money to be the issue. Somebody could have offered me a very large sum of money, but if they were not the right director or setup, it would have been wrong to go that route. The point here was to find the creative connection.

THR: This is a different India than when the book first came out in 1981. Do you think there's always a right time for a project, perhaps a karmic coincidence?

Deepa Mehta: I really do, though I am not into karmic things or destiny. I felt passionately about this project and it came from within. It was the right moment for me to make it.

THR: Your previous film Water encountered problems shooting in India, forcing you to move to Sri Lanka. Did you face the same issues again?

Mehta: It's not that we didn't have permission to shoot in India. We wanted to shoot here and we could have. I came to do location scouting in Mumbai, Delhi and Agra. But we found that to make a period film that spans from 1917 to the sixties, that kind of India doesn't exist. You can't go anywhere in Delhi without seeing cellphone towers and water tanks everywhere along with high-rise buildings dotting the skyline, especially in Mumbai. So we made  a decision to shoot in Sri Lanka where we could recreate that setting.

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THR: How deep was the collaboration between author and filmmaker, especially when it came to casting the project?

Rushdie: Deepa really involved me in everything. She would send me clips or links of videos of particular actors. We were in Mumbai together three years ago and saw a lot of actors and certain casting came out of that.

Mehta: Some of the actors were from drama school, and some hadn't acted before, so it was wonderful to collaborate. [For the central character of Saleem Sinai] we really wanted a new face and Salman agreed with that [leading to the eventual casting of UK-based actor of Indian origin Satya Bhabha]. We didn't want much baggage. I mean, we did think of other actors too, such as Bollywood actor Imran Khan, but it didn't happen. Not that there aren't interesting actors in India -- there are fabulous actors, such as Ranbir Kapoor and Shahid Kapoor -- but we wanted something different.

THR: This seems to have parallels with the casting of then newcomer, also a UK-based actor of Indian origin, Dev Patel as the lead in Slumdog Millionaire. Danny Boyle also wanted someone with no baggage.

Rushdie: The point about a fresh face is that it's fresh. I mean, I think of Stanley Kubrick making Lolita. He didn't want to cast an actress that anyone had ever seen.

Mehta: And that's exactly what Ang Lee did by casting [Delhi-based newcomer] Suraj Sharma in Life of Pi. But on the other hand, when I was doing Earth, I was clear that the only person who could play [the central character of] the ice candy man was Aamir Khan [an A-list Bollywood star]. The actor, whether or not he or she is a star, has to be right for the role.

THR: What trends have you observed recently in the evolution of Indian cinema?

Mehta: For me there's one brilliant filmmaker who I really admire and that is Vishal Bharadwaj. He has taken Indian cinema to a new level from the time he did Maqbool and Omkara (Indian adaptations of Macbeth and Othello set in modern times) and his other films, as well. Another interesting person is Dibakar Banerjee. I mean, he really got the spirit and essence of Delhi in Oye! Lucky, Lucky Oye! (a hit comedy caper). Similarly, Delhi Belly was also interesting. I loved Anurag Kashyap's [campus political drama] Gulaal. He is another very interesting director. But I am not crazy about the big shootout movies.

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Rushdie: Look at the history of cinema in this country. If you see the 1950s after independence [from British rule in 1947], yes, of course you had a kind of art cinema in Bengal, but even the big Mumbai movies, which were not called Bollywood then, had icons like Raj Kapoor and Guru Dutt. There was an attempt to make serious films while they were popular and commercial. By the seventies, there was parallel art cinema with some interesting work from Shyam Benegal and Govind Nihalani. Then I thought what happened is this idea of what started to be termed as Bollywood came about and popular cinema became purely entertainment. It lost that sense of seriousness inside the popular medium [by the eighties and nineties]. Now I think its very interesting that there is a return of really good cinema that is not being just popular or just arthouse. That's a third act in the history of Indian cinema, which is very positive. Anurag Kashyap's Gangs of Wasseypur was huge fun. I saw Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained and you could say a lot of things against it, but it was incredible fun. I don't like blood and gore and I am very squeamish about violence, but Tarantino's violence is actually funny. I think there is a way of doing these kind of gangster shootout films which can become interesting.

THR: Your 1996 film Fire was an important work examining the suppression of women in a middle class Delhi household. Against the backdrop of the recent horrific gang-rape in Delhi and the mass protests demanding more security for women, what is your take on the portrayal of women in Indian cinema?

Mehta: It really depends on the kind of films in how they portray women. I know there is this debate over “item” songs (overtly glamorized songs usually featuring a guest actress in skimpy clothing) and my take is that if you can't stand it, don't see it. Everything should be allowed to exist. It's not what women do that dictates how society should change. I think it's the men who have to change. Don't tell women that they can't wear short clothes or to stay home and have less choices. It's about how men have looked at women in India. When you see all my films, they all refer to the lack of choices offered to the woman. Water (which examined the state of widows in India) was about rape. The running line of Earth (based on the communal riots following the partition of India and Pakistan) was that all wars are fought on women's bodies. And Fire was about a husband who says to his wife (as she is engulfed in flames) that you can burn, but I would rather save my mother and leave. So its all about the [gender] relationships -- women aren't there by themselves. It's all about interactions. The reason why I loved Midnight's Children is that it's about very powerful women who are mothers and lovers, who make choices and how they can stand up for their own. I think this is a good time for people to see the film.

THR: Did you see the mass protests demanding more justice and better security for women as a kind of social catharsis?

Rushdie: I just hope it continues and goes on. Yes, there was an explosion of anger that was completely justified, but as Deepa says, the point is to change behavior. You can change the law that needs to be changed and speed up the judicial process, as there are a large number of rape cases sitting there for decades. But beyond that, men need to change the way they think about women. Until that happens, things like this will go on happening. By the time we finished the script, it was obvious that this was a film with very strong women characters. And I love the how the actresses (including Shriya Saran, Shabana Azmi, Shahana Goswami and Seema Biswas) made the characters their own. I come from a family with very strong women. I have no brothers and three sisters. I have a lot of women in my family around me, very loud, opinionated, tough, difficult women -- starting from my grandmother, who was terrifying! I always found myself writing characters like that. The women in my books are not shy, shrinking violets -- they are out there. They are in your face and if you get in their way, well, it's probably not a good idea!

THR: Looking ahead, how do you see art's relationship to feminism evolving in India?

Rushdie: This is where it gets difficult because I don't want to tell people how to make movies. I can't tell anybody not to put “item songs" in movies. If the culture shifts, if people think differently about women, the art will shift, too. You can't ask art to make social change. Its not what it's for.

Mehta: Art is political and should be political. But to use it to dictate to people how to think because you think something is liberal or feminist, I don't think that's how it works.

Rushdie: It's like in America after all these killings, there has been this conversation about violence in American films. But actually, that's blaming the messenger. It's not the movies that create the violence. If they reflect or portray violence that's not saying that films endorse or accept violence. You are looking at the wrong place, you have to look at society. It's too easy to blame entertainment.

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THR: The title of the book Midnight's Children refers to the generation born at the cusp of independence in India and Pakistan in 1947. How do you see this generation in today's context?

Rushdie: Well, they are the ruling generation, that's the problem. It's like the baby boomers in the West, but in India there's always a baby boom! But that baby boomer generation in the West evolved from the hippies to the people in power who now rule the world.

Mehta: And Goldman Sachs!

Rushdie: I am exactly that generation. You thought of yourself as being revolutionary and you suddenly find yourself as the establishment old farts. It's the next generation that has to act against that.

THR: And do you think India's current generation just might do that in light of what happened in Delhi?

Rushdie: The terrible thing that happened in Delhi was a very galvanizing event and the protests were a response to that. It's not for people my age, but the youth who have to make the change.

THR: When India's censorship board cleared Midnight's Children without a cut, that seemed like a big relief given both of you have been facing controversies for years. Do you perhaps see some closure in this to the controversies of the past?

Mehta: Even with my last film, a small film that nobody likes except me, Heaven On Earth (about domestic violence), there was no problem. I have now come to a point in my relationship with India where I am bored of being called controversial. I am not tired, I am bored of the preconceptions. It's like, come on, give me a break, let's carry on. So it's not about coming to terms with it -- it's about whatever will happen, let it happen. It's really great that Midnight's Children went through without a single cut by the censors. And it made me think, perhaps there is a maturity now. First of all, I don't think the censorship board should exist, but if it does, then it should be the kind that saw our film and said that it is historically accurate and should not be cut. So that kind of maturity is positive.

Rushdie: The book has been here for decades and everybody knows it. It's a terrible weight to carry around that you are considered controversial. I never set out to be that. I am trying to do the best work I can. I am trying to talk about the things in my head that obsess me and turn those into stories -- it's not complicated. All I ever wanted was to be a working writer, and I am fortunate in many ways to be that with a big audience, but unfortunate in other ways because there is this ghost of controversy. I mean, many people who have read Midnight's Children do not find it controversial and think it's a really good book. I don't see why their point of view is less than the point of view of people who attack it without reading it. My view is, enough already! I just need a few more years in my life where I can be just like a writer and artist among other writers and artists. Midnight's Children has been loved in India as a book, and all I hope is that people can go and see the film and enjoy it as well.

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Mehta: What is even more irritating is when people tell me, Oh, you have done Midnight's Children because you want to court controversy! As if everything you do is to get the controversy. That's the last thing one needs. As an artist, when people start viewing your work through the lens of controversy, it demeans your work. It's very depressing.

Rushdie: And it's something you have to fight against. And we have to say, can you not look at that, can you look at the work behind that? I am hopeful that the film has a kind of authority that grabs the audience for a couple of hours. It doesn't matter if it's a faithful adaptation of the book, so long as it's a good film.

THR: Having worked on the screenplay, are you bitten by the movie bug to do more film projects?

Rushdie: I have always been bitten by the film bug. I have always loved movies, and it's strange why it took so long for this film to be made.

Mehta: You see that in the book itself -- it is so cinematic.

Rushdie: I am sort of developing a TV drama series in America for Showtime. It's in the very early stages and it hasn't even been greenlit yet, and we are a long way from working on a pilot. But if that happens, it will be fun.

THR: Any chance of your other books turning into films?

Rushdie: All of them! Why not? I hope Midnight's Children will open the floodgates. There is some interest in my latest, Joseph Anton: A Memoir. I have always thought that my two children's books -- Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990) and Luka and the Fire of Life (2010) -- could be films in this age of Harry Potter and special effects fantasy films. But I also fear that the kind of books that I write don't immediately grab the big studios. So what you need is -- as I was lucky with Midnight's Children -- to find a creative filmmaker who has the passion to make it.

THR: But if you asked for a couple of million dollars for the film rights to your books, maybe the big studios would be interested.

Rushdie: [Laughs] Next time I am going for the cash!

THR: What kind of film projects are you working on next?

Mehta: There are some ideas. One of them is what I call my gangster film, which is set in Canada. Its about the Sikh gangs in Vancouver's Punjabi community. It's a very interesting project, and Salman is going to act in it, portraying a gangster. He is a very good actor.

THR: So do you have an agent in Hollywood?

Rushdie: Yes, I do. UTA, but they represent me for other things.