Salman Slays the Cinematic Giant
At long last, celebrated novelist Salman Rushdie makes a movie.
by Rebecca Carroll photography Alexei Hay
It’s a funny business accusing Salman Rushdie of procrastination, but it's true that his latest project has been a little late coming. After 15 books, a decade-plus of living under a fatwa, and 32 years after its original publication, Midnight’s Children has finally become a film.
“I actually feel it’s very strange that it took me so long to get round to it,” says Rushdie, wearing a striped gray suit with a smart blue shirt, his eyes bright behind his signature wire frame glasses. “I think it’s because there is something in me which prefers to just sit in a room and do it by myself. Temperamentally, I’m more suited to that.” This may be so, although he discusses the many and varied elements of putting a film together with the ease and insight of a veteran. “I’ve always been quite modest about the role of a scriptwriter,” Rushdie explains, “because the script is important, but it’s a step on the way to the film. It’s in many ways the first step, and then many things happen — performances happen, cinematography happens, editing happens.”
Directed by Rushdie’s longtime friend Deepa Mehta, the Toronto-based director known best for her trilogy Fire (1996), Earth (1998) and Water (2005), the film adaptation does not aim to mirror the novel, which tells the story of two Indian boys born on the eve of India’s independence and swapped at birth. Rather, Rushdie considers the film more like “a distant relative” of the book. Distant relative or not, you'd think it would be hard to effectively adapt your own book for the screen, especially if that book made you famous and earned every conceivable literary prize under the sun, including the Booker and the Booker of Bookers.
"I actually had tears in my eyes, and I thought, there’s the movie. It was an extraordinary moment. I said, ‘You made my book into a movie.’ That never happened to me before.”
Not so, says Rushdie. He trusted Mehta and her talent implicitly. “The lucky thing is that Deepa and I had such an instinctively similar take on how to approach the project,” says Rushdie, with clear appreciation. “When we had a locked script, before Deepa left for the shoot, I said, ‘Let’s look at this literally scene by scene — what are we trying to do, what are we trying to get — is this comedy, is this sad, how big is the shot?’ So we really talked through it in incredible detail, and after that, I just said, ‘Go do it.’” He shrugs a shoulder, as if at the time he was simply encouraging a friend to go out and do what she loves.
While Mehta shot in Sri Lanka, Rushdie stayed in New York to finish his memoir, Joseph Anton, published last year. He would see various cuts of the film over the course of nearly five years, during which time he never felt the urge to step in or take over. “I deliberately didn’t go to the shoot,” he says. “I know enough about movies to know that only one person makes a movie, unless you’re the Coen brothers, and then two people do. I also know that if you’re not on a film set with a specific job, it’s a) the most boring thing in the world, and b) everybody falls over your feet and it’s sort of annoying.”
Despite a notably placid working relationship (“Four-and-a-half years and not one fight.”), Rushdie and Mehta did face one potentially awkward hurdle toward the end of the process. When Mehta and the editor Colin Monie showed Rushdie a version of the film they both felt was close to finished, Rushdie wasn’t happy with what he saw. “It kind of wasn’t there,” he recalls. “It was very hard to put a finger on what wasn’t there. The funny stuff wasn’t funny. It was just not OK. Colin and Deepa I think were clearly a bit disappointed that I said that, but then they went away and worked like crazy for several weeks."
When they came back, Rushdie was astonished. “It’s not like they did anything big — they didn’t throw stuff out, it was all a quarter of a second here, half a second there, it was about rhythm — and suddenly, everything went click. I actually had tears in my eyes, and I thought, there’s the movie. It was an extraordinary moment. I said, ‘You made my book into a movie.’ That never happened to me before.”
Later, when Rushdie and his team screened the film for the first time at the 2012 Telluride Film Festival, he discovered he was not alone in finding that the film had an enormous emotional impact — and of an entirely different kind than that of the book. “I had this lovely moment, there was this gentleman sitting next to me, and when the lights came up he had tears on his face. And I said to him, ‘I’m sorry I made you cry,’ which was a lie. And then he said this very sweet thing, he said, ‘No, no, don’t be sorry, these are tears of beauty.’”
Rushdie would like to do more with film, but is mindful of his priorities. “I’m 65. I’ve got books to write.” Also, no matter the medium, the art of crafting a narrative takes time. “Yes, telling a story of a movie is a different game, but in the end you’re still faced with the problem you’re always faced with, which is how do you tell the story?” For now, he has resolved to return to do the kind of storytelling he knows best. “I’m trying to get back to the day job,” he says with a smile. “It struck me that the last adult novel I published was in 2007,” Rushdie notes, referring to The Enchantress of Florence, after which he wrote a children’s book called Luka and the Fire of Life. “So that’s six years that I haven’t written a grown-up novel. So I thought, do the day job. Get back to that.”
It is soothing, familiar territory for Rushdie, a time of creative reckoning, he says, that is “the most fun — when you’re actually finding out what your own imagination is trying to tell you.”
Midnight's Children opens in New York theaters on April 26th and in wide release May 3rd.