Rushdie Book Becomes a Film
New York — Thanks to the printed word and the moving image, Salman Rushdie has recaptured the worst part of his life and relived one of the best.
Last fall, the 65-year-old author published the best-selling memoir Joseph Anton about his years in hiding that followed the 1988 publication of The Satanic Verses and the call for his death by Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Rushdie is now promoting the film adaptation of his breakthrough novel, Midnight’s Children, winner of the Booker Prize in 1981 and one of the most highly praised works of fiction of its time.
“It was cathartic to write Joseph Anton,” Rushdie explained during a recent interview, wearing a gray suit and no tie, sipping coffee at a hotel rooftop garden in midtown Manhattan. “And Midnight’s Children was the book where I really became a writer.”
Much of the world only learned about Rushdie after Satanic Verses, which was condemned by the Ayatollah and others as blasphemous and made him an author far more talked about than read. Forced to live under an assumed name, Joseph Anton, he felt as if he had lost control of his own life’s narrative. In his memoir, he turns himself into a kind of literary character, referring to himself in the third person, and uses narrative to get his own back.
“Now that time belongs to me,” he said. “It’s not just something that happened to me.”
In the literary community, Rushdie’s had long been an honored name because of Midnight’s Children. More than 500 pages, it’s a multi-layered narrative about Saleem Sinai, a child born at the very moment of India’s independence from Britain, and his terrifying, exhilarating and fantastic adventures that join his story to the story of his country. Widely regarded as a landmark of neo-colonial fiction, the novel follows Saleem through India’s independence and internal conflict, war with Pakistan and the 1970s “State of Emergency” declared by then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. It is a journey with a beginning, middle and end, but also one with countless detours and special effects, from powers of mind-reading to a nose with the most profound sense of smell.
Midnight’s Children was a coming-of-age story for Saleem, and for Rushdie. Born in India, he had spent much of his 20s working in advertising in London and writing fiction he came to regard as “unbearable amounts of garbage.” His first book, Grimus, was a fantasy novel that came out in 1975 and was quickly forgotten (Rushdie has long preferred it remain so). Rushdie then thought he might try a novel about childhood. The author had been born eight weeks after India’s independence and he soon realized the genius of making his character arrive at the moment itself. He “stumbled around” at first, trying to write in the third person, when he decided to let Saleem speak for himself.
“I was shocked. This was a kind of voice I had not heard before,” said Rushdie, who now lives in New York. “I thought, ‘What’s this?’ It was a very garrulous voice and I decided to just run with it. I found his voice and through his voice found mine.”
Until now, none of Rushdie’s books had been made into movies and Midnight’s Children seemed an unlikely candidate to go first. When Rushdie first met with director Deepa Mehta, they were supposed to discuss a more recent novel, Shalimar the Clown But Mehta, whose films include the Oscar-nominated Water, also asked about the rights to Midnight’s Children. Rushdie, surprised by her interest, agreed.
“It was instinct,” he said. “It was clear from talking to her how much the book meant to her.”
He will share any blame or credit. Rushdie wrote the screenplay (“Deepa twisted my arm”), provided off-screen narration and consulted with Mehta closely on the production, which stars Satya Bhabba as Saleem. Writers traditionally stand aside once they grant film rights, but Rushdie notes a history of deep involvement, whether John Irving, who won an Oscar for his screenplay for The Cider House Rules, or Paul Auster, who so enjoyed working with director Wayne Wang on an adaptation of his story Smoke that they ended up co-directing a follow-up, Blue in the Face.
“I had no intention of working on Smoke, but bit by bit I got dragged into doing it,” Auster said. “It turned out to be one of the great experiences of my life.”
Midnight’s Children runs 140 minutes, longer than the average film, but nowhere close to capturing everything in Rushdie’s book. Instead, Rushdie and Mehta agreed on how to condense it — removing subplots and digressions and a narrative device that has Saleem telling his story to a woman named Padma.
One notable change was the ending. In the movie we hear Rushdie reflecting on the events over the decades and concluding, with hope, that “they possess the authentic taste of truth, that they are, despite everything, acts of love.”
But the novel ends far more darkly, as if anticipating the trouble to come for Rushdie. Saleem declares that “it is the privilege and the curse of midnight’s children to be both masters and victims of their times, to forsake privacy and be sucked into the annihilating whirlpool of the multitudes, and to be unable to live or die in peace.”
“The book was haunted by the darkness of the time of the Emergency and I didn’t want to end the movie that way,” Rushdie said during his interview. “I wanted the ending to be a kind of beginning, one that suggests the start of another day.”