Midnight's Children is literally an epic movie. It tells about the birth and development of India through the eyes of children born the moment the country declared its independence. Deepa Mehta takes a huge leap forward as a director taking the adaptation of Salman Rushdie's novel and crafting a movie that deals with large global issues and still feels like it is a story of people.
As the film was about to premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, Deepa Mehta took a couple of minutes to answer some questions about the film.
Women and Hollywood: So I’ve seen your Elelments trilogy, and then I saw Midnight's Children the other day. What a movie. I felt like this one was considerably larger in scale than your previous films. Please talk about what was different in terms of making this one happen.
Deepa Mehta: Yes, Midnight Children is larger in scale than the trilogy for example – the size, the location, and the span – you know this is –
WaH: It’s epic.
DM: Yes, you said it! It’s epic. It spans 60 years and its a personal, emotional story. But it’s also about two wars, it’s about independence, it’s about bloodshed. At one point we had about 3,000 extras, and elephants, and armored trucks. I departed from what I had usually done, but that’s what was fun about it, that you constantly surprise yourself with the challenges.
WaH: Absolutely. What drew you to this particular story?
DM: It’s the book. Midnight's Children the film is based on Midnight's Children the book, which is a kind of iconic, it won the Booker. But it’s the story of Midnight Children which is so beautiful. Because when you have something that has such an epic scale, which is what happens to the post-colonial history of India since its independence. The through line is so personal and emotional. People ask what do you think the film is about? And I always say that for me the film is about family — families that exist, blood families, and families that we make.
WaH: Your fellow Canadian filmmaker Sarah Polley just made a film about the same thing, about family, about blood, it’s just fascinating to see the two films juxtaposed. So I would imagine there were a lot of challenges along the way to make this movie.
DM: Every film is a challenge.
WaH: Tease one piece of the challenge out for you in getting this done.
DM: I don’t want to be melodramatic, but I think that once we have a cast of more than 2,000 or 3,000. The logistics of having 3000 extras, act as dead bodies in a field where it’s raining and it’s water logged and it’s got buffalos and it’s got snakes. It just was very difficult. And then in between this we had sort of a political hitch and for a few days and we were shut down. And that was a bit hairy. It wasn’t something that worried me. I never felt that it was like "oh my god it’s happening again." I know it makes good copy, but I just feel that, why give it more importance than it’s due.
WaH: I know filmmakers who would take this as lessons for the future.
DM: You can never be prepared for a film. Don’t you agree? You can never really know what’s going to happen in a film. It’s always a chore. So whether you’re going to make the whole film in your kitchen the way Bertolucci made his last film in a basement, or Last Tango in an apartment, or you want to open the scale up and make Lawrence of Arabia. It’s always tough.
WaH: So, I’m fascinated by the fact that there are two galas by Indian women in this festival.
DM: Are there?
WaH: Yes, Mira Nair–Last night
DM: Oh yes, The Reluctant Fundamentalist and they’re both based on books.
WaH: Yes, and both about being of two worlds. The character is between two worlds, you talk about that in the movie.
DM: No, Saleem always knew where he belonged. He was Indian. And he came home.
WaH: I guess what I’m trying to talk about is both you and Mira are Indian and she is American and Canadian but kind of telling Indian stories, and I find that so exciting. So talk about that, you and Mira together –
DM: Mira is a wonderful person. I’ve known Mira since she was born and I adore her. And not only am I very fond of her as a person but I’m a great admirer of her work. To this day Salaam Bombay! remains my favorite film, one of my favorite films, as does Monsoon Wedding.
But I think we make very different kinds of films. And you can think outside the framework, the framework of say Canada and look at the world in a different way and I think the way she looks is different. It's about whatever fascinates you as a person. Identity does not fascinate me. I think what fascinates me is the role that nostalgia plays and how much does it color what we want. Also how much do we keep on having to explain ourselves to a so-called white audience. That is anathema to me. I don’t want to spend my life explaining. And I’ve never done it; I don’t like it. I’ve spent my life seeing films about cultures I know nothing about and I embrace them because I learn something about them. Whether it’s a Korean film or a Slavic film, it’s great. And they never do that.
WaH: What struck me was the portrayal of Indira Ghandi and I’ve never seen her like that. My experience was that she always promoted peace.
DM: Oh my god. But that’s great!
WaH: What are people in India going to say about this and how close to reality was that and is this a chapter?
DM: It’s absolutely true, it’s a hundred percent true. The emergency did happen. It’s a historical fact. I think it might have been glossed over in Indian books but it isn’t everywhere as it shouldn’t be. The emergency was a real fact, as were forced sterilization, the curtailing of the freedom of the press, and gatherings and elections. It was a horrific time.
WaH: But as a woman leader you don’t see that as part of her legacy in the general worldview of her leadership.
DM: Well maybe it’s something that they want to continue to see, they want to continue to project. And also don’t forget that it’s the daughter-in-law that’s the head honcho in India right now so what gets seen, what gets heard has a lot to do with what Ms. Sonia Ghandi would like. And she had a very close relationship with her mother-in-law. I’m not saying Ms. Ghandi is all bad. There are aspects of her which are tremendous. She’s a really charismatic, strong, well read, erudite and a strong politician.
WaH: What was it like working with Salman Rushdie on the screenplay?
DM: Oh it was great. I mean I love working with Salman because it was so important that he do the screenplay. I mean I knew that the irreverence he could bring to his book nobody else could. And you needed somebody to be completely ruthless and say okay this is the book, I love the book, but now we have to make the movie. And the good thing about Salman is that he loves film, he understands it, he’s a real cinephile. So he made that leap into cinema very easily. And he’s got a great sense of humor so we had good fun.
WaH: I was reading an article where you went to prepare physically for this and you went to the gym –
DM: I gave up smoking!
WaH: Did you know that this was just going to be a marathon?
DM: Of course. When you have a script and you break it down and you say these are the number of days that we’re going to be shooting, and these are the number of days we’re going to be shooting at night and these are the number of hours that we’re going to be shooting and these are the big scenes that we’re going to be doing. And something that’s important in this film is the design because we shot in Sri Lanka. We had 60 years of India in Sri Lanka. So the detail of the design that Dilip did was just super –
WaH: That’s your brother, right?
DM: Yes. Without him the film wouldn’t have beeen possible because the look of the film was more important than the cinematography.
WaH: Can you just talk for a brief moment about the Elements trilogy because those movies were breathtaking. You’re a lesbian icon. Telling women’s stories that are just not told. What was the passion behind making the three of them?
DM: I didn’t think that I was making a film at all about lesbians. It isn’t a film at all about lesbians. For me it’s a film about freedom of choice and particularly in middle class households in contemporary India what choices do women really have? What are the limits that they can go to without the shit hitting the fan, so to speak. And that was the inspiration. I thought what extreme thing could they do that would be considered extreme by Indian society and how would society react to that. So that’s how Fire got born. And then it became about the elements because it became about earth, which is about division of Pakistan and India – then it became about water and how that it can be a purifying life sustaining force but one that if it stagnates it can kill you. So all three of them became a metaphor for some kind of restriction in law.
WaH: What advice do you offer other filmmakers who are working on getting their movies made?
DM: I think firstly it’s really important that as women – we all know that making films is tough. But I think it’s really important that women stop thinking they are victims and stop thinking, oh my god it’s tough for us. It’s a given that it’s tough. But I think that victimization is a real impediment of expressing what we really want to do.
WaH: You can identify as a woman but not be a victim at the same time.
DM: Exactly. I’m a woman filmmaker. You can see that. Am I a victim? No. Do I spend a lot of my time complaining about it? Actually no, because I find it really boring. Let’s get on with it. Life’s too short.