When I walk into the downtown Toronto hotel room to meet Salman Rushdie, I can’t help scoping the halls for bodyguards. Even though he’s no longer in hiding, there’s still a three million dollar bounty on the writer’s head and he’s still the most buzzed about celebrity at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival — but if Rushdie’s worried about being assassinated by religious zealots, he certainly doesn’t show it.
Dapperly dressed in what I’d guess is a designer suit worth more than my entire wardrobe, with an easy smile and sparkling eyes that suggest he likes life as a literary trickster, Rushdie is so instantly likable that when someone tells me the late Christopher Hitchens once called him “the most charming man I’ve ever met,” I don’t doubt it for a second (although I can’t source the quote so if you can, feel free to let us all know in the Comments below).
For most people Rushdie is more famous as a symbol than a storyteller. From the moment the Ayatollah Khomeini put a price on Rushdie’s head in 1989 for authoring and, according to Khomeini, blaspheming in the novel The Satanic Verses, the Booker Prize-winning author has been more infamous as a lightning rod than a literary figure — despite continuing to turn out a series of brilliant books.
His recent adventures as an author include the publication of Joseph Anton — a memoir about his life in exile — and writing the screenplay for the book that established him as a modern literary master, Midnight’s Children, which was directed by Canada’s Deepa Mehta (Fire, Bollywood Hollywood).
I was assigned to write about the movie and his life for another publication, but I thought Back of the Book readers might be interested in the story of how Rushdie reimagined his literary landscape for the big screen.
“The book is 600 pages long, the screenplay is 120 pages — that’s the problem. And initially we really did think, quite seriously, about making a two part film,” says Rushdie. “The first draft that I wrote was with that in mind — the idea of making two movies — and it was 270 pages, which would have made two long films.” Rushdie laughs at the idea now. “We very rapidly discovered that while there was a lot of interest in supporting a film of Midnight’s Children, there was no interest in supporting two films. Nobody wanted to put up the money for two films and we just started looking for the money and it became clear that we would not be able to finance a two film project. It would not happen. So we had one film or nothing, that was the choice. So we thought, okay, we’ll make one film. Then I had to try to take a 270 page screenplay and cut it in half, more than cut it in half. It was tough, you know. It’s just, in the end, you have to ask yourself over and over and over again, ‘What is the essential story?'”
Both Rushdie and Mehta made a list of the scenes they felt were essential — Mehta told me in a separate interview that, with just one exception, their lists were identical.
“It took a long time,” says Rushdie. “It wasn’t overnight. It was gradually select and eliminate and re-write and write new scenes which can do the work of four scenes and find a way of telling the story in the most compact way. And then just have the faith that the other things that are part of the filmmaking process will add back a lot of what you’ve taken out. The cinematography, the costumes, the actual performances — all these things will put back in some of the riches that you’ve had to eliminate. So the script becomes reinvigorated by the making of the film. The script is not a film, the script is a step on the way to a film. And it was very informative in the end. I think I learned quite a lot about the novel through this act of interrogation of the novel in trying to look at the core of it.”
Rushdie said the only reason he was able to make all the cuts and changes necessary to take his story from page to screen was because of how long ago he told the original tale about the magical children born the moment India achieved independence.
“I did it so long ago that it’s almost like it’s a different person who wrote it. It’s a much younger self. When Midnight’s Children was published I was 33-years old. When I started writing it I was 33-years old. Now I’m 65. So it’s looking back at the imagination of that younger self. That was kind of what was fun about it — to go back and have a sort of argument with your younger self about how to tell the story. I think that’s why I could do it, because it is 30 years ago. I think truthfully if it had been a book I just wrote I would have said, ‘I’m not going to do it.’ I think I would have been the wrong person to do it.”
In addition to writing the screenplay, Rushdie also consulted with Mehta on the India he grew up in, the world that inspired the book. “I had talked with Deepa and Dilip [Mehta, the production designer] about my visual memories of the world of my childhood — how people dressed, for example that there were young girls, even from Muslim families in Bombay, who would tend to wear skirts, not Salwar Kameez or something. And so I wanted to make sure that we got that kind of period thing right. And Dilip of course went to enormous trouble, enormous trouble, to find the right objects from the past . . . So I do think that the look of the film is, for me, unusually evocative.”
Rushdie also narrates the movie, a role that was a surprise to him both because he never imagined acting in the piece and because he originally wrote the script without a narrator. “When we first talked about writing the screenplay, I said, ‘Look, let’s try to do it without a voiceover, let’s just allow the story to tell itself.” And in the first draft of the screenplay there’s no voiceover at all. And later on we were thinking about it and we agreed that maybe it needed some, just to hold together all this episodic narrative. So then I wrote a voiceover but it never occurred to me that I would narrate it. It never occurred to me. And it was only really after the whole film was shot, when it was in post-production, that Deepa said, “I think you should do it.” And I said, “Of course I shouldn’t do it, you should get an actor, get a professional.” And she said, “No, I think it would be better if you do it.” In the end I said, “Okay, I’ll try, but if I don’t like it I’m going to fire myself.” So we tried. And, in the end, I started seeing how it felt when we started laying it over the cut. And in the end I thought — okay, it seems to work. So we sort of backed into it. It was never part of the original concept.”
But if any writer in the world can roll with surprises . . .