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Celebrated Storytellers

By Murali Kamma Email By Murali Kamma
May 2013
Celebrated Storytellers

In an interview with Khabar at Emory University, Salman Rushdie discusses Midnight’s Children, South Asian writing, his memoir focusing on the fatwa years, India’s rising intolerance, his ex-wives, what filmmaking taught him about writing, and why he criticized last year’s Nobel laureate in literature.

Neither Salman Rushdie nor Deepa Mehta needs an introduction. And their collaboration on the film Midnight’s Children, based on Rushdie’s classic novel, won’t come as news to cineastes. As for book lovers, well, some may still be wondering how they managed to adapt this multilayered literary work, which Satyajit Ray once described as unfilmable. An epic-like tale numbering over 500 pages, Midnight’s Children spans six decades and three generations, not to mention three wars—and it features quirky but memorable characters, dense plotting, and a chutnified English that delighted readers and influenced the way Indians wrote fiction.

Not to forget, Midnight’s Children has magic realism, along with a magical status in the postcolonial canon. Considered one of 20th century’s 100 best English-language novels, it won the Booker of Bookers in 1993, although it was the first Booker Prize—in 1981—that came as a jolt to the literary world, bringing wide attention to Indian writing. Just as India Inc. began to rise in 1991, following the introduction of economic reforms, one could argue that India Ink got a boost from this masterpiece a decade earlier.

What Rushdie and Mehta have in common, apart from their artistry and an Indian ancestry, is that tho-ugh both have been embroiled in controversies, they are not daunted by obstacles—and, in fact, seem to thrive in a difficult environment. Their friendship was the catalyst when they sealed the deal over a meal for $1, which was Rushdie’s price for the movie rights to Midnight’s Children. But the tenacity they share would have been a trigger, too, allowing them to take on a challenging project that’s clearly a labor of love.

It was interesting to hear you say [in Atlanta] that the film Midnight’s Children is a first cousin or a relative of the novel. So it’s not an adaptation, strictly speaking.
The novel is 600 pages long. If you were to fully dramatize that, you’d need 12 hours. That’s just a fact. There was no possibility of us having a trilogy, and we had the possibility to make just one feature film. The fact about the film world, which is very interesting, is that it’s very real. There are things people will give you money to film and there are things people will not give you money to film. At one point we did talk about making two movies, making it a two-part film. And the very first screenplay that I wrote was in that form. It was two movies of this length. Four years ago, David [Hamilton], Deepa, and I were all at the Toronto Film Festival shopping that idea, talking to money people, and so on. And we discovered very quickly—there was enormous enthusiasm for a film of Midnight’s Children. People said they were excited about it and said they wanted to get involved. And there was zero enthusiasm for two films. That’s why I think for me the challenge was to take this novel and try and say what is the heart of the book. That’s quite an interesting challenge.

There are people who say that literary novels like Midnight’s Children—unlike, say, a novel by Ian Fleming or Chetan Bhagat—are not suitable for film adaptations.
There are books that are easier to film. You can see how a Bond novel, because it has an action-packed narrative, is…well, it’s not easy because these are big, complicated films—but it’s more natural, if you like, to transition. But I’ve firmly believed that there’s no such thing as a book you can’t film. When I’ve been here at Emory over these years, one of the things I’ve done with Matthew Bernstein is to try and teach a course in the best case scenario of adaptation, because there are many films that fall short of a book. But sometimes that’s not true. For instance, I have come to think that the films of the Lord of the Rings are better than the books. Peter Jackson’s film language is more lyrical, more sophisticated, more beautiful than Tolkien’s prose. So the storyline is the same, but the actual telling is actually superior in the film than on the page. You can see other examples of this.

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What about Joseph Anton: A Memoir [which focuses on Rushdie’s fatwa years]? Do you think it can be turned into a movie?
You’ll have to wait and see. We haven’t signed a contract yet but there’s some pretty serious interest in doing it. Then we get into this ridiculous question of who’s going to play Salman Rushdie. I have no idea. Remember that whoever it is, he is not playing me as I am now but as I was 25 years ago.

Staying with Joseph Anton, those events took place when you were much younger. Why revisit that painful chapter now? Of course, as you noted, Emory played a role [by creating the Rushdie archive]. But were you trying to hit back at your critics?
To put it at its crudest, because it’s a good story. If you as a writer fall into the middle of a good story, at some point you have to tell that story. Also I wanted to be the first person to tell it. I wanted at least to say, here’s how it is from my point of view. And no doubt other people will have their say. That’s fair enough, but at least I wanted to put it on the record—here’s what happened to me as I saw it. Beyond the personal stuff, I thought that this episode of The Satanic Verses has echoes and ripples and connections to a much larger subject, which is to do with the world we all live in now. The whole subject of the clash between intolerance and tolerance, the clash between art and oppression—this is an ancient subject. It is not the first time in the history of the world that writers have been up against oppressive regimes. The story of the Soviet Union is one of the great stories of intellectuals being persecuted while they are also resisting. So here’s a subject we are all talking about now. And my little story feeds into that. So it becomes a way of not just talking about me but exploring that larger theme.

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In a BBC interview last year, Rushdie noted that The Satanic Verses would not be published today, given the climate of “fear and nervousness.” In Joseph Anton: A Memoir, he revisits the so-called Rushdie Affair that changed his life.

And we see that intolerance in India, too. You were in India when there were attacks on a scholar, a filmmaker, even rock musicians…
Very much so. It’s very, very worrying, what’s happening in India. I would say there are three areas which I identified as being problematic. One is the rise of authoritarian governments in many of the major states. If you add Modi in Gujarat, Shiv Sena in Bombay, Jayalalitha in Tamil Nadu, and Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal, you have these populist authoritarian governments that are in many ways anti-democratic, occupying very important parts of the country. That spirit of authoritarianism is moving closer to the center.

Second thing is these daily or almost weekly attacks on different forms of culture, whether it’s a scholar like Ashis Nandy or a filmmaker like Kamal Hassan. In fact, just last week there was this episode. The Indian Express ran an article criticizing some member of the Shiv Sena for supposed sexual offences. And the Shiv Sena’s reaction was to send an army down to the Indian Express to attack their office building. So suddenly the police have to defend a major newspaper for doing the job of a newspaper. That’s what a journalist is supposed to do. In another India, a political party—told that one of its members was guilty of these offences—would say, ‘We’ll investigate that because clearly if that’s true it’s appalling, and we’ll investigate that.’ That would be the civilized response. And then the thing that worries me almost as much is a kind of public apathy to these problems. With the [Delhi] rape there was a big uproar.

Even before that, there were protests against corruption.
Yes, the Anna Hazare thing. That’s true. But now, these cultural attacks take place—against Kamal Hassan, Ashis Nandy, M.F. Husain, Rohinton Mistry, that book about Shivaji, the girls playing a band [Pragaash] being stopped for being anti-Islamic …

Is PEN doing anything? I know you’re deeply involved with it.
Indian PEN is small, but they’re trying hard. I’m still running the festival, but I’m not any longer the president of PEN American Center. We have to try. It’s one of the things I’ve talked to them about. PEN is always trying to identify where in the world the problem is. And the problem shifts. Once upon a time the Soviet Union was the place where the people were most concerned. Now you have to look at places like China and, unfortunately, India. Sometimes I felt what’s happening or what’s in danger of happening in India—let’s not overstate it—is some of the worst elements of Chinese state authoritarianism linking to some of the worst elements of Pakistani sectarian politics. Take the worst bits of the two countries on either side and push them together and get India. That shouldn’t happen, but it might.

That would be a nightmare. You mentioned China. But despite everything, India is still a democracy—whereas China is a very repressive country, despite all the economic growth. You criticized the 2012 Nobel laureate Mo Yan for not speaking out against Chinese repression.
This does come back to PEN. Many of us involved with PEN have fought very hard on behalf of Chinese dissidents. And it seemed very disquieting that the Chinese Nobel laureate was unwilling to join that struggle, a campaign which many, many Nobel laureates have signed up to. He made a particular remark, which I thought was very unfortunate, when he defended Chinese censorship and compared it to security at airports, [saying] censorship is like you’ve to go through security checks at airports. The reason we have security at airports is to prevent terrorist attacks. That suggests therefore that dissident literature is to be compared to terrorism. For a Nobel writer he should have a better command of metaphor than that. I just think it’s disappointing. I fully accept that there are some writers whose temperament is not to engage. It doesn’t make them bad people. I’m very involved in the battle against censorship. So to have a Nobel laureate defend censorship is very disappointing.

Coming back to Joseph Anton, you use the third person instead of first person. Didn’t you think that would diminish the emotional impact of a very personal story?
Not necessarily. I thought it might increase it, actually. I wanted the book to read like a novel and to create characters on the page, even if they’re real people… to create characters and incidents of drama in the way that you would in a novel, except that it’s true. I felt that to talk about myself like that one step away was a way for me to create myself as a character on the page more easily. Another writer might have thought differently. I started out writing in the first person. I didn’t like the way it sounded. In an autobiography, the person called “I” feels qualitatively different than the people called “he” and “she.” The “I” stands out so much because it’s an autobiography. So I thought if the person who is myself is referred to as “he,” just like everyone else, then it becomes the same order of character as everybody else in the book. And it’s easier to write it. I just preferred the tone of voice that it gave me.

By the way, I’m not the first person to do it. There’s the memoir of J.M. Coetzee that uses the third person. And then of course there’s the famous memoir of Christopher Isherwood, Christopher and His Kind, in which he writes about himself in the third person. Everything has been done before. The Isherwood book also reads very novelistically. I’m sure that’s part of the reason for doing it.

There’s a lot of humor in the book. The police, for instance, provided not just protection but comic relief as well. Were you laughing back then, or is it funny only when you look back?
I remember one of the things that I would say to my friends quite frequently, ‘You know if it wasn’t for the fact that this is not funny at all, it would be quite funny.’ There were these strange moments which were simultaneously funny and not funny. There were surprising moments of humor—the description of my first visit to New York with the NYPD going haywire all around me. It was funny at the time. I remember my agent and I were in the middle of all this police mayhem, and we were laughing at it at the time. But it’s black comedy, because the larger subject is not funny.

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Rushdie and Padma Lakshmi in happier times. Their high-profile marriage, about which he writes in his memoir, lasted from 2004 to 2007.

The book is also about your family. You write about your father, your ex-wives. Were you concerned at all about the reaction? And what was the reaction like?
So far so good. First of all, I tried to make sure that people were not blindsided. My older son Zafar was one of the first people to read it, partly because I wanted him to feel okay about the portrait of him and I wanted him to feel okay about the portrait of his mother, who’s no longer alive. I wanted him to feel happy, and he was very happy actually. My younger son’s mother Elizabeth was probably the second person to read the book. She made some suggestions and I incorporated almost all of them. She had one or two things which she wanted taken out, which I took out. Again, with Padma Lakshmi, she didn’t have time to read the book because she was busy with her TV show. I sent her a long email detailing everything about her that was in the book, and she asked for one or two things to be removed. Which I did, and she seemed okay about the rest of it.

So you have stayed in touch?
I’m in touch with most of these people. Marianne [the second ex-wife] is the only person I didn’t clear anything with, which you can see why. But, no, there’s been no response from her. The point is, I went to real trouble to tell the truth. I thought, don’t exaggerate it, don’t overplay it. Just make sure that what you’re saying is the truth and is backed up by facts, information and evidence, and so on. That’s the one thing I’d say about the book. Whether you like it or you don’t like it, you think it’s too shocking, too open or too revelatory, the fact is, my only principle was tell the truth. And that’s the reason why nobody has been able to come back at me, because they know what I said is what happened. It’s as close as I can make it to what happened. As the author of such a book, you have to be very self-critical, because otherwise the book reads like self-justification, like I was great and everybody else not so much. Nobody wants to read that.

What do you think of the latest crop of Indian writers—like Jeet Thayil, Sonia Faleiro, Aatish Taseer? How do they compare with earlier writers?
Most of them I really like. I like Jeet—I like his book [Nacropolis] very much. When I was in Bombay I was given Jerry Pinto’s novel [Em and The Big Hoom], which won the [2013] Hindu Prize. I think it may be the best book to come out of India in a long time.

What about Manu Joseph?
I haven’t read him. What is interesting is that it seems like there’s another one every week. Interestingly, now for the first time there’s also a very talented generation of young Pakistani writers—Mohammed Hanif, Nadeem Aslam, Kamila Shamsie, Mohsin Hamid, Daniyal Mueenuddin …. There’s suddenly a whole generation of very gifted Pakistani writers. While there’s been this great boom of Indian writing in English, for a long time it wasn’t happening in Pakistan.

What do you think accounts for the sudden change?
Oddly, I think it’s to do with how bad the situation is in Pakistan. Any writer will tell you that the worse it is, the better it is. The Soviet Union was an inspiration to a number of great writers because it was so oppressive. I think a number of these Pakistani writers are political in a way many of their contemporary Indian counterparts are not. It’s as if in this younger generation in India many of the writers have veered away from that public subject. Not all of them—Aravind Adiga, for example, is obviously very satirical of public themes. But if you look at Jeet’s book or Jerry Pinto’s book, they’re personal, interior books, not public subjects—whereas in Pakistan, because the situation is so extreme, writers are taking it on. It makes their writing very interesting to me.

What’s your future at Emory?
I have three more years on this. I had a five-year contract which ended and I renewed for another five. I’ve done two of them and I have three more. Then we’ll see. Maybe they’ll fire me. [Laughs]

My last question goes back to Midnight’s Children. Making movies is a very collaborative effort, as you pointed out, and very different from writing novels. Having now worked closely with Deepa on this film, have you learnt anything new about writing fiction?
I learnt an enormous amount. One of the things that you focus on in screenwriting, perhaps more than in book writing, is how the audience will receive the film. When you’re writing a screenplay, essentially what you’re trying to do is to grab the audience by the throat at the beginning and just drag them through the film until the end, and then they say, ‘Oh, that was a good movie.’ In the process of refining the script, there are scenes that you may have liked as scenes but you think they will somehow break the flow—and in order to keep the forward thrust going, you cannot stop here. You have to remove this. What it did was give me a much clearer sense of how you relate to the reception of the work. And that you can take back into writing novels, too.


 

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“I’m not going to compromise my vision because it’s going to make it accessible.” — Deepa Mehta

Deepa Mehta talks to Khabar, also at Emory, about Midnight’s Children, her collaboration with Rushdie, migration, the quest for identity, India, other filmmakers, the portrayal of women in films, and criticism.

  “This is one big responsibility,” says Deepa Mehta, referring to her latest film. She is best known for her Elements trilogy comprising Fire, Earth, and Water.

 

There’s a lot of visual appeal in your film. It’s the opposite of a drawing-room drama with a lot of dialogue. What’s the advantage of your style of filmmaking?
Films are different from books. And I think in films you show as opposed to talk about it. There are some films that need huge dialogue, but those aren’t the films that I’m attracted to. I like to show things. Salman and I were talking about it earlier. My job is to show what’s not on the page. Even if you look at the script of Midnight’s Children that Salman has written, you see that there’s very little dialogue. That’s what’s exciting.

And it keeps moving.
It has to. It is 60 years of post-colonial civilization, and before that. You can’t just plod along.

The cast was strong, I thought. Did Salman help you pick the cast?
It’s not about helping me pick. It’s our film. I really wanted him to be there. It was like, ‘This is Satya, whom I love. Salman, what do you feel about Satya?’

And there are no big names.
We were looking at some of the big names initially, but then it would have become more about them. And because this is an ensemble piece where there are nineteen actors who have equal parts, it wasn’t that easy to get big actors—because then they were asking for their parts to be bigger. So we thought it best to stay with actors who were right for the character, not the other way. Salman was very helpful, very sweet. I’d say something and he would say, ‘Yes, it’s a good idea.’ And we’d meet people for lunch in New York. It was very important for me that he was really a part of that process.

You mentioned that Salim in the film is in search of his identity, just as India is in search of its identity. And you said you were attracted to that because you were also in search of your identity. Could you elaborate?
As an immigrant to Canada, to me it became very important. I don’t know how it is in the United States but as an Indian or a brown person coming to Canada, which is a white country, more or less—and I’d left my family behind, I did not migrate with them; I married a Canadian when I came to Canada— I really missed my family. Just because my passport had changed I could not stop thinking of myself as an Indian. I did not think, ‘Now I’ve become a Canadian.’ It was not like that at all. So the process of thinking differently, becoming an Indian-Canadian from an Indian, has taken me a long time. It did not happen overnight because there are so many things that I still haven’t come to terms with. Cultural things, food habits, smells I’m attracted to, the clothes I’m attracted to, music. Music for me is huge—I miss listening to FM Indian radio. The little things—the monsoon, the weather, the Delhi heat, the hot breeze that you call the loo, which is fascinating.

So the films are a way for you to relive those experiences.
Not at all. My films are not about nostalgia. The process of making that choice and coming to terms with the fact that that was the person I was and I’m not necessarily that now—these are the things of nostalgia, but they do not make me who I am now. Now I think of myself as a Canadian who happens to be Indian. My films are about things that concern me, about the world that’s specific to India.

Are you also drawn to Indian-Canadians and their stories?
Absolutely. My last film was Heaven on Earth, which is about Indians in Canada. [But] those are the formative years of your life. I was born in India and I went to school there, I went to university there, and I got married there. So those are the years that influence you.

You’ve said you’re a sucker for India. But at the same time you faced criticism in India. Your relationship has not been happy all the time.
I feel very much at home there. Yes, I’ve had problems with Indian politicians. There’s a difference. I haven’t ever had a feeling of being attacked by India, ever. I don’t see mobs of Indians attacking me. It’s never been by Indians, only by politicians, usually fundamentalists. That’s a big difference. I’ve also had a lot of love from India, and also a lot of criticism. But that’s the way it is. You do something, you take the risks, and you have to pay the price.

Yes, it seems like artists, filmmakers, writers, scholars, and musicians are becoming soft targets in India. We saw that in India earlier this year. So what can we do?
I can’t solve India’s problems, and I’m not interested. Indians have to solve their own problems. I can only say more power to them. When that girl was raped and murdered, that was the most shocking thing I’d heard. Artistes getting persecuted is nothing compared to that. If Indians can’t do something about that, can’t get vocal about that, then there’s no hope.

You touched on the Delhi rape case. There has been some talk about how popular entertainment, including films, can add fuel by objectifying women, by turning them into sexual objects …
That’s ridiculous. I think that argument is really silly. Then that’s censorship, again. A lot of Bollywood films do objectify women. There’s no question about that. Women are sexual objects for them. But should they stop making them? Of course not. What kind of censorship is that? People should be adults and say, ‘I’m not going to see that, because it’s made by misogynists.’ You can say that but you can’t say, ‘Ban them and stop making them.’ Because that’s another reverse kind of clamping down on expression.

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The largely unknown cast of Midnight’s Children, filmed mostly in Sri Lanka, includes Satya Bhabha (as Saleem Sinai) and Shriya Saran (as Parvati).

 

The novel Midnight’s Children is very complex, with multiple themes and characters, and with magic realism, spanning six decades. Didn’t you think you’d lose something? Were you not attracted to the idea of simplifying it so that you can attract a broader audience, rather than making an art house film?
It’s not art house. It’s been sold in 32 countries all over the world. A lot of people are going to see it all over the world. And it has done pretty well. I think of an audience and say, I’d love people to see it. I’d love it to be very popular. But I’m not going to compromise my vision because it’s going to make it accessible. I did not want to make it into a Slumdog Millionaire. I did not want to make it into a Marigold Hotel. That’s objectifying India.

That’s not the kind of filmmaker you are, unless it’s a film like Bollywood/Hollywood.
Yes, that was great fun; I loved doing that. That wasn’t taking an iconic book and turning it into a frivolous, irreverent film, which was exactly what Bollywood/Hollywood was. I really enjoyed making it. But is it a serious film? No. Is it irreverent? Yes. Is it subversive? In many ways, yes. But I didn’t ever think that I was going to simplify this. And that’s why Salman wrote the screenplay, because I felt that he would be really true. He knows cinema so well. He knows his own book, too. The way he could be disrespectful to his book nobody else could have been.

What was the idea of using him as a narrator, because we never see Salman in the movie?
I really wanted a Salim who was older, who was sixty years old, looking at his life. That is what happens in the book, too. There is Salim telling the story to Padma as he is writing it. This is a film. How do I take him sitting and telling his story to Padma and make it him telling the story to a much wider audience, and later? Not at the age of thirty but at the age of sixty-five, let’s say. We always had a narration. I tried many actors, but it didn’t work. We recorded them, put them in the picture, and somehow they felt too studied, too actor- y. They didn’t feel like it was Salim’s voice, which is a voice that wasn’t performance. I thought about it one night, and I woke up in the morning and I called Salman and said, ‘Let’s give it a try with you narrating it.’ I felt, and still do, that there’s a lot of Salman in Salim. And he knows Salim. He said no. He really didn’t want to do it. I really twisted his arm and said, ‘Let’s try it. It’ll either work or it won’t.’ So very reluctantly he tried a few things and we put it in the picture, and it felt really right.

What are some of your favorite films? Have any filmmakers inspired you?
The one filmmaker that really inspired me was Satyajit Ray. There’s Guru Dutt, who was fabulous. I really like Martin Scorsese—he is brilliant. There’s a Serbian filmmaker called Emir Kusturica, whose film Underground really influenced me when I was doing this film. And his Time of the Gypsies also. It is magic realism and it’s amazing. But Underground, really, because it’s political and its use of music is amazing. Fatih Akin, who’s a German-Turkish filmmaker, is very good. Some of the younger filmmakers in India, like Vishal Bhardwaj. I think he’s just brilliant—a unique and totally original voice.

You also mentioned Dibakar Banerjee.
Banerjee, yes, and Adoor Gopalakrishnan from the South. They’re fabulous.

You faced a lot of hurdles in making this film.
No, we didn’t!

But you couldn’t shoot in India.
No, we didn’t want to shoot in India, because India has changed so much. There’s no way we could’ve got that India, that Bombay. If you go to Bombay today you can’t put a camera anywhere without being hit by a high-rise or an overpass or BMWs. We would have ended up in a studio. It would have been terrible. The same thing with Delhi. It was impossible. But we did shoot in India for three months at the end. So it’s not true that we weren’t allowed to shoot in India.

Now, there’s been criticism of Sri Lanka, where you did shoot, because of the human rights abuses there and the way the civil war ended.
Of course. You think India is fine, with its corruption? Come on, you can’t say you won’t shoot in Sri Lanka because it’s a human rights travesty. There is no doubt about what has happened and what continues to happen with Tamils. It’s really reprehensible. [But] you see India and say it’s fine? Modi is fine? That poor girl who was raped and murdered is fine? No accountability is fine? Corruption is fine? Come on, you can’t have double standards and say India is perfect!

So what’s next? I think you’ve talked about making an Indian-Canadian film.
Yeah, I want to do this film about Indian gangsters in India. And Salman is going to play a little role in it. [Laughs]



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