Salman Rushdie and Deepa Mehta discuss the magic of “Midnight’s Children”

“Midnight’s Children,” opens May 10 at the Regal Tara Cinemas, 2345 Cheshire Bridge Rd NE, Atlanta; 404-634-6288

“Midnight’s Children” is Salman Rushdie’s sweeping, multi-generational story of the birth of independent India and the life of the big-nosed, big-hearted protagonist, Saleem Sinai.

Like India, Sinai reflects multitudes and his pathway is strewn with hardship. As a baby, he is stolen from his real mother and as an adolescent, he survives civil wars, torture, exile and near-death. He finds his way back home with the help of magicians and saints and the taste of a long-lost chutney.

The children of the title all were born near midnight on the eve of India’s independence, have a magical connection with each other and own the ability to meet on a non-material plane.

The movie — based on the Booker prize-winning early novel by part-time Atlantan Rushdie, a University Distinguished Professor at Emory University — opens in Atlanta on Friday. Rushdie also wrote the screenplay and earlier this year, he and director Deepa Mehta attended an advanced screening and answered questions from an invited audience.

Later, Mehta and Rushdie sat with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution to talk about their four-year collaboration during the making of the movie, in which Rushdie’s voice makes a Hitchhcockian appearance as the narrator. The serious mien of Mehta’s deep-set eyes were at odds with her merry tone. Rushdie, dressed in all black, sported the trimmed goatee of a Freudian analyst and the accent of a Cambridge-educated swell.

Among the topics they addressed were:

Choosing Rushdie as the narrator:

Mehta: “I must say it was my idea and I must say I had to twist his arm.”

Rushdie: “I didn’t want to be the weakest link.”

Mehta: “He did it and he was terrific and I was right.”

On creating “Midnight’s Chutney,” a special condiment that, in a Proustian way, helps Sinai find his way back to his childhood nurse, or “ayah.” The staff produced fresh chutney every day for scenes in which the tasty treat appears, using a recipe from Mehta’s mother.

Rushdie: “There was a point when we were in post production, when Deepa started tasting different recipes of chutney, and we thought we’d have a production chutney we could put out as ‘Midnight Children’s chutney,’ so we could be Martha Stewart.”

On how Rushdie’s own childhood in India is reflected in the story:

Rushdie: “The thing that I did was to use the locations of my childhood. The boy grows up in my neighborhood and he goes to my school. My actual childhood was quite unlike his, you know. Saleem’s childhood is very eventful and unhappy, and my childhood was quite uneventful and I remember it as being quite happy.”

On whether a happy childhood can be a problem for a writer:

Rushdie: “Not enough bad stuff happened.”

On how he made up for it later by having a death sentence pronounced on him by an Iranian mullah following publication of “The Satanic Verses:”

Rushdie: “At the time of the attack on ‘The Satanic Verses,’ (the media) somehow found my old English teacher and he was interviewed on the BBC or something. And he said, ‘Who’d have thought such a nice quiet boy could get into so much trouble?’”

On why, as a writer, he made his protagonist the illegitimate child of an Englishman:

Rushdie: “My generation is the generation of transition. That’s why there is still some Englishness left in Saleem. We know enough about colonization to know that the empire doesn’t end on the day the imperialists leave. Certainly in that generation, the generation of the late ’40s and early ’50s, there is still a lot of English influence, much more than there is now. I thought it made sense to have this bastard English antecedent.”

On the elements from the lengthy book that were left out of the movie, including a pastoral scene in the Sundarban forest:

Mehta: “There’s that whole sequence which we had to let go of, because it just felt we should be focusing on something else, however beautiful it was.”

Rushdie: “If we’d had another half an hour, it would have been nice to linger longer in childhood. There’s a lot of fun in the novel with the kids: the first girl he ever kisses, the bicycle queen. I felt sad to lose her.”

To the audience at the preview Rushdie added, “In the end, you have to set aside the question of whether (the movie) is faithful to the book. It stops mattering. Rather than an adaptation of the book, we think of it as a relative, a first cousin.”

Then Mehta got a laugh with an alibi. Pointing to Rushdie, she said, “If people don’t like the film, I would like to say it’s not my screenplay, it’s his.”

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