FILM: Midnight’s Children movie may be better than my novel, says Salman Rushdie

Author Salman Rushdie poses for a photo as he promotes the movie Midnight’s Children during the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival in Toronto on Saturday, Sept. 8, 2012. Chris Young/The Canadian Press

THE CANADIAN PRESS

TORONTO — Wrestling his acclaimed novel Midnight’s Children into a screenplay was a “painful” process, says Salman Rushdie, who ditched characters, scrubbed events and reshaped relationships in order to craft a workable film version of his allegorical tale.

But — dare he say it — the calculated changes may have made the sweeping historical epic even better than the original.

“There are a number of scenes in the film which are not in the book,” Rushdie noted during a round of interviews at the Toronto International Film Festival, when the film screened in September. The film is set to open wide Friday, Nov. 2.

“And some of those things I thought, ‘Oh, if only! If only I could go back and put these in [the book].’”

Principally, he’s referring to a beefed-up incarnation of the villainous Shiva — a war-mongering character whose ominous presence in the novel is largely felt through the anxieties of protagonist Saleem rather than any direct confrontation.

SHOWDOWN INTRODUCED

Shiva gets considerably more prominence in the film, where tensions with his lifelong rival build toward a climactic showdown.

“In the book, that showdown never happens,” said Rushdie. “I kind of wish I’d thought of it when I was writing the book because I think it’s a powerful scene. [It] provides the story with a natural climactic point. I thought, ‘If I’d been smart enough 30 years ago I’d have put that in.”’

Different though it may be, Rushdie said that’s simply the nature of attempting to translate a sweeping 600-page novel into a 120-page screenplay.

Toronto-based director Deepa Mehta said it was paramount to preserve the essence of Rushdie’s magical, comic-tragic tale about India’s early days of independence — and any changes that were made were all in service to that goal.

“I never said, ‘Oh My God, how are we going to condense it?”’ Mehta said.

“It was: ‘How are we going to tell the story? What is the focus of our story? What is the emotional centre of our story?’”

TELEPATHIC NARRATOR

As in the Booker Prize-winning book, the film unfolds through the eyes of the telepathic Saleem Sinai. He is born to poor parents at the stroke of midnight Aug. 15, 1947 — the same instant that India arrives at independence.

Arriving at that moment, too, is the rich-born Shiva, blessed with a gift for battle that will propel him through the military. But his rise to power begins with much hardship when a hospital nurse switches him with the newborn Saleem — granting the poor, illegitimate Saleem a life of privilege intended for Shiva.

British-born actor Satya Bhabha, who plays Saleem from age 16 to 30, said the mild-mannered hero is an enigma in the book and it took him some time to figure out how to approach the role.

“He is the narrator to whom all of this incredible stuff happens and he sort of relates this story with a wry open-hearted sense of humour, but you don’t exactly hear people talking about him — he describes all these characters in great detail, but nobody’s describing Saleem,” said the 28-year-old Bhabha, one of several cast members to attend the Canadian debut.

“That was something that I worked on a lot and I spoke to Deepa a lot about, trying to flesh out the little details.”

MAGIC PLAYED DOWN

Saleem’s path to adulthood eerily mirrors the tumult of India’s own lurching journey from one crisis to another, including three wars and a devastating state of emergency that proves tragic for him and other magical children who share their nation’s birth date.

Magical elements from the book are played down in the film, with Saleem’s unique abilities to communicate with other Midnight’s Children used relatively sparingly.

While Saleem’s love interest, Pavarti the Witch, maintains her remarkable powers, actress Shriya Saran says it’s not necessarily a defining quality.

“I think magic was an aspect of the character, but it was more deep, more emotional,” Saran said. “Magic was important, it was essential, but [her power] was beyond it.”

ROBUST VILLAIN

Actor-singer Siddharth, who plays the villainous Shiva, arguably had the most to benefit from changes to the story. He said it’s great to see Shiva get more attention.

“Even in the book, I always felt … he was underwritten and I’m glad that he got a little more flesh and blood in the screenplay,” said Siddharth, a South Asian performer with several Bollywood credits.

Rushdie says he had to be willing to let some things go in order to embrace the unique storytelling demands of the big screen.

“Both of us, Deepa and I, we were clear that what we were doing was making a film, not just a faithful adaptation of a literary text,” Rushdie said.

“Because the other thing was not do-able. To try and make it in two-and-a-quarter hours a faithful adaptation of a 600-page text, it’s impossible. So what you have to do is something more creative than that, you have to make a film that takes its own kind of flight.”

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