Vancouver’s Anita Majumdar stars in festival opening film ‘Midnight’s Children’

GLEN SCHAEFER
THE PROVINCE

Anita Majumdar, an actress and playwright from Port Moody, stars in Midnight’s Children. Steve Bosch/PNG

Anita Majumdar is Facebook friends with Salman Rushdie, and the Port Moody-raised actor-playwright knows how bizarre that sounds.

“It’s so strange to tell friends, no, I actually can’t hang out at Starbucks, I’m going to have dinner with Salman Rushdie,” Majumdar says. “These things come out of your mouth and you think, whose life am I living? It’s surreal.”

A little over a decade ago Majumdar was a student at the University of B.C., reading Rushdie’s Booker prize-winning novel Midnight’s Children as a fan of the writing. She went from UBC to a three-year-program at Montreal’s National Theatre School, where she graduated in 2004.

Work on stage and screen took her to Toronto, where she now lives, and the Rushdie connection came when director Deepa Mehta cast Majumdar as Emerald, the haughty, glamorous wife of a military officer in her film adaptation of Midnight’s Children.

The movie opens the Vancouver International Film Festival Thursday, and gets a wide release Oct. 26.

It’s the latest turn in an acting life that had its spark when Majumdar’s banker parents took her to a 1994 Vancouver Playhouse production of David Mamet’s Oleanna.

“That was my first experience with the theatre, and the first time I saw what I really wanted to do,” she says. “I was 13 or 14, it was spectacular.”
Coming out of theatre school, she starred in the 2005 CBC TV movie Murder Unveiled, based on a true story about a Lower Mainland woman who was killed by her family in India. But her focus was on stage.

“I’m an actor who writes,” she says. “I write primarily for the purpose of getting onstage, getting to be an actor.”

Deepa Mehta. Submitted photo

Several years ago, director Mehta saw Majumdar in her one-woman play The Misfit, playing multiple characters in a dark culture-clash comedy. The two met at that time, and Majumdar must have made an impression.

In November 2010, Mehta telephoned Majumdar and asked her to play the role of Emerald, the aunt to main character Saleem in Midnight’s Children. Two and a half months filming was to start in Sri Lanka that January.

“I started working my butt off,” Majumdar says, adding she went back to the book. “As an actor working on a film adaptation, you read it with a different lens. I was following Emerald’s timeline in the book, along with the script that Salman also wrote.”

The 1980 novel’s magical realist story follows the fate of two babies born at midnight on the day of India’s 1947 independence, and their subsequent lives amid the turmoil of partition from Pakistan, civil war and 1970s political repression. For all that, the novel and movie have frequent comic moments, with a magical overlay that has hundreds of children born on that time and date – the midnight’s children of the title – endowed with mystical powers.

Filming happened in Sri Lanka, partly because modern India has fewer of the partition-era buildings and streetscapes needed for the movie. As well, Mehta’s previous movies have been touchstones of controversy in India – 2005’s Water had to film in Sri Lanka after production India was threatened by protests. Midnight’s Children filmed under the working title Winds of Change, and Mehta worked under a fake name.

“I never felt unsafe,” Majumdar says, adding only her immediate family and a few close friends knew she was working on the film. “No one really knew what we were doing.”

The only other Canadian in the cast was Zaib Shaikh of TV’s Little Mosque on the Prairie, who was on set for 10 days playing her fugitive brother-in-law in the film. The two have been friends since attending UBC together years earlier.

Author and screenwriter Salman Rushdie. Jemal Countess/Getty Images

Majumdar bonded with the two Indian actors who played her sisters in the movie, getting together off set for weekends on the beach and dinners out, which helped her model her accent on theirs.

She only met Rushdie after filming was finished, and the film’s debut earlier this year at the Toronto International Film Festival proved to be a bonding experience for writer, director and cast.

“We had dinner at Deepa’s house,” says Majumdar.

As well, they all rocked out together at a James Bond-themed party held during TIFF.

“We danced into the night with Salman on the dance floor,” she says. “At first you think, oh everything has to be very serious, he’s written the Booker of all Bookers. But spending the weekend with this incredible man, now understanding that he has this insane sense of humour, he’s charming and witty but he’s also a real person, so fun to be around. We quickly put down our best behaviours and we just started gossiping.”

Now that her Midnight’s Children experience is nearing an end, she’s back to work on two new plays she’s workshopping with Toronto’s Nightswimming theatre company.
You have to ask, does she ever hit up her new friend for writing tips.

“I didn’t, because our mediums are so different,” she says. “I think if I ever wrote a screenplay I might say how did you do that? I feel like I may have more questions for him as my own writing career progresses.”

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