Deepa Mehta is one of the hardest-working women in alternative Indian cinema these days, with films dealing with both fringe and traditional Indian culture, several of which have caused outrage in India owing to their charged social or political content. This week, her latest release, Heaven on Earth, about a young wife who uses fantasy to escape a violent marriage, screened at the annual Mahindra Indo-American Arts Film Festival. And just days ago, Mehta announced that, after a home visit from Salman Rushdie a few months back, the two will work together on the film adaptation of his Booker-winning meganovel, Midnight’s Children. Mehta spoke to Vulture from Toronto about Bollywood, Hollywood, and magical realism.
So, how did this collaboration with Rushdie come about?
Salman and I have been friends and we always wanted to work together, but somehow nothing happened. He was busy with his books, I was busy making Heaven on Earth, and then a couple of months ago, he was in Toronto and he came over and we just had a moment of epiphany, and I thought that the Salman book I’d really love to do is Midnight’s Children. I asked, “Are the rights available?” and he said, “Yes, they are,” and we both got very excited about it. And that’s how it happened. It was as easy as that. It’s wonderful when things fall into place, like they’re meant to be.
Given the recent election and the current tone of world politics, do you think it’s timely?
Totally. Because of Obama, as he says, it’s a time of hope and change. People are taking risks and just going forward, because it’s the right thing to do.
What will be the biggest challenge in adapting such a dramatic novel to film?
I guess the real challenge is to give it a shape, because it’s a huge book, and to keep what we want to and not lose any of those magical qualities. And yet we’ll set it in the political climate that it’s set in. Because that’s timeless.
Let’s talk about magical realism, which is obviously going to play a large part in Midnight’s Children and is an increasingly popular element in current film and TV. Like Heroes, for example. Do you watch it?
Is it like X-Men?
A bit like X-Men, exactly.
Well, I’ve seen X-Men. The magic realism in Heaven on Earth is far more subdued — the woman who has been abused takes solace from a myth that is very familiar with lot of Indians, which is about a husband becoming a much better person. So she actually conjures him up, in a way, an aspect of him, which is positive, and totally different from the reality of who he is, which is a very isolated and angry man. I think Midnight’s Children is far more grandiose.
A lot of Hollywood stars are visiting India these days. Did you hear that Daniel Craig said he would do a Bollywood film?
No! That’s fun! Is he going to sing and dance? That’s hilarious.
What do you think about Hollywood’s sudden interest in Bollywood?
I remember a few years ago, everybody from Hollywood was really wanting to do a martial-arts film. This was after Crouching Tiger. There was this love for China and for the esoteric martial arts and the Zen master. And now it’s Bollywood, so … if it makes the world a smaller place, why not?
Your leading lady, Preity Zinta, is a big star in India, correct?
She’s a megastar! She’s like a mega-megastar.
Being outside Bollywood, was it difficult to get her?
Not at all. You can get somebody like a Johnny Depp who will do an independent kind of film. These stars, they love Bollywood because that’s their bread and butter, but they love cinema and they are adventurous enough or feel the need to do cinema that demands something different from them.
Do you have any interest in doing a Bollywood film?
No. I wouldn’t know where to put a camera for the dance sequences. I love watching them, they’re great fun, but it’s a cinema that is so different. Each film generally has eight songs, which last for seven minutes each. Songs are a big part of Bollywood film, and I wouldn’t know where to put the camera.