Salman Rushdie’s novel-turned-film re-ignites controversy as he promotes its release
Fans of Salman Rushdie in India have reason to cheer. The acclaimed writer, loved and hated in equal measure on the Indian subcontinent, will soon visit New Delhi to promote Midnight’s Children, a film based on his seminal novel of the same name, which shot him to literary stardom in 1980. The film premiered in December last year at a festival in Kerala, provoking protests from some members of the Congress Party who found its depiction of Indira Gandhi, the late Prime Minister of India, objectionable.
Following this, a second screening of the film, planned for the same festival, was cancelled. However, Deepa Mehta, the director of Midnight’s Children, later clarified that the cancellation had nothing to do with the protests and was due to commercial reasons cited by the Indian distributors of the film. But, understandably, there are concerns that there may be challenges pertaining to its release in India.
Challenges for the film might arise because of fringe Islamic fundamentalist groups in the country who see red every time Rushdie’s name pops up, and because of the uneasy relationship Rushdie has shared with the Indian first family since the book was published. The character of the Widow, the principal antagonist in the book, was widely perceived to be based on the then Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi. Consequently, she sued him in a London court. In an out of court settlement Rushdie agreed to delete a single line which suggested that Gandhi’s troubled relationship with her younger son, Sanjay, was due to her neglect of her late husband (and Sanjay’s father), Feroze Gandhi.
Midnight’s Children was published the same year that Sanjay Gandhi died in a freak air accident while flying on his private jet. Four years later his mother met an even more tragic fate: her bodyguards assassinated her in October, 1984. Still, Rushdie’s troubled tryst with the Gandhi family was to continue for years to come.
After Indira Gandhi’s assassination, her older son, Rajiv Gandhi, was elected by the ruling Congress Party to succeed his mother as the Prime Minister. Soon he led his party to a massive victory in the national elections and served as Prime Minister for the next five years. Rushdie’s Satanic Verses was published in 1988, during this period, and India was one of the first countries to react negatively to the contents of the book.
And while Satanic Verses was not banned in India, as is popularly believed, its import was prohibited under the Customs Act. Strangely enough, possessing the book did not make the owner culpable, but bringing it into the country did. In fact, the note that accompanied the act banning the import praised the book for its literary merits.
Furious at the Indian authorities’ double-speak, Rushdie dashed off an angry letter to Rajiv Gandhi, accusing him of a personal vendetta. Though twenty-four years later the writer seems to have made his peace with the entire affair. In his recently published memoir, Joseph Anton, he admits that his letter to the Indian Prime Minister was arrogant.
It’s also interesting that the film—based on the book that soured Rushdie’s relationship with the Gandhi family—is being released a few weeks after Rajiv Gandhi’s son, Rahul Gandhi, was appointed Vice President of the Congress Party, paving the way for his nomination as a prime ministerial candidate in the national elections next year.
Of course, after Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in 1991 by a Tamil separatist suicide bomber, it was only a matter of time before another member of his family staked a claim to the prime ministerial chair. But to his credit, all of Rahul Gandhi’s public utterances have pointed to his modern, liberal mindset, and intellectuals in India are waiting to see an enlightened reaction if his party members protest the film.
Yet there is another reason the Indian release of the film is compelling. Not only did Rushdie adapt his more than 600 page novel into the film’s screenplay, but Deepa Mehta, the director of Midnight’s Children, is also no stranger to controversies and threats from fundamentalists.
Mehta is Indian by birth and completed her college education in New Delhi, after which she migrated to Canada. She is best known for directing the elements trilogy, Fire, Earth and Water, all set in India.
When Fire was first released in India, it enraged Hindu fundamentalists as much as the mention of Satanic Verses makes Islamic fundamentalists foam at the mouth. Fire tells the story of two women, who are married to two boorish brothers and turn to each other for physical and emotional succor. The film combines elements of mythology and social dynamics in a searing tale about the status of women in India. It was probably the first Indian film to feature scenes of physical intimacy between two women, and seemed to pose a serious threat to the patriarchal system of India. Theaters screening the film were vandalized by irate mobs and it had to be withdrawn from many cinemas.
The next part of Mehta’s trilogy was based on the acclaimed novel Cracking India by Bapsi Sidhwa, and dealt with the partition of the country as seen through the eyes of a little girl who is neither Hindu nor Muslim, but belongs to the small Parsi community.
This film had a smoother journey, relatively free of any major controversy when it was released. Much of the interest in the film was fanned by the casting of the Bollywood super star, Aamir Khan, who until then had predominately starred in escapist fare, most of them blockbusters. Not only did Khan foray into a more realistic brand of cinema with Earth, but he also played an antagonist for the first time. His was a bravura performance.
However, when Mehta announced her plans to shoot Water, the final part of her trilogy, in Varanasi (Benaras), a city that Hindus consider sacred, all hell broke loose. Mehta further enraged critics when she announced that the film was based on the plight of Hindu widows who are forced into a life of abstinence and exploited by powerful men in the community. When this happened sets of the film were destroyed by a marauding mob and some frenzied protesters threatened suicide. Eventually the government caved in and withdrew the permission it had granted to shoot the film. The unit was left with no choice but to pack up and leave the city.
Despite the setbacks, Mehta insisted on making the third part of the trilogy. She shot the film surreptitiously in Sri Lanka with a different set of actors and under the false name, River Moon. The film, a Canadian production, was eventually released as Water and won a nomination for the best foreign language film in the 2007 Academy Awards, in addition to garnering a handful of Genie awards and honors in international film festivals. Mehta’s daughter Devyani Saltzman chronicled the entire journey in a non-fiction book, Shooting Water: A Mother-Daughter Journey and the Making of the Film.
The collaboration between Rushdie and Mehta for Midnight’s Children augurs well for luminous literature as well as meaningful cinema; I am sad to miss the opportunity to view the film with an Indian audience on February 1. I hope it will be released in the United States soon so I can watch it with my American friends.