By SACHI FUJIMORI
Eight years ago the Academy Award-nominated film director Deepa Mehta was having dinner in Toronto with her friend Salman Rushdie, when it suddenly occurred to her to ask who had the rights to his book "Midnight's Children."
Rushdie still owned the rights, and on the spot, he offered to sell them to his friend for $1. "We'd been talking for some time to work together. And that was that," said Mehta.
It speaks to Rushdie's trust in his friend, or perhaps his impulsivity, that he would so easily grant permission for his most acclaimed book to be made into a film.
"Midnight's Children" is now one of the centerpiece films being screened as part of the second annual Montclair Film Festival. The book it is based on tells the story of two boys switched at birth -- one from a rich family, one from poverty -- who are born at the stroke of midnight on Aug. 15, 1947, the moment India receives independence from British Colonial rule and the region is partitioned into India and Pakistan. During these tumultuous transition years, the novel is narrated by one of the boys, Saleem Sinai, who struggles to find acceptance and a home. Born with telepathic powers, Sinai is the leader of a band of midnight's children -- all born at the moment of India's independence and imbued with magical powers.
The novel not only won the Booker Prize when it debuted in 1981, it was later awarded the "Booker of Bookers" prize in 1993 and 2008, honoring the best all-time prize winners. Penguin Books included the title in its exclusive list of Great Books of the 20th Century.
Mehta is most renowned for her Elements trilogy -- "Fire" (1996), "Earth" (1998) and "Water" (2005) -- a series of films that tackle India's social issues head-on, from religious conflicts to female sexuality to child widows. She was drawn to "Midnight's Children" because the story resonated with her personally. "It's about a search for an identity, homeland and family," said Mehta. "It's something I've always struggled with myself since I migrated to Canada in the late 1970s. Increasingly, we all live in a migratory society and it seems very relevant."
After Rushdie distilled his 632-page epic to a 120-page screenplay, he granted Mehta entire creative control. "At the time, Deepa and I developed a relationship of real trust. I just said to her, go make the film and I'll see you in the cutting room," Rushdie told Rolling Stone in a recent interview. The novel was particularly challenging to adapt because it contains many elements of magical realism.
The novelist and filmmaker both share a kinship for making controversial work.
Most know Rushdie for the death sentence placed on his head in 1989 by Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, in response to his fourth novel "The Satanic Verses," for its perceived offensive depiction of the Prophet Mohammed. As violence and protests broke out around the world, Rushdie went into hiding.
While she was filming "Water" in 2000, Hindu protesters destroyed Mehta's sets along the Ganges River. She eventually had to move production to Sri Lanka. The film, which depicts the abuse of Hindu child widows, went on to be nominated for best foreign language film at the 2007 Academy Awards.
Despite the critical lens she turns on her birth country, Mehta says she loves India. "It's my home. It's an amazing country. But there are limitations to nationalism. There's a lot that has to be done and everybody has dark areas in their history."
When "Midnight's Children" hits the big screen, the rich story of India's tumultuous post-colonial history will be introduced to a wider audience. But Mehta said her first goal is not to teach. "It should have an interesting story. The people should be interested to know what happened to the characters -- like Saleem, who is shuttled around across borders. Then we have people who want to know what happened and will go home and Google it."
After a recent showing of "Midnight's Children" in New York, Rushdie told the crowd he had recently overheard an audience member liken the film to a "brown 'Forrest Gump.' "
Rushdie reminded the audience that his novel came out before the popular Tom Hanks film.
MONTCLAIR FILM FESTIVAL
WHEN: Monday to May 5.
WHAT: "Midnight's Children" screening at the Montclair Film Festival, 11:45 a.m. May 5 at Clearview's Bellevue Theater, 260 Bellevue Ave., Upper Montclair (other venues vary).
FESTIVAL INFO: 973-744-1455 or montclairfilmfest.orgHOW MUCH: Tickets and film conversations $12.50 each.
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