Deepa Mehta - The battle behind Rushdie's film debut

Her Midnight's Children shoot was temporarily shut down. But Deepa Mehta is used to dealing with angry politicians, she tells James Mottram

There's a first time for everything, they say, but it seems remarkable that Deepa Mehta's film Midnight's Children is the first screen adaptation of any book by Salman Rushdie.

“I have no clue why,” shrugs the Indian filmmaker. “I've never, ever felt they were difficult to adapt.” In particular, this 1981 Booker prize-winner (also twice awarded a “Best of the Bookers”) would seem ripe for bringing to cinemas, its mix of magic realism and post-colonial history a rich playground for any filmmaker.

It doesn't take an industry insider to work out why. As Rushdie himself told a press conference for Midnight's Children, “There was a long period in the aftermath of the fatwa against The Satanic Verses that it was probably difficult to make any film associated with anything that I'd done. That created a wilderness of a dozen years or more.” Even now, judging by the production of Midnight's Children, the proclamation issued by Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini against Rushdie and his 1988 novel lingers.

Shot in Sri Lanka, three weeks into the production Mehta's film was shut down after the Iranian Government expressed distress to the Sri Lankan ambassador that a Rushdie book was being filmed. Storing their equipment at the Canadian High Commission, Mehta and her producer David Hamilton spent four days persuading and cajoling before the President of Sri Lanka intervened and filming was allowed to resume. “I've been through so many of these things,” says Mehta, calmly. “Sometimes you know that whatever you do it's not going to work. But I felt with this that it would be all right.”

Mehta is certainly a dab hand at fielding controversies. Take her 2005 film Water, which still elicits terrible memories. “It comes with so much baggage,” she sighs. “It was an extremely tough time.” Originally due to be shot in February 2000, this story of widows in 1930s India was considered so incendiary on the sub-continent, the Government revoked shooting permits one day before filming was due to begin. Worse still, death threats were issued to Mehta and the actors by protesting Hindu fundamentalists. Riots broke out and sets were destroyed (burnt or thrown into the Ganges).

“It was horrendous,” she recalls. “[It was as if] I was not Indian at all and I was cast from the fold.” It took five years to resurrect the film, shooting it under another title in Sri Lanka. Mehta's vindication was later complete when it got nominated for Best Foreign Film at the Academy Awards. “Then I was the daughter of India!” she snorts, tired of the hypocrisy. Naturally, she was “thrilled” with the recognition, but the damage was done. “Somehow, it's not been the same, my relationship with India.”

Ironically, while the film went on to receive a worldwide release, it was banned in Kuwait. It was just at the time Mehta became friends with Rushdie, who happily agreed to be quoted on the promotional posters, a fact that caused the film to lose distribution in the Middle Eastern country. “It's hard not to become cynical and pig-headed,” she sighs again. I mishear her, thinking she's said “big-headed”. “No,” she corrects. “There's nothing 'big' about being persecuted. You try not to [become obstinate] but you lose a bit of your humanity because you become suspicious and cynical.”

Born in Amritsar, educated in Delhi but based in Toronto, Canada, for the past 35 years, Mehta's relationship with her homeland has always been fraught. When she made 1998's Fire, the first part of what became her Elements trilogy, this tale of unhappy New Dehli wives that become lovers was dubbed “alien to our culture” by one politician and pulled from cinemas after protestors vandalised them. Only after Mehta petitioned India's Supreme Court, even leading candlelit vigils for free speech, was Fire re-released.

Given all this, you have to admire the 62 year-old filmmaker, today looking exceptionally striking with her grey-flecked long black hair tumbling over her red crochet top. Taking on a Rushdie novel was always likely to be a mission impossible. “In a strange way, I wasn't intimidated by Salman, my friend, as much as Salman, the writer of the book. Then I realised that this is nuts. It's pure self-indulgence. And if I'm going to be scared, I shouldn't do it. I think fear would've paralysed me. It was starting to paralyse me.”

With Mehta persuading Rushdie to write the screenplay, the film smartly distils the novel to focus on Saleem (played, as a young man, by newcomer Satya Bhabha), born at midnight on August 15, 1947, the day of Indian independence. “It's such a unique coming of age story,” says the director. “It's about this hero who thinks he's handcuffed to history and he's influencing Indian history, but really he's a victim. There's something so vulnerable there. He's such an anti-hero in a way. It spoke to me as somebody who's born and bred in India but now lives in Canada. What is family? Do we make our own family? Are bloodlines important? Many human questions.”

Previously undergoing an “acrimonious” divorce from Canadian documentary filmmaker Paul Saltzman, even losing the custody battle for her daughter Devvani, it's not hard to see why these issues touched her. If the film struggles, however, it's in the handling of the “magic realism” – when Saleem discovers he has telepathic powers to communicate with other midnight-born Indian children. Mehta claims she never worried about how to portray this. “Imagination and wonderment is what I want the kids to feel. I don't want them to be like Harry Potter or X-Men! They weren't mutants!”

At least her next film, a biopic on French painter Henri Matisse, shouldn't court any controversy. Concentrating on the final two years of his life and his relationship with a young nun (to be played by Black Swan's Mila Kunis), Mehta – who had toyed with the idea of Al Pacino as Matisse – now wants Javier Bardem for the role. It feels like she's in a good spot. “Who knows?” she cries. “Everything is quicksand in the movie world. You don't know what's happening. I don't tend to take anything seriously until I say, 'Action!'”

'Midnight's Children' opens on 26 December