AFP: The 1981 novel won the coveted Booker Prize and launched the Anglo-Indian writer’s career — but seven years later the glamorous literary life came to an abrupt stop when Iran slapped a death sentence on him for “The Satanic Verses.” By Michael Thurston
LOS ANGELES (AFP) — Three decades after “Midnight’s Children” catapulted Salman Rushdie to literary glory, a film of the novel feels like “closing the circle” after his dark years in hiding, he says.
But while fatwa-free life is now “pretty good,” he admitted there are occasional “slippages” — including during a trip last year to India, the land of his birth, while promoting the movie.
In an interview timed with its US release, he discussed hopes for more film adaptations, Quentin Tarantino’s unlikely influence on “Midnight’s Children” — and his feelings about Margaret Thatcher as a mother-figure.
The movie tells the story of two boys born on the stroke of midnight, August 15, 1947, at the precise moment India gained independence from its British colonial masters, but then switched shortly after birth.
The 1981 novel won the coveted Booker Prize and launched the Anglo-Indian writer’s career — but seven years later the glamorous literary life came to an abrupt stop when Iran slapped a death sentence on him for “The Satanic Verses.”
Rushdie recounted his years in hiding in last year’s autobiographical “Joseph Anton” — the pseudonym he chose to keep would-be assassins off his trail — which he hopes will be the next book to be adapted for the big screen.
But he was in Los Angeles this month to talk about “Midnight’s Children,” which came out in several countries including India last year, ahead of its release in the United States from Friday, April 26.
The idea of adapting the novel came “completely spontaneously” from Indian director Deepa Mehta, said Rushdie, who wrote the screenplay and narrates the movie.
At one point he thought of acting in it. “But when we came to actually make the film, I thought, you know, it’s distracting, it’s kind of stunt casting,” said Rushdie, who had a cameo part as himself in 2001’s “Bridget Jones’ Diary.”
He praised Tarantino, who also takes cameo roles, but said: “He’s a pretty experienced actor, so it’s different” — and admitted that he was having trouble writing a torture scene towards the climax of “Midnight’s Children.”
“It was a difficult scene to write for a long time, until I thought that the way to write it was almost as comedy. That’s where I thought of Tarantino. I thought of ‘Reservoir Dogs,’ a very, very black comic tone of voice.”
The finished work manages to weave the novel’s allegorical complexity and strands of magic realism into a coherent and visually spectacular two-and-a-half-hour long movie.
One of the most important places for him to take the movie was his native India, and above all Mumbai, or Bombay, the city of his birth.
“It was extraordinary to show the film to an audience whose history it also tells… It was very moving for me. It felt like closing a circle, to bring that film back to Bombay, to the city from which the novel was born,” he said.
But the trip to India — where “The Satanic Verses” remains banned for allegedly insulting Islam — was not without incident.
He was forced to cancel a trip to the eastern city of Kolkata. “Obviously it’s very annoying,” he said. “The chief minister of Bengal decided in her wisdom to prevent me from coming. It’s horrible actually.”
Talking generally about his security now, Rushdie said his life in hiding has “been over for longer than it went on.
“That’s why, when these occasional kind of slippages into the past take place .. now it really catches me by surprise. Because I’m not expecting it any more. Life is pretty good these days,” he added.
Of other adaptations, he said he was “optimistic” that a film version will be made of “Joseph Anton,” with a British production company potentially involved, although a deal has not yet been signed.
He has also been writing a TV show called “Next People” for US cable channel Showtime, and hopes one day to see film versions of his children’s books, “Haroun and the Sea of Stories” and “Luka and the Fire of Life.”
“Satanic Verses,” however, appears unlikely ever to make the big screen, he admitted. “There isn’t a great stampede for the rights, I have to say, so I doubt it.”
But in the comfortable surroundings of the Four Seasons hotel in Los Angeles, he paid an unexpected tribute to Thatcher, whose government provided him with round-the-clock protection against the Iranian fatwa threat.
“Our politics were very, very opposed, and I think that’s still true today,” he said, but he noted that, on the one occasion he did meet her, she was very charming.
“One of the ways in which she was charming was to be very physically affectionate… She’d speak to you in a kind of almost aunt-like way. That was unexpected.
“The Iron Lady as your mother .. that was disarming.”