The ‘unfilmable’ book on the big screen
Andy McSmith

Salman Rushdie After a literary career spanning three decades, Sir Salman Rushdie will at last see one of his novels transferred to the cinema. A Toronto-based film company has been awarded a grant, which means that production of a screen version of Rushdie’s 1981 novel Midnight’s Children can begin.

The novelist has been working for two years with director Deepa Mehta on a script of a film version of the book that originally made his reputation. The Harold Greenberg Fund, set up by the Canadian media firm Astral in honour of one of Canada’s leading film directors, recently announced it was giving an award for "polishing and packaging" the script.

Deepa Mehta, an Indian-born Canadian, who has known Rushdie for many years, is best known for her trilogy Fire, Earth and Water, which she directed between 1996 and 2005. She and her husband, David Hamilton, run up the film company Hamilton Mehta, in Toronto. He will produce the film, which she will direct.

The book’s protagonist, Saleem, is born in Bombay at midnight on 15 August 1947, the moment when India became independent, who discovers that all Indian children born in that first hour have magical powers.

The novel won the Booker Prize in 1981, then 12 years later was named the "Booker of Bookers". In 2008, in a contest to mark Booker’s 40th anniversary of the prize, was again singled out as the best novel ever to win the prize.

But until now no one has attempted to film this or any other Rushdie novel.

This is partly because the genre in which he writes, magical realism, does not easily translate into cinema. Many of the best-known magic realist novels, such as One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, have proved too intimidating for commercial cinema.

In an interview, Rushdie had said, "Now that we have a screenplay we like, I would say that, yes, Midnight’s Children is eminently filmable. I have been a film buff all my life and believe that the finest cinema is fully the equal of the best novels." In Rushdie’s case, there is the added problem that he had to go into hiding for 10 years, and any public association with him was potentially dangerous. His ordeal began following protests that his fourth novel, The Satanic Verses, published in 1988, had insulted Islam.

After riots in Britain and Kashmir, Iran’s supreme ruler, Ayatollah Khomeini, pronounced a fatwa that was incitement to kill Rushdie and anyone involved in publishing The Satanic Verses.

The decision to award him a knighthood, in 2007, was applauded by the literary establishment but provoked protests around the world. The governments of Iran and Pakistan summoned the British ambassadors to register formal protests.

Sir Salman was born in India but moved to the UK when he was 13. Earlier this year, he and Mehta visited Mumbai to meet some of the stars of Bollywood and begin pulling together a cast, which will include Irrfan Khan, and Seema Biswas. During the visit, Rushdie said one of the hardest aspects of his years in hiding was that he was prevented from seeing India again.

By arrangement with The Independent