February 2, 2013


[Controversy over Mr. Rushdie flared up again this week, as he came to India to promote the film "Midnight's Children," directed by the award-winning filmmaker Deepa Mehta and based upon Mr. Rushdie's acclaimed novel by the same name. Beginning on the eve of India's independence from British rule, "Midnight's Children" follows the country through its early years as a new nation through the lives of the children born at the stroke of midnight on Aug. 15, 1947.]
"Am I allowed to mention the Rushdie word?" quipped the historian and author Tom Holland at the recently concluded Jaipur Literature Festival. Mr. Holland was speaking of Salman Rushdie's 1981 novel, "Midnight's Children," a book he called a contemporary classic.
His comment alluded to the political baggage attached to Mr. Rushdie in India, the country of his birth, because of his novel "The Satanic Verses," which is banned in India and sparked a death threat against him from Iran in 1989. Last year, Mr. Rushdie canceled a scheduled appearance at the Jaipur Literary Festival because of an assassination threat against him in connection with the book.
Controversy over Mr. Rushdie flared up again this week, as he came to India to promote the film "Midnight's Children," directed by the award-winning filmmaker Deepa Mehta and based upon Mr. Rushdie's acclaimed novel by the same name. Beginning on the eve of India's independence from British rule, "Midnight's Children" follows the country through its early years as a new nation through the lives of the children born at the stroke of midnight on Aug. 15, 1947.
On Wednesday, Mr. Rushdie was scheduled to attend a publicity event in Kolkata for the movie, along with Ms. Mehta. However, the visit was called off at the last minute, giving rise to speculation that the state government had canceled the visit because of pressure from Muslim groups.
On Friday, Mr. Rushdie said as much on Twitter. "The simple fact is that the Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee ordered the police to block my arrival," he said. In a statement issued Friday, he clarified that he had been planning to take part in a session at the Kolkata Literary Meet, where he had been invited by the organizers to appear as "a surprise guest." He also said that a police source had shared his itinerary with the press, thereby inciting trouble.
"What is happening in India nowadays is an accumulating scandal and a growing disgrace to this great nation," said Mr. Rushdie in the statement. "I can only hope that the people of India have the will to demand that such assaults on freedom cease once and for all."
However, Mr. Rushdie was able to attend the premiere of the film at Mumbai's PVR Cinema in Phoenix Mills on Thursday. The theater was lined with nearly 50 police officers standing guard, and two truckloads of officers sat outside the gates of the mall complex.
The premiere was well attended by the actors in the movie, including Shriya Saran, Shahana Goswami, Kulbhushan Kharbanda and Rahul Bose, and they were in a celebratory mood.
"I think that this is a bit of good news that in the middle of dark times for our creative freedom that this film is releasing here," Mr. Bose said at the premiere. "I am sentimentally invested in the movie because it's a movie I was supposed to be part of in a production 15 years ago. That one was stymied at the last moment, but this one wasn't. And I'm playing a small role, but it's nice to be part of it."
As the crowd vied to get a view of Mr. Rushdie as he entered, he gamely posed for photographs with fans and greeted friends and well-wishers. Also in attendance were the actress Nandita Das, the director and screenwriter Dev Benegal, the film director and screenwriter Sudhir Mishra, the cricketer Yuvraj Singh, the columnist Anil Dharker and the actor Arunoday Singh.
While film adaptations of books, particularly those considered classics, are always tricky, "Midnight's Children" elicited a largely positive response. "I think Midnight's Children is a pretty impossible book to make a film of, and this one is a fantastic effort," said the Indian stage and film actor Gerson da Cunha after the screening. "I just hope that it works in India because, well, it is a difficult film."
The performances by each of the actors drew wide praise from the audience, who clapped enthusiastically at the end of the film. "The search for identity as depicted by the actors was very touching," said Dolly Thakore, a veteran theater actress.
"Midnight's Children," which had its worldwide premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in September, is opening in India in 250 theaters and 15 cities, a wider rollout than in Canada in November (120 screens) and in Britain in late December (180 screens). A release in the United States is slated for April.
Distributed in India by PVR Pictures, the film is opening across a "good number of screens," said the company's vice president of marketing, Arun Nair.
"As a nondubbed, nonaction film, it's a big opening for an English film," Mr. Nair added, noting in comparison that other similar English-language films, like last year's "Killing Them Softly," starring Brad Pitt, opened in only 75 screens. (Big-budget Hollywood movies, typically dubbed in local languages, open to much larger audiences. "The Amazing Spider-Man," for example, opened in 1,250 screens while "The Avengers" opened in 1,100.)
While there was initially some uncertainty about the film finding a distributor in India, when PVR purchased the movie rights in October, Kamal Gianchandani, the company's president, told Reuters that he was not expecting any trouble. "We don't think the film is controversial," he said.
Apart from the canceled Kolkata event, "Midnight's Children" seems to have elicited a muted response from the public so far, which is surprising, considering Mr. Rushdie's involvement and the book's criticism of Indira Gandhi and her imposition of emergency powers in India between 1975 and 1977. Three years after the book was published, Mrs. Gandhi sued for defamation in Britain, over a single sentence that implied she was responsible for her husband's death. The case was settled out of court, with Mr. Rushdie deleting the sentence.
The Congress Party, which reveres Mrs. Gandhi as an icon, has said nothing publicly. The film passed the censors without any cuts.
The movie was shot in Sri Lanka, somewhat secretly, said Ms. Mehta, who has been the target of protests by Hindu fundamentalists. "He's got the Muslims, and I've got the Hindus," she told the The Globe and Mail two years ago. Production was briefly interrupted because the Iranians protested, but was allowed to go ahead after the intervention of the Sri Lankan president. The filmmakers changed the title to "Winds of Change" for the remainder of the shoot.
A somewhat stealthy marketing strategy by PVR Pictures appears to have paid off for "Midnight's Children," which opened throughout the country Friday with little incident. "With Salman Rushdie, we did not want a repeat of Jaipur 2012," said Mr. Nair.
"Controversies only create awareness for a film. What we were aiming for was 'intent to watch,' " he said. "We avoided all controversy by keeping his plans in India under wraps. We targeted specific media, the six news channels and English-language press and specific cities."
In Mumbai earlier this week, the venue for a promotional event for the movie was shifted from the Landmark bookstore at Infiniti Mall, in suburban Andheri, to south Mumbai's National Center for the Performing Arts. Ashutosh Pandey, the chief operating officer of Landmark, said in a press release that the move was due to "security concerns."
The new venue was the Little Theater, a 114-seater tucked inside the center's compound, with plenty of police personnel and plainclothes officers in attendance. Anil Dharker, who heads Literature Live, a local literary festival, later said that he was asked to organize a new venue four days before the scheduled promotional gig. "I knew the N.C.P.A. would support it. I said, 'We will keep it for people only I know.' We sent out no invites."
Mr. Rushdie may be the sharpest assessor of why "Midnight's Children" appears to have avoided attracting the screaming hordes. Last March, he told a spellbound audience at a conclave organized by the news magazine India Today: "I have this theory that the Indian electorate is smarter than the politicians and sees through them. Yes, people can sometimes be whipped up, as they were by the religious extremists in Jaipur. But how many people? How big are these mobs? How representative are they? These attacks, whether upon my book or people's films or plays or paintings or whatever, these are not things that come from the bottom up."