NEW YORK — Almost any fan of “Midnight’s Children” will tell you there’s magic in the pages of Salman Rushdie’s iconic novel.
So it’s not shocking that otherworldly forces seemed in play when Rushdie sat down for dinner with director Deepa Mehta to discuss his 2005 novel, “Shalimar the Clown,” and, inexplicably, emerged with a plan to make “Midnight’s Children” into a film.
“She will tell you that she doesn’t know why but, halfway through the meal, she suddenly changed the subject and asked who had the rights to ‘Midnight’s Children,’ ” Rushdie says, during a recent meeting at a hotel in midtown Manhattan.
Although Rushdie had the rights to the story, he says he was shocked that the book, published in 1981, was still on anyone’s mind. “In some ways I had stopped thinking about the book because it had come out so much earlier,” Rushdie says. “I had resigned myself to the fact that it wouldn’t be a film.”
Mehta, who directed “Water” (2005), agrees that the idea came out of the blue. “It wasn’t thought out, it was spontaneous and totally instinctive,” she says during a recent telephone conversation from Toronto, where she lives. “I guess I asked about it because, as a filmmaker, everything depends on what one is going through at the time. Being an immigrant to Canada [like Rushdie, she was born in India], I had been thinking about identity and where one belongs.”
The film tells the story of two babies who are born at the stroke of midnight on Aug. 15, 1947, the moment when India declared independence from Great Britain. One child is born to a wealthy family and the other is the son of a poor woman, impregnated by a British official who has left the country. The babies are switched at birth and fated to live each other’s lives, which are magically intertwined. The film, told through the perspective of Saleem Sinai, who has been raised by the well-to-do family, follows both his personal quest to belong and explores the broader meaning of national identity through the prism of India’s history.
In keeping with the almost mystical series of events leading up to the film, Rushdie, who had never written a screenplay before, almost immediately agreed to adapt his novel. “Here we were — a book of mine is being filmed and someone is asking me to write the screenplay, so I thought, ‘Don’t be an idiot — do it,’ ” he says, laughing. “If it was a book I’d just written, I don’t think I would have wanted to because when you finish a book, it leaves you, and the idea of trying to re-enter it is horrible.”
The time that elapsed since writing the book allowed Rushdie to approach the script with relative objectivity, he says. “I was 33 when the book came out and now I’m pushing 66, so it was literally half a lifetime ago,” he says.
Both the director and Rushdie agree that “Midnight’s Children,” which won the 1981 Booker Prize and sold more than 500,000 copies worldwide, was so revered as a novel that many screenwriters would be intimidated by the task of adapting the book, which is roughly 600 pages.
“I thought, you need someone who isn’t crippled by respect of the book,” Rushdie says. “Whereas I knew the book had to be ripped apart in order to find the movie. It couldn’t be done reverentially. It had to be done quite radically.”
Rushdie is clearly not a man who shies away from doing things radically. Despite the literary acclaim he gained after “Midnight’s Children,” he didn’t become a household name until 1988, when he published “The Satanic Verses,” a novel inspired by the life of the prophet Muhammad. The book was deemed to be blasphemous by the Ayatollah Khomeini, then the leader of Iran, who issued a fatwa calling for Rushdie’s death.
Although he certainly was not expecting Islamic extremists to embrace the book, Rushdie says their reaction caught him and almost everyone else by surprise. “The idea did occur to me that a bunch of conservative mullahs would not like it, but they were not my target audience,” Rushdie says. “So I thought, ‘I can probably do without them and they can go and read the only book they ever read [The Koran].’ ”
He adds that he made a point of fictionalizing the details so “it would not be an exact portrait” of Muhammad. “I thought I should make it clear enough that, although this material may have some origin in the story of Islam, its purposes are different than that. But that takes reading to know.”
The news of the fatwa caught Rushdie completely off guard. He says he was sitting at his desk at his home in London when a BBC radio reporter called to ask about his reaction to the Ayatollah’s call for his death.
“I said, ‘It doesn’t feel great,’ ” he says, laughing. “And then I ran around the house idiotically locking the doors.”
Nonetheless, Rushdie says, it’s unlikely he would have done anything differently had he known the uproar that “Satanic Verses” would cause.
“I’m very proud of it, and now that the fuss has died down, and people are reading it as a novel and not as a hot potato, they seem to like it a lot,” he says. “If books survive for any length of time, it’s not because of scandal, but because people like them.”
To underscore the fact he is not afraid of inciting the wrath of extremists, he pointed out that “Shalimar the Clown” (the book he and Mehta did not adapt) focuses on Islamic terrorism. “That’s not a book you write if you’re scared or avoiding the subject,” he says.
The ordeal surrounding “Satanic Verses,” though unsettling, did catapult Rushdie to a kind of rock-star fame. Rushdie dismisses this recognition as insignificant, even if it does get him tables at A-list restaurants and invitations to exclusive parties. “It’s one thing if people like or love or admire my work — that would be a source of pride,” he says, shaking his head. “But to be famous for this was not what I wanted.”
As if to prove that he is, at his core, a novelist, Rushdie announces that he plans to get back to basics. Having not published an adult novel since “The Enchantress of Florence” in 2008, he says, “it’s time to get back to the day job.”
He’s begun working on something, but isn’t ready to talk about it in detail. “I have a feeling it’s not 600 pages long, which is good,” he says with a laugh.
Especially if he’s thinking of adapting it for a screenplay.