Aseem Trivedi to Deepa Mehta: All midnight's children now

Whether it’s good or bad or just chutney, it would be a shame if Midnight’s Children doesn’t find a distributor in India.

But it’s a bigger shame that the book that Salman Rushdie called his love letter to India could not be filmed in India.

Actually Deepa Mehta did not even try to film it here.

“I’m not exactly popular with Hindu fundamentalists and Salman is not exactly popular with Islamic fundamentalists,” Mehta told CTV News.

To avoid controvery, she filmed it in secret in Sri Lanka under the rather wishful name of Winds of Change.

A special corner of hell

Mehta’s Fire (1996) raised Hindu activists’ hackles because the lead characters in a lesbian relationship are named Radha and Sita. The shooting for her Water was disrupted in Varanasi because of rumours that the script, set in the 1930s, showed Hinduism in a bad light. Ironically, as recently as this year the Supreme Court issued notices to UP, Odisha and West Bengal about the dumping of widows in places like Vrindavan and Varanasi. Back when the film was being first shot in 2000, the sets were vandalized, mobs burned her effigy and chanted “Death to Deepa Mehta” although she had all the permits and the script had been shown to none other than K. Sudarshan, the head of the RSS.

A still from Deepa Mehta's Midnight's Children. Photo courtesy: Facebook page of film.

“It was a shock because the other arm of the same mob had gone over the script with a fine tooth-comb and given us permission to shoot,” said Mehta as she faced “screaming angry women with rolling pins".

Mehta should not have been so shocked. There is a special corner of hell in India reserved for the NRI filmmaker who steps out of line.

Once Nargis Dutt famously demanded that Satyajit Ray make films about hydroelectric power instead of poverty. (It would have been sweet revenge if Ray had lived to make a film about Narmada Bachao.) But Ray at least was indisputably Indian. The NRI filmmakers are a much softer target. They are easy to pillory in India as peddlers of poverty porn - panderers and exploiters.

An RSS leader told The Week: "Breaking up the sets was far too mild an act, the people involved with the film should have been beaten black and blue. They come with foreign money to make a film which shows India in poor light because that is what sells in the west. The west refuses to acknowledge our achievements in any sphere, but is only interested in our snake charmers and child brides. And people like Deepa Mehta pander to them."

A woman and an NRI - a double whammy
We are happy for our NRIs to churn out sweet nostalgic mango-juice sticky tributes to the India they left behind (India Sepia) or paeans to a changing confident country (India Rex). We can even tolerate a little incest buried inside a boisterous film about a Monsoon Wedding with a peppy bhangra soundtrack. But the Emergency, child widows, Sikh massacres, caste  – all of that is immediately attacked as dredging up the past to try and put the brakes on India’s future.

“I think Deepa being a woman and an NRI added to (the controversy),” said Nandita Das who was meant to act in the original Water in a 2001 interview with Trikone Magazine. “There was this thing about why should we wash our dirty linen in public. You are going to go back to the West and give a wrong picture.”

Mehta said the West did not react to Water with smug superiority. ““People have not said ‘What can we do about those poor Indian widows?’ They say, ‘The way we treat our native Inuit or our senior citizens is much worse.’”

Crossing the Lakshmanrekha

But no matter.  The NRI remains a suspect creature  in the Indian imagination – neither insider, nor outsider, inhabiting a no-man’s land of shifting loyalties. She has already betrayed India once by leaving. And now she betrays India again by making films that show India’s failings. Even more unforgivable, she wins awards for them.

In the popular Indian imagination, the NRI has only one legitimate role – to be an ambassador, make that cheerleader, for India Shining. But as Bedabrata Pain, the NASA scientist turned director of Chittagong told Bangalore Mirror, “NRI patriotism” is also about feeling “disturbed with what happened in Bhopal, in Delhi during the anti-Sikh riots, … in Gujarat".

All that is deemed as being outside the Lakshmanrekha for the diasporan filmmaker. "There is the sense that once Indians have left India, they really do not have the right to be critical of India," says New York based film critic Aseem Chhabra. Pain’s wife, Shonali Bose found that out firsthand when she came to India from Los Angeles to make Amu – her film set against the aftermath of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots that erupted after Indira Gandhi’s assassination.

In an interview in 2007 she said she had to prove herself to everyone, including the spotboys. “I was a woman and I was that even more hateful thing – an NRI come to make a film in India with an UCLA background,” she remembered. And she was making a film that India (and the Congress) wanted to put behind it as a bad chapter. India was moving on and these pesky filmmakers were pulling it back - whether to 1984 with Amu or 1930 with Water or now the 1975 Emergency with Midnight’s Children.

When Bose applied for a censor certificate for Amu, she was asked to cut or change several lines of dialogue, all of which pertained to the Indian government’s role in the riots. She chose instead to show the film in India with those lines muted.

“At first you saw the audience straining to hear. They thought  the sound went off. Then it was like a ripple that went through  - censor, censor. So it was powerful in its own way that fictional characters in a fictional film were being silenced 22 years later.”

From Aseem to Deepa

The attempt to silence the NRI filmmaker is especially ironic given that we are often quite chuffed when a Caucasian filmmaker chooses to set a film in India. Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire did raise some hackles but Indians were not unhappy about all that Oscar attention especially for A. R. Rehman. When Kathryn Bigelow was shooting her film about the hunt for bin Laden, Chandigarh filled in for Lahore (though some VHP-types protested there complaining about all the signs in Urdu and the Pakistani flags.) And John Madden’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel evoked fond smiles in India.

Long before Aseem Trivedi's arrest over a cartoon generated a countrywide uproar, Deepa Mehta was drummed out of the country, without enormous protest, for daring to try to make Water. It does not matter whether that Water would have been a good film or a mediocre one or a Midnight's Children filmed openly in India would have been better than one filmed secretly in Sri Lanka. Just as it does not matter whether Trivedi’s cartoon was particularly funny or not.

What matters is if we can see the slippery slope that connects the two. Trivedi we regard as authentic. The NRI filmmaker, we thought, was not. She was just singing for her supper at film festivals in Toronto and Venice.

It turns out she might have been the canary in the coalmine.