New York Times – September 5, 1999
(I have made a few minor changes to update the article)
Watching My Novel Become Metha’s Film
EARLY one January morning I get a call from Deepa Mehta. She has just read my novel Cracking India [Titled: Ice Candy Man in UK, India, and Pakistan]. She wants to make it into a movie. “But tell me, please, has the book been optioned?” she asks.
“Thank God!” That breathless, slightly raucous laugh.
I haven’t heard of Deepa Mehta. As she talks I realize she understands each nuance of the novel and the significance of the Parsee girl Lenny as narrator. Lenny bears witness to the violence of religious hatred that led to the partition of India in 1947. Although Deepa Mehta is Canadian and I’m American, we both have our origins in the Punjab. I’m from the Pakistani side of the border, she from the Indian. Considering that India and Pakistan often teeter on the brink of nuclear war, this, too, has significance.
When I finally interrupt Deepa to tell her that she can make the film, there is an abrupt silence, and then: “But what if someone else calls you tomorrow with an offer?”
Her insecurity is touching. “Cracking India has been around for four years and no one’s optioned it,” I say. “I don’t think anyone’s going to call tomorrow.”
And so it is that “Earth”, the second film in Ms. Mehta’s trilogy “Fire,” “Earth” and “Water,” is conceived.
My mind is at once luminous with images: dramatized scenes interspersed with voice-overs. Lenny sits in the park with Ayah, her nanny, and a voice murmurs, “Things love to crawl beneath Ayah’s sari — ladybugs, glowworms, Ice Candy Man’s toes.”
But Deepa is uncomfortable with voice-overs.
I am insistent. The story won’t be the same without Lenny’s feisty interpretation.
Deepa explains she passionately loves Lenny’s way of looking at things. Lenny will be present in every scene. The camera will accommodate her point-of-view. The story will unfold through her eyes.
We spend hours on the phone each day as Deepa literally carves her cinematic vision out of my novel. I’m teaching at Mount Holyoke College, and in March 1997 Deepa flies to Massachusetts from Toronto with the manuscript. I am to give a reading that evening, and Deepa has agreed to participate. We meet for the first time an hour before the presentation.
I read a passage from Cracking India: “Nine-year-old Adi has just had a hernia operation. He unzips his fly to show his 7-year-old cousin Lenny the surgical scar, and the glamorous spectacle of his miniature genitals.
“You can touch the scar,” he offers gallantly. When she’s suitably impressed, he says: “I’m also having my tonsils removed.”
I ask Deepa in front of the crowd of 300 how she plans to film the scene.
“That’s easy,” she says nonchalantly: “I visited a sex shop in Toronto, explained I was a filmmaker and asked if they had male genitals.”
“All shapes and sizes, madam,” the salesman assured her.
“I am looking for the genitals of a 10-year- old boy,” she said.
Shocked salesman: “Are you a filmmaker, madam, or a pervert?”
The girls can’t stop laughing. Corrine Bliss, an amused colleague, later says, ‘I can’t believe you two women, in your beautiful saris, said all this in front of the girls.’ Mount Holyoke is not known for levity.
The script shrinks. I’m appalled see my book stripped to the bone. My screenwriter friend Ruth Prawer Jhabvala assures me it’s the norm. The camera will flesh it out – Deepa knows what she’s doing.
Cracking India is a novel knit of many strands, covering a large sprawl of time. The film is a two-hour event. Deepa jettisoned episodes, amalgamated characters and prying out an import strand – that of the beautiful Ayah and her 2 competing suitors – wove the story round it. Although Mehta invites my suggestions, I soon realize that it is her cinematic vision of the book that matters. If I project my ideas too insistently she will compromise, and neither of our visions will be realized. It is like handing over my child to the care of a person I trust.
Two months later I’m summoned urgently to Toronto. I sense a disquieting ambiguity. Deepa and her assistant Anne Masson broach the subject cautiously. They need a narrator at the end. Will I play the adult Lenny? It is a tiny but significant part. “Sure,” I say. Is that all …the reason for the urgent summons? Tactfully I am informed that I will be required to limp. O.K. I already limp slightly. I’ll exaggerate it.
New Delhi, January 1998: Locations have been selected and actors signed: the Indian megastar Amir Khan as Ice Candy Man; Nandita Das, who was in “Fire,” as the beautiful Ayah; Rahul Khanna as Masseur, and Maia Sethna as the young Lenny. Sethna has just lost her mother to cancer. Her father believes the film will divert her, and provide her with the nurture of women. After seeing the film Shashi Tharoor wrote a moving article in which he said Maia had inherited her mother’s genes: Maia’s mother had been a superb theater actress in Bombay.
I arrive in Delhi. There is a midnight shoot inside the historic walled city built by the Moguls. I sit shivering, wrapped in a comforter. But it is grueling summer in the script. Masseur emerges from hoary wooden doors in a muslin kurta doused with water to resemble sweat. He mounts his bicycle, but alarmed by distant gunfire dismounts. Wheeling the cycle, glancing over his shoulder, he walks through the narrow walled-in gully. Later, when I remove a book from a crackling plastic bag during a take, Deepa hollers, “Cut!” The hypersensitive mikes have picked up the crackle. It is my first lesson in set etiquette.
The following week I learn an unforgettable second lesson.
Ayah sits surrounded by admirers. Ice Candy Man displays a cache of gold coins he has looted and gives one to Ayah: “It’s for you, keep it.” Ayah holds it out on the flat of her palm and says, “I don’t want it.” Ice Candy Man takes the coin from her hand.
After the last take, Amir Khan saunters over to me, anticipating comment. In the script, when Ice Candy Man says, “Keep it,” he folds Ayah’s fingers over the coin. I feel an important gesture has been omitted.
Mr. Khan agrees. He marches off to Deepa, who is working on another set. As she approaches, black hair spread, eyes ablaze in the night light, she resembles some fierce Hindu deity. I quake. Deepa brings her hands together in a loud clap and holds them before her bowed head in the posture of a supplicant: a very angry one. “Please don’t ever do that to me again,” she says. “There is only one director on the set. I beg you, don’t talk to the actors; actors are easily confused.”
When I see the finished film, I realize how well the scene works, how different a film is from a novel, what a large role camera angles, close-ups and editing play in the language of the screen. I’m fortunate in my filmmaker. My trust in her has been vindicated.
My brother Minoo Bhandara visits the set from Lahore. It is dusk, and we sit in the servants-quarters yard. Giles Nuttgens is adjusting the lighting, moving the camera on the dolly. Her leg encased in braces for her role as the polio-afflicted Lenny, Maia Sethna wiggles awkwardly up the veranda steps. Her dress with the sash rides up. The backs of pale thighs, the steel struts and leather straps, the half moons of dusty cotton panties, the cook’s bicycle leaning against a crumbling brick wall. I glance at my brother.
Bewitched by the alchemy of the moment, he, too, has been transported to our childhood. In the half light, the distance I had created as a novelist vanishes: fiction fuses with autobiography.
In the novel, where fact is so interwoven with the fabric of fiction, it is difficult for me to separate the two. I was myself a child at the time, and many of the sounds and sights are still vivid in my memory. But my recall is that of the child’s, and a child does not always grasp the full significance of what he or she sees. I began to realize this on the sets.
Although the distant roar of the mobs was a terrifying constant of my young life in Lahore, and I knew they were killing people, I did not witness mobs in action. I saw the evil they’d done only after they’d left; the charred debris of burnt and looted houses, discarded bundles of clothes that suddenly assumed the curled up and deranged shapes of murdered bodies. I saw small processions but they did not convey the menace of the large mobs. And one morning, holding my barefoot Hindu gardener’s finger as we walked on Warris Road, a comparatively safe neighborhood, we stumbled upon a jute sack lying on the dirt sidewalk. The gardener abruptly stopped. Something about his deportment cautioned me to stillness. With the ball of his bare foot he gingerly pushed the sack. A young man spilled out and lay in the dust. He was golden-brown, bold-featured; handsome and rakish even in death. His chest and shoulders were bare and there was a deep bloodless wound beneath his ribs, as if his tapered waist had been further trimmed. A red checked sarong was knotted just beneath his navel. The rest of him was in the sack. Even at that age I felt a wrenching at the futility of this wasted life. The gardener looked about with frightened eyes. He picked me up and began to run.
On the sets Deepa is doubtful: “Are you sure the man was in a gunny sack? We’ve been trying for two days, but we can’t get Rahul to fit into one.” The next day, Rahul Khanna, the gorgeous six-footer who plays the role of the doomed Masseur, asks: “Was it a standard gunny-sack? It wasn’t larger than normal or something?”
“It was an ordinary gunny sack.” I’m absolutely sure.
They find super-large burlap bag to stuff Khanna into. It was only when I saw the rough edit that it dawned on me – the man’s legs must have been dismembered.
As a child I had no way of imagining this.
There are ironies. A huge riot scene complete with explosions, burning buildings and 1500 extras is underway. 10,000 spectators, hoping for a glimpse of Aamer Khan, are held back by the police. The extras, wielding long swords, staffs, and knives are enacting a clash between the Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. Communal tension always simmers close to the surface in India and it doesn’t take much to ignite an actual riot among the spectators. A few men are stabbed and rushed to hospital. The police herd the crew and cast to safety in a nearby building before they tackle the frenzied mob. I tell writer Tahira Naquvi about the incident and a month later I hear her read a moving story based on the incident.
Foreign film companies in India have a ubiquitous guest: a man from the censor board.
I am asked to distract him when a dicey scene is due. At such times I develop ungovernable cravings for spicy chicken curries and other tasty items of Indian food and haul him off to feed me. It doesn’t take him long to catch on. Towards the end of the shoot he gallantly and resignedly plays along.
In May of 1998 I see the rough edit of “Earth.” The scenes have a different order than I’d supposed: some scenes are entirely missing. I view it again, and again. “This works; this doesn’t.” Excited comments fly. I missed a crucial take at a small railway station on the outskirts of Delhi when I whisked the bemused censor away to eat pistachio kulfi at the crack of dawn.
Slaughtered bodies lie atop one another in a tangle of limbs inside a train compartment. Necks and torsos twist and stretch at improbable angles. I ask Deepa, “Are these dummies”?
“They’re real people!” says Deepa, mildly offended, “We’d spent eight hours applying the make-up and arranging their bodies just so.” And to prove how real they are she elaborates, “When I had them all in place and we were ready to shoot, a man piped up: ‘O-jee, mennu pishaab lagee-aey. (Please, Madam, I want to pee)’. I said, ‘Don’t you dare move. Control yourself. After a while, desperate, he said,‘Madam, I must go.’ So I said, ‘Do it where you are.’”
From the entwined bodies: “You go on us, we’ll kill you!”
We laugh so much, I forget to ask, “So, did he?”
At the Toronto Film Festival in October I notice more scenes have been eliminated, Psrsee characters dropped. Deepa explains that the scenes confused the story, slowed its tempo.
In December, the Asia Society organizes a screening of “Earth” in New York. The film script has two versions: one for the English speaking world and one for screening in India. Both screen-plays have been written impeccably by my friend Nasreen Rehman. The film is riveting, almost mystical. But, strangely, perhaps because of my involvement with the filming, it has become too personal. I am no longer able to dispassionately assess it. As with my novels once they’re published, I now depend on the judgment of others.