TORONTO—Christopher Hitchens might not have believed in God, but the late author definitely believed in Salman Rushdie. In his final book, Hitch-22: A Memoir, Hitchens wrote about the battles over Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses, the price placed on Rushdie’s head by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989, and Rushdie himself. “He made, I will always feel, the ideal protagonist for this drama. If literature and the ironic mind are to be defended to the death, then it is as well to have a superbly literate and ironic individual as the case in point.”
Sitting in a downtown Toronto hotel room discussing the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival premiere of Midnight’s Children—the movie based on his 1981 Man Booker Prize–winning novel about the birth of India and a pair of miraculous children born the same day—the impeccably dressed Rushdie comes across as superbly literate, ironic, and beyond charming. And there’s something about that charm, a twinkle in his eyes, that suggests that if anyone was going to get into trouble…
Well, as Hitchens wrote, Rushdie is the ideal protagonist. So it’s not surprising when he explains that the filming of this movie (by director Deepa Mehta) in Sri Lanka was briefly shut down. “We lost two days shooting, basically, and a lot of sleep,” Rushdie says. “It’s clear that there was somebody in the Iranian foreign ministry—I don’t know who, and I don’t know how high a level it was, but someone in the foreign ministry—said to the Sri Lankan ambassador that they disapproved of this permission [to film] having been given and it should be revoked. And then someone in the Sri Lankan foreign ministry panicked and told us we had to stop filming.
“Fortunately, Deepa, as part of the process of planning the film, had been to see personally the president of Sri Lanka, and he had given us personal permission to make the film because they had said that they were trying to develop the film industry in Sri Lanka, develop it as a location for filming, and that they saw this as being a kind of showcase for that. So they were very supportive of it, which is why it came as such a complete shock when they shut it down. But the moment we got to the president’s office, he overturned it. He said, ‘No, of course you must make your film. Go back.’ ”
Rushdie, who wrote the screenplay for Midnight’s Children (which opens in Vancouver on Friday [November 2]) and narrates the movie, claims that this was the first significant fatwa fallout in years. “It was so unexpected, because actually the whole thing about the attack on The Satanic Verses and all that feels like a really long time ago. It hasn’t had much of an impact on my life for over a decade, so to suddenly have this come out of left field was completely unexpected.”
Despite his insistence that his life is no longer defined by the fatwa—which he explores in his new book Joseph Anton: A Memoir—the threat of being assassinated has never vanished. While he was having this conversation (without any security guards visibly in attendance), Rushdie still had a $3.3-million bounty on his head.
Asked how he kept his creative voice throughout the ordeal, Rushdie replied, “Just by being bloody-minded. I think I’m tougher than I thought I was. One of the things I thought was that I just wanted to be myself; I just wanted to keep writing books I wanted to write. I think if you knew nothing about my life story, if you’d never seen anything about my life, all you had was my books to look at, there isn’t a great rift in 1989. It’s not like writing after that is radically different to the writing before that. I think the writing has its own continuity, and I’ve tried very hard to do that.”
Watch the trailer for Midnight's Children.