Millennium Post

‘Saleem Sinai hard to put finger on’

The protagonist of Midnight’s Children, Satya Bhabha has a history of his own. Born in London to post colonial theorist Homi Bhabha, Satya had read the novel as a mere child of 10. Little did he think he’d bring the celebrated character of Saleem Sinai to life one day.

He graduated from Yale and was last seen as a comic villain, Matthew Patel in the Hollywood fantasy-action-comedy Scott Pilgrim vs the World. Millennium Post caught up with Bhabha in an exclusive.
Here are excerpts:

What was your interaction with the novel and the character of Saleem Sinai when you first read it?

It was such a wonderful tapestry of characters, of situation, of history. When I was reading it, I had to go through books to tell if that really happened. You sort of can’t tell whether he is a fictional character. I remember being really swept up in the story. But the character of Saleem Sinai is a bit enigmatic and at times hard to put a finger on. I don’t think when I put the book down for the first time, I had a very clearly formed sense of who or how Saleem was. You kind of gather that he is very perceptive, sensitive and has got a way with words but you don’t necessarily know too much about him as a character, as a human being. You learn about his experiences and his views but what if somebody asks you, is Saleem a good dancer, is he funny, does he like going out?

So did you have to invent those things to create your own Saleem Sinai for yourself?

It was a large part of my work and what Deepa (Mehta) and I did together to see who this character was and the details of his life outside the book. That was the really big process. I decided that Saleem is into astrology and stars so I bought a telescope. We decided that he was a big fan of cricket so we talked about that. These little details are not explicitly mentioned or not at all in the book but when you bring someone to life you realise oh, I need to fill in these gaps.

The prosthetic nose is intriguing but it is the most valued symbol in the novel. How did you feel about it?

It took about an hour and a half to put on every morning and some days you have to shoot at sunrise so it added logistic complications. That being said, it was an incredible gift in terms of helping me really get into this character. It did change my appearance drastically and that was something we were really surprised by.

How did you first react when you got the role?

If you can imagine a kid in a candy store on his birthday and multiply that by a thousand you’d probably be about halfway there. I was completely ecstatic.

Did Deepa Mehta surprise you with the role?

She did. We had been talking and I met Salman (Rushdie). I had a few moments of elation but nothing was said seriously and somewhere along the line, Deepa had kind of thought that it had been communicated. So when she mentioned it at the public screening of
Heaven on Earth
, I was a little more taken aback.

Hollywood or Bollywood?

Working or living? I would rather live in London which is the city I was born in. Workwise, I am very happy. I have done some work in Hollywood. I would be foolish to choose Bollywood given that I’ve never worked there, but film careers are becoming international. So hopefully, I’ll be able to work in both industries.

‘Ethnic actor’, ‘crossover actor’... do you find such tags problematic?

To a certain degree, yes. But I also feel that these boundaries are beginning to bend. In the Indian context it makes a bit more sense. I would technically be a crossover actor. I’d be a foreign guy working in the Indian industry. In the American context, having grown up here most of my life, to be an ethnic actor, being considered the other is a little bit more confusing. But look at the industry at large, it is a lot of white men. It is also changing. So I don’t want to give the impression that I’m not grateful for what has come my way. That being said, I would like to be considered as an actor without some kind of a tag.

How do you feel about playing the protagonist of a work that has courted much controversy?

I feel proud to be a part of this work. I think that if it’s been controversial it really means it made people think. That is a sign of success for any piece of art. I think that this book itself is not as controversial as some of Salman’s other works and certainly not as much of Deepa’s. He knows that the main sticking point is the question of the Emergency and Indira Gandhi’s presidency. This story is a truthful human story about a country. Not politically biased in any way.

Midnight’s Children
is utterly relevant to India. Yet, it’s releasing so late. Are we easier to offend?

To a certain degree, yes. Indian audience are quite sensitive and take the stories very personally. I think that also goes hand in hand why Indian audiences are so fantastic. There is no passive viewing in India. That being said, it’s actually not coming out so late. It hasn’t been released in the US. It came out in Canada and the UK. Now it’s releasing in India. But it’s actually been released here before most of Europe and America. It’s a real joy because it was a possibility that the film would not come out. We are really thrilled about it. But the fact the people take stories personally, in certain ways it’s quite exciting for an artist.
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