NEY DELHI — “At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom,” said India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in 1947 when the nation gained independence from British colonial rule.
Sixty three years later, the Indians who inherited that freedom appear to be losing their nerve to defend it.
The new movie version of the epochal, Booker Prize-winning novel “Midnight’s Children” by the controversial India-born writer Salman Rushdie is scaring away movie distributors. The historical fiction novel traces the journey from the heady days of independence to the turbulent politics of the nation-building decades that followed.
Watch the official trailer of “Midnight’s Children.”
There is no official ban on the film. But the reluctance to receive the film points not just to the rising intolerance and threat to free speech in India in recent months, but also to how Indians have begun to self-censor themselves proactively because of fear of attacks or their distrust in the government’s ability to deter attacks.
In the past year, authorities locked horns with Google, Twitter, Facebook and the blogger community here over screening of content that it found offensive.
The reason for the fear is that anything to do with Rushdie will provoke Muslim anger here. His book “Satanic Verses” is banned in India, and earlier this year the writer canceled his visit to a literary festival after the government warned him of a possible threat to his life.
In March, Rushdie attended a conference in New Delhi, only to find that many of the politicians and Muslim speakers boycotted it.
The movie, which was released last week at the Toronto International Film Festival, has many prominent Bollywood actors.
”People are getting scared that a movie based on Rushdie’s book may create a problem here,” said Sunil Bohra, a movie producer and distributor, who said he had not seen the film.
“The producers of the movie must think if it makes sense to attach Rushdie’s name to the movie in India. It worked around the world, but may not here.”
The movie features another hot-button issue. The story includes critical descriptions of former Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi, who suspended civil rights and free speech during a two-year period in the 1970s called the “Emergency.” Gandhi’s daughter-in-law, the Italian-born Sonia Gandhi, now heads the ruling Congress party, and any negative portrayal of the family is frowned upon.
The director of the film, Deepa Mehta, told the Hindustan Times newspaper that it would be a “pity” if the film didn’t release in India because of “insecure politicians”.