Midnight's Children: Two Authors in Search of a Film
There are two “authors” to this film. First, the author of the novel Salman Rushdie, one of the most accomplished writers of our time, whose language, imagery and allegorical deft have transformed many a social crises into figurative labyrinths. Deepa Mehta is one of the formidable woman directors with a strong portfolio of socially oriented films whose work has captured liberal imagination. Rushdie and Mehta’s Midnight’s Children promises a doubled up feast for thought and senses before the theater goes dark. But as the end credits roll in, you are left with a puzzling question: why did the two truly cosmopolitan and diasporic creative artists of our time squander so much so easily?
Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children is magical realist tour de force of an epic sweep. A narrative of a generation born at the same moment when India and Pakistan gained their Independence at the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947, it also speaks of a subterranean sub-text that points to our collective failures and perhaps some successes. It is a tale of two nations, where the political and personal are deeply intertwined and history is inscribed in the lives of people who tread the paths of secular ideals and religious identities. The story begins early in the last century with Saleem’s grandfather’s life in Kashmir and then moves South and eventually to Bombay (now Mumbai).
Children born at the pivotal moment of midnight of Independence have magical powers. The protagonist communes with other “midnight’s children.” Saleem can summon them for “conferences” to sort out things, deal with their aspirations and conflicts. Their lives unfold against the conflicts of two nations, including the war on East Pakistan that created Bangladesh and the tortured years of Emergency rule imposed by Indira Gandhi, who was defeated in an election subsequently. With the expansive scope of the narrative, the film negotiates between the reality of history and the magic of its possibilities. Rich in its figurative strength, it is one of the most important literary works of post-colonial India. Its secularist ideals are subtle, but strong, and its historic ambitions pack the story of nations in 600 pages.
Deepa Mehta’s film is equally ambitious. She takes on the daunting task of adapting the expansive scope of Rushdie’s novel offering multiple layers of figurative complexity. Midnight’s generation attempts to find its voice as their two nations engage in wars and continuous conflicts. Tensions of class and religion dictate the collective fates of generations. Saleem and Shiva are swapped at birth by a Christian nurse Mary, setting the stage for a Hindu boy to be brought up in a Muslim family, while a Muslim boy grows up in a lower class Hindu family. To viewers of Hindi films, this is familiar as a hackneyed plot meant to justify, beyond cheap narrative sensationalism, some kind of fluidity in religious identity and conciliation. Mehta takes her characters through turbulent personal and historic events until Saleem is reunited with Mary after the “war of Bangladesh,” now calling her his “mother.”
Adapting a novel for screen is a challenge and taking on one of the most famous ones is even more difficult. Rushdie collaborated with Mehta in writing the screenplay and provides the voice over narration to the broad sweep of the story that runs over two hours. With two strong “voices” presiding over this film, it is difficult to figure out “who is speaking.” Rushdie has repeatedly said in interviews that Deepa Mehta was the right director to transform his novel into film, a move he had been reluctant to make for some time. While his novel creates imagery, Mehta’s film has to contend with the literalness of an image. For adaptation to work and for it to be an exciting, independent work, the director must construct cinematic dimension. That is Mehta’s greatest challenge in transforming this novel onto the screen.
Cinematic image is too literal. Its “here-and-now” immediacy is attractive for the world it creates. It is sensual and its pleasures are in the present. The image can also be eloquent and complex well beyond its beauty as it embraces narrative shifts and devices that awaken its figurative potential. Mehta’s film falsl short on that count. There are very few, if any, allusions to the metaphorical power of its narrative. Lives of individuals simply unfold against historical backdrops. The agony of a generation becomes the agony of its main characters, while the nation, the conflicts of religion and identity remain out of our view. Allegorical qualities of the novel are eclipsed by the aesthetic attractiveness of the image and confounding linearity of its narrative. The film is visually quite stunning; its recreations deliver the promise of bringing different eras and sites to the viewer. From its costumes to its recreation of historic settings, including the suddenly dark age of Indira Gandhi and the Emergency, film’s images are stunningly photographed by Giles Nuttgens and supported by equally competent set design by Dilip Mehta and Errol Kelly. But beyond all that, the film is “Miller Lite;” it tastes great, but is less filling. It provides little beyond the image.
Rushdie’s own voice provides narration, further compounding the problem of the literal and the literary. He is simultaneously a public persona, a celebrity in his own right, an author that framed the lives of midnight’s children as a narrative of nations’ destiny, and belongs to a film director. Rich metaphors, figures of imagination and quips are plucked by Rushdie’s voice only to remind the viewer of the qualities of the original work. An equivalent richness from the narrative itself doesn’t arrive. It is as if Rushdie’s insistence on “creative control” (as he told Jon Stewart) brackets Mehta’s creativity, rendering it in secondary position to the “voice of the original author.” Rushdie himself sounds dispassionate over the images. His voice appears to have a less affective relationship to a film based on his own work than when he speaks on Wizard of Oz on BBC.
We know that Rushdie is a cinephile. He is also a cinematic writer as evident from the plots and images and twists and turns to hints and bows in his works. His literary images are rich, layered and complex. Those who understood that dimension of his work admire him and those who cannot look beyond it, detest him, at times vehemently. He has an affective relationship to cinema that filters through skillful affinities with cinematic references and allusions in his works. In this film there are hints of this, from the poster of Mother India to the swapping of babies. With all this, one hoped that Rushdie’s own indulgence as a co-writer of the screenplay (with Mehta) would find a different, exciting cinematic expression. The film offers less, far less than a cinephile Rushdie discloses when he thinks and writes about cinema. The film based on his important novel becomes a commercial for reading his novel. It is a beautiful looking, “picturized novel” of the post-Slumdog age where images themselves become the story and we are asked not to be curious about the depths it could offer. The film is suspended between its ambitions to transform a novel onto film while the film struggles to come into its own as an equally multilayered work.
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of this exercise/collaboration directs toward a missed opportunity to make this novel relevant for the current morass of religion in the sub-continent. The figures of swapped babies and swapped destinies and their power to magically connect with each other through the turbulent times of history are at the center of the futility of separate destinies of two nations. A few decades have passed since the novel was published. A lot more water has flowed under the bridge. Rushdie has seen the macabre dance of religion and he has seen the deterioration of the promise of secularism, not merely on the sub-continent but also from the diasporic vantage point that he shares with Mehta.
Looking back, the world appears different as religious identities have become more polarized and violence has reached ugly proportions. Midnight’s generation could have used an opportunity to reflect on all this, immersing the adaptation into the current affairs. On his own admission, he reduces the novel to “human drama,” a universalist claim made by everyone who does not want to ask difficult questions. The film is stuck in 1981 when the novel was published.
Once you step back from its discomforting failures, the film is a visual treat as Deepa Mehta’s films always are. There has emerged a certain pleasing aesthetic in the polished images from India, either of poverty or of wealth and historical sweep and this film sticks to that lexicon. Its attempts to recreate historical landmarks or to film them with sensitivity to their historic contexts are impressive. The cast, led by Satya Bhabha and Siddarth and aided by Shabana Azmi, Om Puri and Kulbhushan Kharbanda, among others, is an able assembly of known talents. Seema Biswas (Mary) is always comfortable projecting anguish and contained emotions better than most character actresses in Indian cinema. But she must resist being typecast in these roles or else she would be yet another staple presence that appears in the same role film after film.
Rushdie concludes the film with the seminal observation on the narrative of the fateful generation. In slight departure from the novel, he concludes (paraphrase) “Midnight’s children have failed India and India has failed midnight’s children.” If that singular insight had come through as a telling summary of the achievement of the film, it would have been a satisfying experience.
Your adaptation of the novel appears too literal, too close to the novel. Could you speak to that?
I really don’t believe that films are literal adaptations of the books. There are things you have to take; the things you have to drop and how you do it is really up to the writer and the director. The main thing is that you stay true to the essence of the book. And why would I change it? For me the essence of (Midnight’s Children) is the journey of Saleem as the journey of India. Salman and I decided that this is the journey we wanted to take. Surrounding that journey, there is India looking for its identity, looking for its place in the world, meeting disappointments, triumphing over them. You surround that essence with things that are magical about Midnight’s Children, its amazing characters and the really strong, core children.
You do your best. If you don’t like it, that is your problem.
Your earlier films have been edgier in some ways, but this is different. You are speaking of Pakistan and India, major changes that have taken place in India since Independence, the new generation finding its voice, etc. Was there a challenge of constructing various/multiple levels?
I don’t think that way. That is an academic talking. You chop things at different levels. I am a filmmaker. For me when I am writing the script….. let us focus on the world of Saleem. Saleem is a primary color then the canvas is India. The minute you tell his story, it becomes universal to the nation. We really did focus on Saleem’s journey. He was born at the moment of Independence. India became a metaphor for that. It isn’t a rocket science. I had a brilliant source material and I also had a brilliant screenwriter.
How did Rushdie feel about cutting some things from the novel? Was it easy to cut some things out?
Of course, he understands cinema. He knew this was not going to be ten hours long. He understood what I wanted and that is the reason that he did it. He was wonderful to work with. It isn’t that we did not have a disagreement. Yes, we did! But we talked to each other. It was very good.
When you were going through the accents/language of the character, did you use historic references? They sound quite contemporary.
Not really. I did lot of rehearsals with the actors. These are real characters that have been written. These are not historical characters. These are real human beings.
I spent an incredibly fulfilling time making it. It hasn’t been easy but it has been challenging and I feel like I have grown as a person.