I approached this screening with some trepidation. I read Salman Rushdie’s novel Midnight’s Children in 1982, identifying strongly with its central theme. It felt like the cutting-edge of a fiction in tune with the cultural shifts towards post-colonialist literature. But only a few years later I started to go off Rushdie. I remember a key moment being the attack he made on Black Audio and Film Collective’s film Handsworth Songs in 1987. It’s ironic that Handsworth Songs is now rightly recognised as an important intervention in the development of a Black aesthetic in Britain, whereas Rushdie has lost some of his cultural status. That status appears to have been diminished further with the reception of the film adaptation of Midnight’s Children – scripted by Salman Rushdie who also provides several passages of narration. On its second week of release in the UK, the film was screened only once a day, in the afternoon, in the Vue multiplex at The Light in Leeds. There were just five of us in the audience. This already looks like a lack of confidence from its distributor eOne Entertainment, the new Canadian major .
So, is it as bad as all that? Well, no. I decided not to go back to the book before the screening and I watched in as objective a manner as possible. I was surprised to find myself in tears at the end of the film. That probably says more about me than about the film but in most respects this is a very impressive production. The Indian director Deepa Mehta who makes her films from her Canadian base has achieved what many thought was the impossible feat of adapting Rushdie’s novel with a wonderful cast drawn from the vast array of Indian performers working in India and North America in all forms of cinema. More than sixty location shoots in Sri Lanka stand in for India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Mehta has said many things about the production and my guess is that she chose Sri Lanka for two reasons. First she had previously suffered from protests by Hindi fundamentalists when she made Water (Canada 2005), the third film of her ‘elements trilogy’. (See my earlier posting about this film.) She moved that production to Sri Lanka where she discovered that Columbo and its environs has preserved much more of the ‘heritage buildings’ from the colonial period than equivalent cities in India. Midnight’s Children was a much more demanding shoot in terms of locations so Sri Lanka was very attractive. Rushdie’s novel has also been controversial in both India and Pakistan and the shoot was interrupted for a few days when the Iranian government tried to pressurise the Sri Lankans to withdraw permissions. It will be interesting to see what happens when the film finally opens in India (there were protests after its screening at the Kerala International Film Festival). PVR are going to distribute the film in India with a release date of February 1st. I suspect the Indian release will create a stir. I’m not sure if critics and audiences will like the film, but at least they will know the history. It is, of course, unlikely that it will be released in Pakistan except on pirated DVDs. I’m not sure yet whether it will make Bradford – where street demonstrations and a book burning were part of the reaction to Rushdie’s later novel, The Satanic Verses in 1989.
Rushdie’s long novel (500 pages of dense text in the paperback edition) tells the story of two characters born within seconds of each other at the stroke of midnight on August 14/15 1947, the moment of the end of the British Raj and the birth of two new nations separated by Partition. For reasons explained in the plot, the babies are switched at birth (in Bombay) with the poor child given to the wealthy (Muslim) mother and named Saleem and her ‘real’ son going to the poor Hindu father after his wife dies in childbirth (and named Shiva). As the two boys grow up knowing each other (but not their true identities) in the same district, they gradual discover their special powers, individual to each of the Midnight’s Children born at that one moment across the old Raj. We follow the boys through the major events of the next thirty years when they are separated only to be re-united in very different circumstances towards the end of the story. Rushdie also provides us with further background in the form of the story of Saleem’s Muslim family since his grandfather first met the woman he was to marry in Kashmir in 1915. This means that we have a story that covers 62 years of tumultuous history in South Asia with the birth of three new countries (i.e. including Bangladesh in 1971) and a host of important characters. It shouldn’t be difficult to work out from this brief outline that a ‘magic realist’ treatment of these events enables Rushdie to create symbols, metaphors and allegories for much of ‘Indian’ history in the 20th century. The story is essentially about the failure of the children with magical powers to help create India and Pakistan as viable democracies. Rushdie was writing at a time when Indira Ghandi had just been deposed after the period of ‘Emergency’ in 1977.
Production and reception
Rushdie’s novel was seen to be unfilmable, although a stage production was mounted in 2003 (see this review) and Wikipedia suggests that a BBC five part serial was considered in the 1990s (ironically featuring Rahul Bose who appears in Mehta’s film) but not developed when it was feared that there would be protests in Sri Lanka where it was to be shot. Deepa Mehta and Salman Rushdie share a background as diaspora ‘creatives’. Mehta was born in 1950 in Amritsar, Punjab province close to the Indo-Pakistani border created by Partition. Her 1998 film Earth is one of the best Partition films. She and Rushdie worked very closely on the adaptation of Midnight’s Children, agreeing on how much to cut from the novel’s plot to enable a runtime of 146 minutes. It would also seem that Mehta urged Rushdie to write and perform the narration – and that he agreed with some reluctance. I think that on the whole the script works (though I did feel that the last section of the film was less satisfactory in that there were ellipses that seemed to suggest cuts having been made). For me, the one big mistake was the narration. I’m not one of those who never like narration. On the contrary, I like narration when it’s done well and when it fits the narrative style of the film. But Rushdie’s voice is so well-known and his delivery for me was so flat that I winced each time it came on the soundtrack. I think an actor could have ‘performed’ the narrator’s role much more successfully.
The other criticisms of the film seem much less valid to me. Partly, I think, critics in the UK and North America don’t know the history well enough to understand the somewhat schematic presentation of some of the events and they don’t necessarily know much about the different types of Indian cinema or are familiar with the acting talent on display here. Just to take a couple of examples, Kate Stables in what is otherwise a perceptive and balanced review in Sight and Sound (January 2013), refers to “snapshots of Indo-Pakistan wars and cross-border wanderings”. There are two major wars shown in the film, the India-Pakistan War of 1965 and the conflict of 1971 which saw Indian forces crossing into East Pakistan to help secure independence for what would become Bangladesh. I’m not sure what she means by ‘cross-border wanderings’. The Guardian‘s film editor Catherine Shoard refers to “actors perfectly cast to the point of blandness” and music in which “wooden flutes, xylophones and wind chimes patter about on the soundtrack”. The actors include Seema Biswas, Anupam Kher, Rahul Bose, Soha Ali Khan, Kulbhushan Kharbanda and many more known in India as well as the American-based Satya Bhabha who makes a good job of the lead. Perfectly cast, yes. Bland? I don’t think so. Mehta works in a form of parallel cinema that requires actors to work largely (but not completely) in English and to deal with scripts quite unlike those which they would find in mainstream Indian popular cinemas such as Bollywood or Tamil/Telegu. The overall effect is not necessarily as ‘coherent’ as we might expect in the commercial cinemas of South Asia or Hollywood/Europe. It is usually more ‘realist’ but sometimes more expressionist. The fantasy elements of this particular property (largely achieved without CGI) make this seeming contradiction more noticeable. The music in Midnight’s Children is by Nitin Sawhney. If Catherine Shoard doesn’t like his music that’s fine but as a world-class musician, a British Asian with an international reputation, he deserves not to be treated with disdain.
Midnight’s Children is not a perfect film by any means but it is a decent attempt at a literary adaptation that will please the more open-minded of the novel’s many admirers and would also please many new audiences – if they got the chance to see it. Its message of protest about what has happened in India and Pakistan over the years is still something that needs to be shouted out. I think I cried at the end because the film brought together memories of many of my favourite stories from India, partly by reminding me of the films I’ve seen and the novels I’ve read. I’ll try to keep track of what happens to Midnight’s Children in India.
Material on the background to the film’s production has mostly been taken from the Press Pack uploaded by Mongrel Films in Canada.
Here’s the UK trailer which gives some indication of the difficulties discussed above:
I found the film somewhat unsatifying. It has virtues, most of which Roy discusses above. But it is schematic, and I think the book is not schematic, rather more in the form of a picaresque story. This, I think, is an aspect the films falls down on. And I thought what one might call the magical realist aspects of the film were weak as well.
To be honest, my sense was that the problem was in the script, down, of course, to Salmon Rusdie. I remember a pretty good piece by Rushdie in the Guardian Review on film adaptations from literary sources – the example he praised highly was The Tin Drum. And I think that film suceeeds where this film partially fails.