Midnight’s Childrenby Kavish Chetty / 20.09.2013
Is the cinema of India fated to its comparison, ever after, with Slumdog Millionaire? I can’t quite exorcise the spirit of that “chai-wallah” and his garish feel-good fortunes from my imagination. The cringing tone that Danny Boyle struck five years ago – of vibrancy, splurges of colour, a hurtling momentum as if glimpsed from the bulging carriages of a Bombay locomotive – haunt the impression of global Indian film, and have come to define, however wrongly, what little of that sub-continent’s cinema which actually ends up sprawling itself in a vermillion cargo upon our shores. Midnight’s Children resists some of the Bollywood urgencies that its atmosphere seems to demand. It also feasts upon such a destroyed abbreviation of Salman Rushdie’s 1980 magical-realist masterpiece as to constitute a kind of sacrilege – and, for fuck’s sake, it turns that novel, and its glorious language and ambiguities, its supernatural cosmos and celebratory/scary treatment of identity, its fatly-thronged cast of imaginative characters and humorous self-revisions, into a flat cut-out of tribute, one drained at the very jugular of its summoning splendor.
The grander errors of Midnight’s Children are almost uncountable, and each failure joins the hypothesis of all who adored the distinctly literary experience of that novel: that it is essentially an “un-adaptable” book, that no directorial power is visionary enough to the challenge. Deepa Mehta and Rushdie (scriptwriting his own work) have cut off a wealth of exciting material, turning a six-decade odyssey of Indian history into a mere two hours of ceremony; the anxious first-person narration, a source of so much comic charisma, is reduced to a few choice quotations, sleepily narrated by Rushdie himself – even his voice is now possessed of a bored complacency; the miscasting is disastrous, and characters like Saleem Sinai and Shiva-of-the-Knees, who existed in glorious imaginative multi-dimensionality for readers, are now tamed into lame presences on the screen, who can capture nothing of the mystery and magic of their original incarnations; a narration which was designed to be back-and-forth, splitting up chronologies and emphasising the awkward, exploratory experiences of modernity, becomes a simple, straightforward tale.
Midnight’s Children tells the story of Saleem Sinai, born precisely at the moment of Indian’s political independence and inheriting magical powers because of this accident of birth – along with 1000 others born close to that historic divide, all with varying degrees of magical power, kind of like a national X-men without benefit of lycra and spandex wardrobes. Sinai’s power is the most potent: he is able to telepathically bring all the “midnight’s children”, flung as they are among such remote geographic territories, into contact with each other. He holds embattled conferences within his mind, their discussions and debates acts as a refracting mirror for some of India’s own national negotiations at the time (issues of culture, language, religion, political issues). Two other more powerful contenders emerge at this point: Shiva-of-the-Knees, and Parvati-the-Witch, and it later emerges that a politically-motivated switching-at-birth occurred between two principal characters. But the story is far more expansive, focusing on generations of the Sinai horde, and at the same time working to connect the personal and political, chaining its protagonists to national history, and dense with allegory and sly metaphor.
All of this works gloriously on the page, exalting in exile, migration, fluidity and the porousness of borders (both literal and metaphysical), at precisely the time that these themes became de rigueur among “postcolonial” thinkers. But Mehta’s cinema strips this of all its materials, essentially transmuting this into another “Hindi” adventure film, replete with its conventions: there will be moments of silence intercut with that mosquito hum of faraway wailing vocals; a familiar palette of bleached and tropical colours; and tonal striking which evokes the maudlin excesses of Bollywood. Earlier on in the novel, there is a wonderful episode between Saleem’s father and his future wife: the father is a doctor and under strict codes of piety, he may only see the part of the woman to be treated through a hole cut in a bed-sheet – he thus has to slowly build up an image of this woman, piece-by-piece, architecting over time a romance of many parts. This courtship is detailed in the novel in comic terms which only the private narration of a confessor may do; and in the film, it becomes too expository, like show-and-tell, with none of the anxious scaffolding that makes the novel so enjoyable.
This one example is extended to the total film, and the result is unwatchably lame, doubly so for anyone having had the prior pleasures of the text. In sum: do not watch Midnight’s Children – it will destroy the intact experience of the book, the dizzying stylishness of which Mehta has not managed to capture at all.