History in a hurry
Independence, Partition, Emergency, the bloodbath and injustice in their wake, and the human vicissitudes in this span ‘pre-1947 to the 1970s’ totalling these grinders of history—Deepa Mehta’s Midnight’s Children, the screenplay and original book written by Salman Rushdie, is a staggering story to film.
It is about Saleem Sinai, born in Bombay as Jawaharlal Nehru declares in his midnight speech in Delhi how a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance. Saleem is switched at birth by a nurse in an impulsive act of rebellion—biologically the child of a poor man, he is raised in the family of a Kashmiri aristocrat who hobnobs with the last of the Englishmen, and lives in a bungalow near Kemps Corner. Saleem’s life then is inextricably related to the fortunes of a new India. The story begins in Kashmir with his family’s Kashmiri ancestors, moves to to Bombay, Karachi, East Pakistan, the wounded landscape of a newly formed Bangladesh and back to Bombay at the end of the Emergency, when the gifted midnight’s children like Saleem, now adults, are symbolically free to choose their own corners of the world. The story’s fantastic flights of magic realism peak when Saleem connects with his kin, all midwived at or around 12am on 15 August 1947. Fantasy, sorcery, war, marital infidelity, love, sickness, a tyranny—the film tries to encompass every human emotion in the framework of contemporary Indian history.
Mehta’s ambition is unfettered, and she goes for the broad sweep. Rushdie’s contribution as screenplay writer and omniscient narrator helps, but only marginally. The film almost runs like a documentary of the story, poignant in patches, but those patches never conjure up a compelling and cohesive narrative. For the unacquainted, the underpinnings of history crucial to the story will make little sense.
The characters are vignettes, although there are some engaging performances, and the leaps in the story are jarring. The ensemble cast, with Shabana Azmi, Rajat Kapoor, Shahana Goswami, Rahul Bose, Shriya Saran, Seema Biswas and others, and Satya Bhabha at the centre as Saleem, is accomplished and they stand out in this capacious canvas.
The narration by Rushdie is, at best, nice. His voice lends the film an authoritative air but as it progresses, decade after decade, it is clear that for the author too, writing this screenplay and playing the sutradhar is an act of revisiting the best of himself. The ardent language and voice is Rushdie paying a tribute to Rushdie.
Mehta’s contribution to the film is the visual interpretation, and fulfilling the curiosity of those who’ve read the book about what makes it into the film and what doesn’t. Giles Nuttgens’ cinematography speaks the language of proverbial Indian exotica. Some of the sequences are gorgeous, but the interest wanes quickly because these are warm-hued, densely populated frames you have seen in many movies about India. The scenes involving the children who exist in young Saleem’s hallucinatory world are tacky, resembling dreams in a B-grade potboiler.
What stays with me is Mehta’s engrossing portrayal of the Emergency. Set against wide backdrops of dark, cloudy skies and haunting music by Nitin Sawhney, and at the centre of this climactic episode, the frightening presence of “the lady”, this is a brilliantly eloquent visual indictment of Indira Gandhi and the oppressive late 1970s. You have never seen an evil Indira Gandhi on screen. Here she is, played by Sarita Choudhury, shot repeatedly with close-ups of the character’s cold face and masticating mouth.
In the late 1980s, after reading Rushdie’s book, auteur Satyajit Ray had famously said, “It would be unfilmable in the sense that it would have to be simplified so much it would not be itself.” Rushdie, an admirer of Ray, had approached the film-maker to direct one of the numerous attempts to translate the book on to screen, as a six-part TV series. But Ray declined because, as he said in the same interview, “It has so much of the current, so much of contemporary politics.” Mehta’s interpretation takes the illustrious Midnight’s Children legacy a bit forward, but does not make us see Saleem Sinai’s world in an unforgettable way, shattering our own imaginings of this busy and dense world. Her Midnight’s Children is worth a watch because, besides a few episodic sparkles, it urges us to revisit the book, and find the sweat and specks of Rushdie’s narrative.
Midnight’s Children released in theatres on Friday.