Will we ever be able to see Deepa Mehta’s new film in our theatres? Never mind. We can still talk about it — or, more relevantly, around it
So Midnight’s Children may not visit us after all. I must say I’m a little disappointed, despite not being the world’s biggest fan of Deepa Mehta. Her most well-known works haven’t always reconciled their ambitions with their achievements, and they have always seemed constructed to elicit much sympathetic clucking from a bleeding-heart, Western audience.
Watching Fire, they could clap their hands on their cheeks and exclaim: “Oh, look at those poor housewives, nudged into Sapphic sisterhood by distant husbands.” With Water, they could say, “Oh, look at those widows, sentenced to a life of abstinence for no fault of their own.” Fire at least had a capable cast, led by Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das. Water, on the other hand, submerged us in a parallel universe where the redemption of a ridiculously beautiful Lisa Ray lay in the hands of John Abraham, who wrapped himself in a dhoti and prattled on about kadamba flowers. How could you not laugh?
But the foreign press looked at these films differently. No less a personage than Andrew Sarris — the recently deceased critic who championed the cult of the auteur in America — placed Water third in his list of the top 10 foreign films of 2006, below Pedro Almodóvar’s Volver and above the Dardenne brothers’ L’Enfant. In a review for the New York Observer, Sarris wrote that “the institutional horror and spiritual grandeur of the film creep up on you slowly, like the inexorable currents of the Ganges”.
Well, to each his own. The exception in Mehta’s “elements trilogy” is 1947: Earth, which, like Fire and Water, was thematically ambitious, but it also managed to be dramatically satisfying — and this makes us wonder, idly, if Mehta may have been playing to her strengths when her sights landed on Midnight’s Children, whose snot-nosed protagonist, of course, was born the same year that the earlier film advertised in its title.
The attraction of Midnight’s Children, to me, is threefold. Firstly, its screenplay is by the author Salman Rushdie, which will give us an opportunity to find out if his psychedelic artistry in a medium that values words will extend to one that values images. Secondly, as is the case with any book that we’ve read and formed pictures of inside our heads, there’s the element of surprise: which parts will they keep, and which ones will they throw out?
But most importantly, there’s the question of how this novel will find its footing on screen. The power of Midnight’s Children lies not so much in what’s being narrated as how. It’s the kind of book where one chapter ends with the lines: “On the same day, Earl Mountbatten of Burma held a press conference at which he announced the Partition of India, and hung his countdown calendar on the wall: seventy days to go to the transfer of power... sixty-nine... sixty-eight... tick, tock.” And the next chapter features an Englishman who pronounces, “Sabkuch ticktock hai.” We smile, while reading, because of the cleverness of the writer’s imagination that has fused the sounds of a clock with pidgin Hindi. This is the sort of thing that cannot be shown on screen. Even if a voiceover reads out those lines about Mountbatten, we would not connect them with the Englishman’s pronouncement. He would sound just like any other foreigner attempting to say “theek-thaak” — there would be no flashback to the tick-tock of Mountbatten’s countdown. And this is not an isolated instance. The novel is filled with wordplay and wit, and surreal imagery that’s best experienced as vaguely formed approximations in our minds. When literalised through specific and detailed special effects, these leaps of imagination could be ground into kitsch.
And yet, we wait in hope because many so-called “unfilmable” novels have found their way to screen with great success. Michael Ondaatje’s sprawling, non-linear narrative in The English Patient was transformed into an Oscar-feted film that found favour with critics as well as audiences. And more recently, Ian McEwan’s Atonement — with its central conceit of a tale being told not by the author but by his creation, and with its meta questions about the very nature of writing — was made into an impressive movie.
But these books are based on a handful of characters, whereas Midnight’s Children, like India, is crammed with individuals and incidents. It’s not surprising that the film’s Toronto premiere has resulted in less-than-ecstatic reviews. Tim Robey, the critic for The Telegraph, called it an “earnest slog of a movie, biting off the book’s whole span over an inevitably episodic two and a half hours, [and] feels like sumptuously illustrated Cliffs Notes rather than fluid cinema”. Where’s Andrew Sarris when you need him?