Deepa Mehta’s film only confirms the impossibility of translating into a visual format the magic realism central to Rushdie’s most celebrated work
As Indian cinemagoers finally get to see Midnight’s Children, due for general release on February 1, here’s some friendly advice: keep expectations low — I mean really, really low — or else you are likely to feel crushingly disappointed.
Although Salman Rushdie himself has written the screenplay, it is a parody of his great novel. After the first half, enlivened by scenes of levity such as Dr. Aadam Aziz examining Naseem limb by limb through a hole in the purdah, it descends into chaos and boredom. The weakest bits are those that deal with serious politics — the trauma of Partition, the break-up of Pakistan, Indira Gandhi’s emergency and its excesses, all of which lie at the heart of the book. The focus, instead, is on its farcical elements.
It is cringing to see one of the most celebrated works of the 20th century reduced to that tackiest of Bollywood clichés: babies switched at birth setting off a chain of unintended consequences.
The novel’s most magical moment is when Saleem Sinai arrives into the world exactly at the same time as independent India is being born and thus becomes “handcuffed to history” for the rest of his life. In the film, however, it comes through as a cheap gag: we see images of hundreds of “midnight’s children” comically juxtaposed with exploding fireworks to welcome India’s freedom from colonial rule. And then comes the “Big Switch” instigated by a cardboard revolutionary with some oddly reactionary ideas about how to achieve social justice.
You might say, but all that is in the book. Yes, and that’s the problem: Midnight’s Children is unfilmable. A sprawling fantasy of epic proportions, hinged on an abstract idea, it is a film-maker’s nightmare. The world’s best directors — and without doubt Deepa Mehta is one of them — will struggle to deal with the sheer sweep and ambition of Midnight’s Children with its surreal subplots and a jerky narrative.
Rushdie as screenplay writer
Mehta has admitted that compressing such a big book into a two-hour film was hugely “challenging” and that she was keen for Rushdie to write the screenplay precisely because she felt that he would be less “intimidated by the process of elimination.” Rushdie himself has said it was “heartbreaking,” over how much he had to leave out in the end. With the stuffing taken out, we are left with a film that bears only a faint resemblance to its source material.
“With the book’s wryly witty tone mostly gone, all that’s left is plot — diminished yet recitative, like episodic milestones duly checked off on a laboured journey. There’s scant flow and consequently, from us, scant engagement. We look at the unfolding spectacle with our eyes wide but our emotions closed — so much to see, so little to feel,” is how Toronto’s The Globe and Mail described it when it was shown at the Toronto International Film Festival.
An American critic wrote that it struggles “to incorporate most of Rushdie’s teeming subplots” and fails to find “a narrative focus.”
In Britain, the reaction has been similarly lukewarm. It has been variously described as “unfocused,” “meandering,” and “plodding” with Rushdie’s screenplay flagged as the main problem.
“Salman Rushdie isn’t everyone’s idea of a literary genius. But if you admired his Booker Prize-winning novel and find this film lacking, it can only be largely the writer’s own fault since 60 years of history and 600 sprawling pages have been compressed by him into a little less than two and a half hours on screen,” said the London Evening Standard.
Though comparatively more sympathetic, The Times also pointed out that “Rushdie’s screenplay tends to get bogged down in moments of narrative stagnation.”
A straw poll by me at a central London theatre where I saw it revealed that those who had read the novel found the film too slight (``it jumps from scene to scene,’’ said one) and those who hadn’t struggled to understand what it was all about.
The truth is that Rushdie’s magic realism is not the stuff of cinema or indeed theatre as we saw when the Royal Shakespeare Company staged it in London in 2003. Academic and writer Germaine Greer famously likened it to a tacky “costume drama.” The play was criticised for trying to squeeze “huge narrative gallons into a pint pot.”
Rushdie was heavily involved with that production too. Wiser by experience, he has tried to cut out the flab this time but has gone too far in the opposite direction. All of which confirms the impossibility of translating Midnight’s Children into a visual format — it becomes either too chaotic or too lean with all the meat gone.
The ultimate tragedy is that thanks to Rushdie’s persistence there is a danger that his greatest achievement could end up being remembered only as a bad play or a bad film rather than as a literary masterpiece.