JPRI Critique Vol. XIX No. 3 (June 2013)
Film Review: Midnight’s Children
by Patrick Lloyd Hatcher
How does a celebrated novelist save his most celebrated novel from the movie business? Easy. He keeps Hollywood’s hands off his handiwork. How? He joins the film crew, both writing the screenplay and narrating the film. Thus does Salman Rushdie save his 1981 Booker Prize-winning book Midnight’s Children from both the razzle-dazzle of Bollywood and the star-saturated vehicles preferred by Hollywood. Think of the noisy singing and dancing in Bollywood epics, or back to the days when Tyrone Power, a nice Irish lad, used to play Indian maharajas wearing bejeweled turbans. None of this for Rushdie or his celebrated director Deepa Mehta, famous for her trilogy Fire (1996), Earth (1998), and Water (2005). Mehta cast actors, not movie stars.
And what a team it is. These thespians must travel the subcontinent, the old British Raj, from Kashmir, Agra, Bombay, Karachi, Delhi, Dacca, and back to Bombay. Not only territory but also time counts, thirty years of birth and death, despair and destruction. At midnight on August 15, 1947, British rule ended. At the same moment 1,001 babies left the safety of their mother’s wombs and howled their collective way into the disaster of partition, one of the most horrific of holocaust in modern Asia, a continent of historic horrors. Thank the Hindu gods we do not have to watch the slaughter’s sickening slime, but its ghosts haunt the film. In Midnight’s Children two of these babies are switched, a rich one for a poor one, Shiva for Saleem. A well-meaning Catholic nurse does the deed, cursing one, saving another. A quarter of a century of mayhem results. Rushdie shoehorns the stories of both males into his Indian-Pakistani-Bangladeshi epic, which tells the tale, not of the birth of a nation, but the birth of three nations.
One of the great challenges of the book-to-film is the use of magical realism, a device mainly of Latin American literature that denies that all truth belongs to the scientifically proven, leaving no room for the truth of fantasy and the spirit world. Obviously this appealed to Rushdie in writing of his own south Asian magic. But how to translate it to the screen? In a tour de force he gently introduces the audience to the young Saleem who initially hears many voices in his head. He yells for quiet; quiet comes but is soon followed by hazy apparitions representing the others born on the same day and time as Saleem, all midnight’s children “handcuffed by history,” a term used by Rushdie as he starts the film’s narration. By the way, is he a good narrator? Superb, born to the task. Not to forget the beautiful young witch whose magic basket, large enough for Saleem or small enough for their child, once either male enters it and the lid is placed back on top, can hocus-pocus, abracadabra make its contents disappear and later reappear. At that point in the film, having suspended doubt, you believe also.
Color film was made with India in mind. You cannot film India in black and white; there exists no Indian film noir. And what colors: magenta, cobalt, tangerine, sunflower, avocado, and the everywhere, everyday shocking pink. The camerawork for Midnight’s Children would make the French impressionists paint for joy. No slum is too drab, no city too clogged, no river too polluted for Mehta’s cinematographer not to find a rainbow bursting in front of him. Even great British films about India such as Passage to India never get it spot on. Instead at best one eyes weak pastels.
Congress Party elites will strongly dislike the political picture painted of their celebrated and infamous prime minister, Indira Gandhi, notorious for her Declaration of an Emergency, in which she ruled as a dictator, dictating sterilization, mainly of untouchables at the bottom of her then poor India, and, for some odd reason, fearing Midnight’s Children, thus ordering the destruction of their Delhi slum. For her they use an actress, for 1947 politicos they very effectively use original film footage of the personalities at the top of the partition panacea.
American critics of the film rate it low, suggesting that it has too many subplots, too many characters, too many locations. Would they suggest that of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, novel or film? I think not. Critical taste here now runs to praising a movie in which a teenage boy and a tiger cross the Pacific Ocean in a rowboat without killing each other, or where one guy fakes a movie in Iran and escapes with a dozen would-be American hostages. Patience and time are lacking when critics are asked to think their way through a complicated, character(s)-dominated long film. How can one not love a scene in which Saleem and his sister, on a lazy Karachi afternoon on a portico, dance the twist to a Hindu rendition of the Chubby Checkers classic? It’s magical, needing no realism.
PATRICK LLOYD HATCHER, a member of the JPRI advisory board, has achieved distinction in many fields—most notably, military, academe, and media/cultural affairs. Following in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps, he served in the U.S. Army for twenty years, retiring as a Lieutenant Colonel. For his second act, he received a Ph.D. in History from the University of California, Berkeley, then taught there in the Military Science, History, and Political Science Departments, rising to Vice Chair of Politics. For the past two decades he has also been a commentator on international affairs for television and radio as well as a popular host/interviewer for cultural events throughout the Bay Area. He is the author of The Suicide of an Elite: American Internationalists in Vietnam (Stanford University Press, 1990), Economic Earthquakes: Converting Defense Cuts to Economic Opportunities (Institute of Governmental Studies Press, Berkeley, 1994), and North American Civilization at War (M.E. Sharpe, 1998), along with numerous essays and reviews.