Novel as a Film. How do you take Salman Rushdie’s book Midnight’s Children and transform it into a film? Challenging. Deepa Mehta’s answer – Film as a Novel. Both are art. As the poet Nadir Khan says in the film: “All artistic expression is equal. Poetry, movies, even the old men who use their skill to spit out betel juice into the spittoon”. The spittoon plays a significant metaphorical role.
Rushdie’s book in 1980 was responsible for the reconstruct of literature written by Indians. Suddenly, natives were not being written about, explaining us to the White Man. Rushdie explained nothing but said it all. Midnight’s Children has it all – history, philosophy, personal stories, magic realism, love, betrayal, tragedy and yet you smile. How is it possible to distil all that into 90 minutes and not lose any of it? But, the result is more not less.
Mehta’s epic film, I think the largest canvas she has ever dealt with, hits the heart of India and Pakistan’s story that will confound Indians and sensitise the world about how “history” gambles with people’s lives.
Salman Rushdie’s recognisable voice as narrator: “….I Saleem Sinai was mysteriously handcuffed to history. My destiny forever chained to my country’s”. The film explores how we are all handcuffed to political notions, personal agendas, events beyond our control. It couldn’t be more relevant to what is happening in today’s India. The subterranean culture of manipulators continues. The fact that Salman Rushdie’s planned visit to the Jaipur Literature Festival in 2011 was reduced to a television interview from New York, forcing him to cancel because some politicians sought advantage in an election, shows that the undisturbed narrative carries on. Stories intertwined with each other – the artist/writer, the political and the landscape of people.
Rushdie’s lyrical narrative in the film, remarkable in its skill of changing the written to the spoken word, is his highest skill – that of a storyteller. You actually look forward to the narrative as you would the recitation of a poem, and it doesn’t let you down.
The brilliance in Mehta’s direction are the ephemeral moments – a flash of a father’s discomfort when his daughter Emerald’s hands stay too long in Major Zulfikar’s hand, a glimpse of Amina’s back as she leans over to – shall we say love-make, a quiver of a Guru Dutt song just before bastis are demolished, a defeated Pakistani general leaning over to polish his shoes before he surrenders to India, are all moments of a nanosecond.
The film is all about detail, all of which have been crafted by the Creative Producer, Dilip Mehta. Every scene, from the placement of a stuffed paper in a window, the manual rope-pulled lift in a hospital, a beaded curtain of the Pakistani flag, fabrics, photo frames, the paint on the walls, road signs, all give the message of the period. Giles Nuttgens’ camera responds to the dialogue and action. While Mary prays in her guilt and suffering, a sliver of the window shows Independence Day fireworks showering the sky. There is hardly a frame that doesn’t have a point of light glowing on the screen. What can you call it but a gentle hand-held that creates a language of its own?
Sounds – Saleem’s heartbeat lying in a hospital synchronises with the drum beats of war which is the next scene, ambience of a railway station, Saleem’s discovery of voices in his head while his mother yanks him out of his hiding place, transport you to where the filmmakers want you to be.
We are reminded how far we are from where we used to be. When General Zulfikar surrenders to India’s General Arora in 1971, the narrative says, “In those days all our wars were between friends.” General Arora says to his old friend, “I’m sorry for your loss in the battle, Zulfi”. On being introduced to Shiva, now an Indian war hero, Zulfikar says, sportingly, “Good show, Major.”
I do want to reassure readers that their favourite line from the book: “Would you move a little, please?” is alive and playing well. If you are not familiar with it, then it’s not a spoiler. Rushdie’s unique use of language – “Stop all the glass-kissery” – is in fact more fun in a film.
Saleem Sinai belonged to both India and Pakistan. So many of our parents did and many of my generation were born in what is now Pakistan. All the pain and anguish from man-made borders has scarred many of us, and the panic to belong to an inherited identity only makes us forget we are, after all, only human beings in a very large world.
Emotions and feelings have aroma in this film. Whether it is war, a poverty-ridden basti, elegance in a wealthy home, political incidents, all have the aroma of this region. All those aromas waft around us today. Won’t it just complete the story in the Rushdie narrative if this film cannot be seen in India? It is a narrative begging for change.