Rushdie's Midnight's Children: Like dal without tadka

Last Updated: Fri, Feb 01, 2013 14:46 hrs

As a fan of the novel Midnight's Children, Satyen K Bordoloi goes a step beyond simply stating why he disliked the movie, to providing an alternate ending that would have spiced up the film.

Ironically (since a sense of irony is one of the strengths of the novel), the biggest problem with Midnight's Children the movie is the child of Indian literature who did not fail his tryst with destiny - Salman Rushdie.

The scriptwriter Salman seems to have not got what the novelist Salman was trying to say three decades back. Or maybe 30 years, the age when his protagonist Saleem Sinai dies, is a lifetime away for Rushdie. Too far to either care or to remember the caring for a subcontinent that made him write the novel in the first place, an ungrateful subcontinent that turned Brutus on him. 

For what is the novel Midnight's Children but a highly allegorised and metaphorical representation of the angst of an entire nation suffering to come to terms with itself and find its place in the world. What are the 1001 special children born at the stroke of midnight of 15th August 1947, only to be reduced to 581 after the death of the rest, but a simile to the birth of India, hundreds of princely states and all, leading to a purging led by Sardar Patel that finally left around 550 Lok Sabha Seats.

What is Saleem Sinai, swapped at birth, thus stealing without knowing the destiny of his alter-ego, but an Image of India, good intentioned but selfish without knowing.

What is the fight between Shiva and Saleem but the constant bickering of India and Pakistan, both claiming themselves to be the actual child of destiny. And what is the end of the novel, but the death of a nation during Emergency that finds its rebirth in the hope it lays down for another child of destiny.

In one of the interviews, Rushdie talked of Michelangelo who said that he could see his sculpture in a block of marble from which he then chiseled out the unnecessary parts. Rushdie said the book was that block of marble. What Salman did not realise was that this metaphor is terribly shortsighted because a novel is actually a fully formed, magnificent sculpture and not a featureless block of raw material.

All he could have done was to create a smaller statue from the existing one and ensure that despite the loss of size and thus grandeur, it didn't lose out on its essence and beauty and that it is molded in the image and soul of the original.

Sadly Salman Rushdie the scriptwriter choose to keep and/or delete all the wrong portions as if he did not understand the very novel he had himself written. And obviously Rushdie doesn't understand that usually, screenplays are woven like a necklace - there's a thread that connects, binds and gives meaning to the beads of events while making the entire necklace pleasing to see.

It is as if Salman Rushdie the novelist of Midnight's Children had himself died under the burden of the fatwa that forced him to chisel out Joseph Anton from the original Rushdie, a piece of the original yes, but a much lesser version of the free and resplendent Salman Rushdie. As if the most important bits of S Rushdie was lost in translation or teleportation into J Anton.

Indeed, how many can be holed up like his own character Nadir Khan in an underground cellar made of fear for years, yet retain their sanity. And even if they did retain their sanity, what about their art? Hasn't, in a way, every writer or artist lost the essence of what made them great after the first flush of fame. 

Hasn't every work of art after the onslaught of celebrity been an attempt to capture the lost essence? Isn't that the reason why we celebrate a Vincent Van Gogh as a pure artist because he died before fame, and thus the weight of public expectation, could pollute his art?

Can our celebrity-crazy world ever create a true artist anymore?  Doesn't an artist directly or indirectly become the lie imposed on him/her by society like a clear stream that is stultified from within and without by every hand that touches it.

If you look at Midnight's Children the movie, you'll realise what I mean. For you'll wonder about a writer who doesn't seem to understand the essence of his own previous work, as if the millions of autumn leaves that have fallen between the writer then and the writer now, has blocked his vision and ensured that though the writer is the same, the essence, the soul, is lost in the movie.

The result is a movie that is not at all grotesque. For there's beauty even in the grotesque. Instead, you have a movie that is plain bland, a dal without tadka, a curry minus the spice that refuses to leave any taste in your mouth. Sadly, it isn't meditative enough to claim that this blandness is the 'method in the madness'.

If you haven't read the novel, you'll be disappointed by the movie because it doesn't work for you and if you have read the book, you'll be doubly let down at the thoughts of what it could have been.

To be fair though, the fault isn't Deepa Mehta's. She has done her job with elan so that the look and feel of the movie is what you might call 'international' as we know it today. And though her camera lacks the magic realism of the book, it's not bereft of either wit or sense of humour. The casting is immaculate and the actors do a good to brilliant job. It's the screenplay that is a let down.

And that's a sacriledge for a fan. For a true fan of the novel can literally see the millions of hooks and hear hundreds of magic incantations with which it pulls and maintains his attention, sometimes with extreme and ironic cheesiness. 

And best of all a true fan understands the infinite allusions and illusions of the book. Consider just one example. In the book, the rich baby turns poor and the poor rich, in one simple swap. The Hindu kid becomes Muslim and vice versa and it is the good intentioned but stupid Christian that intertwines their fate only to make them enemies for life. 

If you see it as a religious and nationalistic metaphor you'll see the perfect allegory for India, Pakistan and their relationship with the British Empire that created and thus entwined them in hatred forever.

A true fan also understands how in oblique ways, Midnight's Children has been the fountainhead for many other wonderful works of art - books, movies, graphic novels, etc. Again sample just one, admittedly silly and simplistic example to understand this. Those who have read the graphic novel Watchmen will not fail to see the similarity between the two books. Both about superheroes with naively foolish 'good' superheroes, pitted against the intelligent and scheming and extremely powerful bad superhero. 

In Watchmen the nation goes to war and wins in Vietnam because it is led by two superheroes, decimating the enemy like Shiva does in the book with his giant knees. In Watchmen when The Comedian - amidst chaos of rioting – says: "What happened to the American Dream? You are looking at it" you hear Shiva proclaiming that the 'tryst with destiny' has not been kept.

A good reader will find many such 'oblique' and/or direct parallels to other works while a good viewer will clearly see how the faulty script of the film lets the book down.

The problems with the script of the movie are many. The main issue is that though it does stick to one storyline, it fails to build up tension. It fails to rise up to and thus end in a crescendo. The film instead goes out with a whimper.

Thus, if Rushdie was anyways taking creative liberties with the book, he could have taken more, to bring out the essence of the story, the various metaphors while at the same time making it more engaging and 'entertaining' by building the tension to unbearable proportions till the final release.

Here is a way how this could have been done, while also enhancing the metaphor.

The end could have seen Saleem and Shiva engage in a battle in the decrepit building in which the 420 odd midnight's children have been taken to have their powers 'operated' out. And though Shiva has his powers intact and Saleem and others do not, they somehow manage to put their differences aside, gather force and defeat Shiva in an epic battle more of brains than of brawns. 

This fits in with what happened after the Emergency when the opposition gathered forces to defeat Indira Gandhi in elections (of course, they lost it to infighting almost as instantly).

The movie, however, wouldn't have ended here. For the end would have revealed the mother of all twists with 'The Widow' from the book i.e. Indira Gandhi, now no longer in power, finding Saleem and the two have a showdown. Here, Mrs Gandhi would have revealed to Saleem that every midnight of history had given birth to its own 'Midnight's Children' with powers to change the destiny of the nation. 

She could have told him that it was other midnight's children like him who had worked with her father to not only win India its independence but also to ensure its future and the uninterrupted, though just rule of Nehru after independence.

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However, she'd reveal that unlike her father she had found it hard to trust these freaks and when she came to power she had actually begun to fear them and thus hunt them down. Emergency, was thus nothing but 'open season' for this hunt. And though Saleem has had his powers taken out from him, he was still dangerous because, as the original midnight's child, there was no saying what powers he possessed or could repossess.

Thus in the end, Mrs Gandhi would confront Saleem and take his life, but not before Saleem had made the prophecy that her downfall was near and that while she is busy fighting ghosts of midnight's children, the living ghosts of her real actions would catch up on her and finish her (you could do this as you have the advantage of history now which he did not have when the book came out). 

And that the many children of the original midnight and many others after that, would reclaim the nation and bring it to the glory it rightly deserved.

This element would not only have been in consonance with the rest of the story, but would also have rounded it up in a believable, yet ironic and iconic simile.

Sadly, that is not to be, and what we are left with is one of the most brilliant novels ever written from which one of the most mediocre screenplays ever was eked out – both, surprisingly, by the same man.

(Satyen K Bordoloi is an independent film critic, writer and photojournalist based in Mumbai. 

His writings on cinema, culture and politics have appeared nationally and globally.)

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