Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Midnight's Children: the Film

Dipa Mehta and Salman Rushdie have told television interviewers that their dank depressing film Midnight's Children is a "love letter to India."

That's like a declaration of love for its victims from the Japanese banshee in The Grudge (who Mehta seems to have taken as a fashion model).

As with the novel, the film is a noisome dump on India.

Their primary difference is that the film, bound as it is to images, turns the turgid logorrhea of the novel's "magic realism" into revealing political scat.

For example, the film brings into high relief the bastardy of the main character, Saleem, Rushdie's alter ego: he is the son of a departing Englishman who cuckolds a poor wandering minstrel.

How much Rushdie's fiction has followed fact is a moot point, but considering that the novel gets its force from its rendering of history, this detail should probably be taken as more than embroidery, especially as it explains so much. 

In the film a nurse at the hospital where Saleem is born switches him for the son of the wealthy Muslim couple that bought the Englishman's house. She does so ostensibly to strike a blow for India's poor; a pecuniary incentive from the distant British parent is so much more believable.

That would also explain why Rushdie was sent off to England as a boy and never returned, his very British view of Indians as tragicomic freaks and misfits, and the totality of his blindness to the country's great post-colonial achievements.

The baby who replaces Saleem in the minstrel's home is named Shiva; he grows into a malignant scoundrel, joins the Indian Army and becomes the hero of the 1971 Bangladesh War. He also fathers a child from Parvati the powerful witch who is another midnight's child.

The film makes far clearer than the novel that Rushdie's storytelling is not about characters "handcuffed to history," but about stereotypes used to stamp a British political narrative on post-colonial South Asia.

Ayub Khan's military coup in Pakistan, Mrs. Gandhi's Emergency in India and the Bangladesh genocide mark turning points of the plot, underlining the stock theme of British colonial rule, that the natives are incompetent to run their own affairs.

As in the novel, the film gives not a hint that British puppet-masters pulled the strings for Partition and have made relentless use of Pakistan and "Islamic terrorists" as proxies against Indian democracy.

The British effort to control the narratives of others extends far beyond South Asia, and it is one of the most unremarked aspects of contemporary global affairs; my next post will explain. [Those who want a detailed exposition should check out "1001 Things Every Indian Should Know."]

No comments: