Saturday, April 27, 2013

Midnight's Children. Aka That Time Salman Rushdie got all his buddies together to make a movie he wrote.

Kip: "So, you and Tammy still together?"

Uncle Rico: "No, not really."

Kip: "Why is that?"

Uncle Rico: "Well, she's jealous. Says I'm livin' too much in '82. Well, I dumped her."

- Napoleon Dynamite (2004)

How does one review a film by Salman Rushdie and Deepa Mehta? Do I concentrate on the politics, the story, the entertainment value, the craft, the characters, or the personality behind the story? For a film based on a book by one of the most divisive authors of the twentieth century and directed by one of the more socially conscious directors, both of whom are catering to very different audiences among the global Hindi speaking multiplex audience as well as to the Western “foreign film” crowd, the issues raised are so numerous that it’s difficult to even know where to begin.

I’m going to start by acknowledging that both artists have stood up for their rights to freedom of expression in the face of massive pressure to back down. A fact that Rushdie, in particular, has built his career on.*

Of course, the flip side of the right to freedom of expression is that we all get to have it and I’m going to use mine to say that Midnight’s Children is a terrible film.

The heart of the problem is this. Film is a very different medium from print and the story requirements for a two hour (or so) film are very different from that of a 500 page novel. One requires an audience’s attention be held completely and together for a short period of time, the other allows for the reader to go at his or her own pace - pausing, pondering, re-reading - and can span days or even weeks. And so, the novel adaptation is always faced with the same problem: slavish devotion to a novel’s plot points will drag down a film faster than a narrator can get the voiceover out, but the novel’s fans will be expecting to see all of those plot points and you risk alienating them by condensing and tweaking things for the screen.** Rushdie, by choosing to script his novel Midnights Children himself, for an audience of himself, dives into the former option with abandon.

And not only is the script duller than any story that includes fakecest and magic has any right to be, it also feels musty, with an ideology stuck firmly in the era in which it was written. The young man at 65, still fighting cultural battles that were decided years ago.

Both of these things are exemplified in the inclusion of the character of Nadir (Zaib Shaikh), an impotent poet and Thatcheristic straw man, cowering in a basement while pontificating about how everything can be art, even the common man spitting into a spittoon. A pointed comment towards left-wing academia, about 30 years past it’s due date. What purpose does reanimating the corpse of this particular culture war serve, except to satisfy Rushdie’s sense of his own correctness on the matter.

Worse still, despite the presence of Deepa Mehta, Rushdie’s condescending attitude towards women really shines through. Women exist to give birth and to foil the happiness of our hero Salim at every turn. “Can’t a nice guy just get a break?!” No sympathy is forthcoming for the sister who really doesn’t want to hook up with her brother or for the mother stoically enduring a loveless life. The one exception is the substitute mother figure, the aptly named Mary (Seema Biswas, putting in the film’s best performance by a long shot). But then nice guys do like their Madonnas.

And that’s just the narrative.

Oddly enough, despite Midnight’s Children being pedantically scripted, it’s very sloppily produced, giving this reviewer the impression that exactly as much thought went into casting as went into Adam Sandler’s Grown ups. As scene followed scene, it was like playing a game of Spot the Hindie Actor. Here comes Rahul Bose camping it up for two minutes! Here’s Soha Ali Khan, playing daughter to Shohana Goswami despite being at least 6 years older than her! Rajat Kapoor! Shabana Azmi giving an evil eye! Anupam Kher chewing scenery! Even little Darsheel Safary. I kept waiting for Irrfan Khan to show up but I suppose he was too busy promoting his two minute role in Life of Pi to join in the party. The camera lingers of the familiar faces, giving them room to Perform, with a capital P, in the manner of the filmi “friendly appearance.” It quickly becomes very distracting.

Also distracting is the extremely poor casting choice of Satya Bhabha in the lead role of Salim. Satya may be a competent actor, I can’t say, having only seen him before in the dreadful Scott Pilgrim vs the World, but he is not good enough to become convincingly Indian in his voice and body language. His accent was patchy at best and he slouched on screen like a darker Zach Braff in Garden State, becoming uncomfortably more so when he faces off against the gleaming specimen of South Indian heroic manhood that is Siddharth, playing Salim’s doppleganger Shiva.

I kept hoping Shiva would whack the whinging Salim in the face and then dance us over into Chashme Baddoor.

Though it may provide a small measure of “exotic” entertainment for Westerners who enjoy films set in India, Midnight’s Children is really a film for an audience of one - Salman Rushdie. Narrated by him, scripted by him, and cast with all his highbrow actor friends... I hope he enjoyed his movie star outing.

Now, please don’t make us watch anything like this again.

*With sales of The Satanic Verses increasing massively post-fatwa, he didn’t seem to have had any trouble paying for his 24 hour security detail. Although if the wiki article is correct, I was one of the ones who read Danielle Steel’s “Star,” much to the horror of my mother, being only 9 or 10 at the time. What? I was precocious.

** Consider Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban which is by far the best of the Harry Potter films cinematically but also the one hated the most by fans for being “unpure.”


odadune said...

Thanks for the warning-will avoid. ;)

Stuart Martin said...

Wow! It might seem an odd thing to take away from this review, but since I HATED the book, and couldn't give a pair of fetid dingo kidneys for the film, what caught my eye was that you found Scott Pilgrim "dreadful". I loved it, both as a film in its own right, and related to theme of this post, as an exceptional job of adapting and compressing written works into one film.

Filmi Girl said...

@Stuart I dislike magical realism in general but I was ready to give this a fair chance because of Deepa Mehta, who I very much like. But... it's a really horrible film, even if one liked the story.

But as for Scott Pilgrim, I thought it was dreadful. Even leaving aside the disturbing "romance" at the center of it where the girl essentially has no personality or agency, by about the third "boyfriend," I was ready to fast forward to the end. That movie was a literal and figurative drag...

It might have worked better if one had read the books and had some additional context but I hadn't...

Stuart Martin said...

Thanks - I can see your point about the Scott Pilgrim film. I crammed reading the whole series of 6 in about 3 weeks before seeing the film, I may have been more focused on looking for what they kept in and what they left out.

eliza bennet said...

This is the only Salman Rushdie book I have read and I liked it (although not enough to seek his other novels out) but will steer clear away from the film. Thank you for the explanatory review :)

Note from Filmi Girl:

I love Bollywood - and all the ridiculous things that happen in Bollywood - but it doesn't mean that I can't occasionally make fun of various celebrities and films.

If you don't like my sense of humor, please just move on by - Trolls are not appreciated and nasty comments will be deleted.

xoxo Filmi Girl
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