Salman Rushdie is in the dog-house. His recent memoir – an aggrieved portrait of ten years evading homicidal fundamentalists, written, oddly, in the third person – has been raising literary hackles. The notorious author claims the New York Review of Books is afflicted by a kind of post-persecution narcissism, which has boiled over into the snobbish nastiness of a Disney villain. He is suffering, apparently, a malfunction of “compassion”. I don’t know anything about what Rushdie is like as a man, but if evidence were needed of said compassion, his new film would be an excellent place to start.
Rushdie’s novel of 1981, Midnight’s Children, has hit the big screen. Refracting the many painful chapters of Indian history through the mystical life of a changeling boy, Saleem Sinai, it is a sweeping vision of warring nations as much as a raw cross-examination of individual choices. This is point blanc panorama – as Rushdie-esque a paradox as you might hope for. Though shot with an ironic resignation to fate, it is nevertheless an optimistic clarion call, reaffirming the hopes and dreams born at independence.
Midnight’s Children isn’t as disorientating as The Satanic Verses; for one it doesn’t take long to grasp what the hell is going on. What is going on? A roller-coaster spin through Indian history. We’re lead through hospital wards during partition, opulent colonial mansions, slaughter-scenes at the secession of Bangladesh, the slums of ‘70s Bombay, and torture cells in the emergency years. Through it all the protagonist Saleem’s unlikely life turns out to be a wearily self-conscious metaphor about hope living amongst us. But, you know, who cares? It is, at least, refreshingly eccentric.
Surprisingly, Midnight’s Children is performing poorly at the box office, and the critical reception has ranged from lukewarm to politely interested. Undeniably, the gaudy magic-realism brings the film close to an uncomfortable sense of slum-glamour, and a number of promising figures – including a whole host of mystic children – retreat from view almost as soon as they’re introduced. But I suspect the real reason for the film’s meagre audiences is that nobody seems to have heard of its existence. Which is a shame, because it does exist, and it should be seen.
For fear of interruption by Rushdie’s various shrill detractors, the film was shot in awkward secrecy in Sri Lanka. Iran, unfathomably, tried to prevent filming taking place at all, and the Sri Lankan president had to intervene. They needn’t have worried; apart from a violently severe portrait of Indira Gandhi, there’s little controversial about this film. Self-consciously pluralist and unashamedly dreamy, Midnight’s Children is sensitive and humane, and speaks volumes about its writer’s capacity for compassion. Tell that to the New York Review.