Culture & Thought -- Arts: An Awkward Adaptation --- `Midnight's Children' Trips Up on Stage
By Salil Tripathi

The Asian Wall Street Journal

(Copyright (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)

Before 1981 when "Midnight's Children" won the Booker Prize, few readers outside Common-wealth-studies programs in hoary universities cared about Indian writing in English. Salman Rushdie, quite literally, gave the subcontinent the space it deserved. As his novel began its ascent on bestseller lists, stunned critics began running out of novelists to compare Mr. Rushdie with. John Irving, Lawrence Stern, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, G.V. Desani and Gunther Grass were only some of the names invoked at that time, as critics tried to decipher the source of Mr. Rushdie's inspiration, which could not be traced in his previous novel, an indifferent science-fiction fantasy called "Grimus."

Mr. Rushdie himself was generous in acknowledging his debt to many writers, but he also hinted that the cinema of Bollywood, the never-ending Indian stories of Kathasaritasagara and Vetal Pachisi and the polyglot culture of his native city, Bombay, had inspired him. Yes, the cosmopolitan Bombay, not the parochial Mumbai. And not the whole of Bombay either, but its posh southern tip, of the Gateway of India and Colaba Causeway and Metro Cinema and Brabourne Stadium and Marine Drive and Cathedral School and Breach Candy, with the smell of salt and peanuts and corn on the cob in the air and the riotous colors of bougainvillaea and gulmohur trees as the backdrop.

With deserved honors and accolades piling up for Mr. Rushdie, there was considerable speculation that some enterprising director would transform "Midnight's Children" into a film. Hollywood's interest in India was after all increasing at that time: Sir David Lean had announced he was making "Passage to India," British television was showing "The Raj Quartet" and Sir Richard Attenborough had just walked away with Oscars for "Gandhi." Mr. Rushdie himself had characterized his novel as the empire striking back. Wouldn't a filmed version of "Midnight's Children" be the best revenge?

The first to pour cold water on such ideas was Satyajit Ray, the great Indian filmmaker whom Mr. Rushdie has long admired. In an interview published in the early 1980s, Mr. Ray said: "`Midnight's Children' is unfilmable. You would have to simplify so much, it would not be itself." In saying this, Mr. Ray was acknowledging the imaginative power of Mr. Rushdie's writing, which he felt could not be captured in a linear narrative, nor within the limitations cinema would impose with its vigorous discipline of pacing, sequences and plot.

But in the early 1990s, a television network attempted to make a five-part series based on the novel, and Mr. Rushdie warmed to the idea. Several drafts were written, but politics intervened. By then Mr. Rushdie was in hiding, living out what he has called his "plague years," evading Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa issued after the controversial novel "Satanic Verses" was published.

Citing potential political disorder, the Indian government backed out of permitting shooting of "Midnight's Children" in India, although that novel had nothing to do with "Satanic Verses" and remained widely available and popular in India. Sri Lanka agreed initially to allow the film production, but backed out on the first day of shooting.

Now, in a project supported by two American universities -- Columbia in New York and Michigan in Ann Arbor -- the Royal Shakespeare Co. has brought "Midnight's Children" to stage in London this month. Later it travels to other British cities, and then to Ann Arbor and Harlem. Does it work?

The short answer is, alas, no. "Midnight's Children" is a great novel, one of the seminal works of the last century. By juxtaposing the history of 20th-century India with the lives of an extended family, Mr. Rushdie has created a masterly portrait of his native land. In doing this, he has used motifs and symbols, devices and tools from everyday India, of its bazaars and its streets, transforming piquant pickles into a metaphor for the country. By using the simple yet effective idea of crafting a story about children born precisely at the hour when India was born, and empowering them with unusual gifts, he created a lasting metaphor for the hopes of a new generation of Indians who were born at independence, and thus were unencumbered by the past. These children embodied aspirations of a new India; they thought the gifts with which they were endowed would enable them to build a great country. But post-independent Indian history had its own tragedies, of betrayed hopes and wars.

Mr. Rushdie's protagonist, Saleem Sinai, managed to be at the right -- or wrong -- place at the right time, and influenced the course of history -- or so he thought. In fact, the tale interweaves the lives of Saleem's extended family, which happens to be in Delhi, Agra, Amritsar, Bombay, in Pakistan and in Bangladesh, exactly when something dramatic happens, succeeding in making the fantastic real by showing that so much of what we take for reality is so fantastic. Saleem is garrulous, at times exaggerating his role and at times becoming inconsolable when he finds that he may have set in motion events he cannot control. The novel ended bleakly, when Saleem disappeared among the multitude of crowds.

Magic realism has become a lazy shorthand to describe fiction that's rooted in history and uses vivid imagination and poetic language. Mr. Rushdie himself finds the term tautological. But director Tim Supple's production of the novel falters, particularly in the second half, partly because it has tried to make the highly complex plot accessible. It is a difficult task, because it is impossible to pack more than 500 pages of labyrinthine prose into a narrative that stretches over three hours. In the process, much of the magic and lyricism of Mr. Rushdie has vanished.

Examples abound: There is a rhythm and cadence to Mr. Rushdie's language, best served in chaste Indian accents, but many of the talented British-Asian actors cannot divorce themselves from their diction coaches. The novel begins, for instance, at a hurried yet hesitant pace, as a frenzied Saleem explains how it came about that he was born on August 15, 1947. Zubin Varla's Saleem can't bring that breathlessness to life, and speaks as if he is at an elocution contest, in full control of his story, and one can't resist thinking how similar the Guildhall-trained actor sounds like Ben Kingsley as "Gandhi." Later, when an astrologer prophesizes the future of the as-yet-unborn Saleem to his pregnant mother, the splendid, rhyming prophesy is marred by the accompaniment of psychedelic lights and sound, draining the language of its humor and beauty. Likewise, one of the most memorable and haunting sequences in the novel is the phantasmagoric journey Saleem makes with Pakistani soldiers through Sundarbans in East Pakistan, which will soon become Bangladesh. That chapter is a poetic masterpiece, one of the highlights of the novel. But when it is literalized, it emerges as a kitschy dream sequence from a Bollywood film. Again, the novel has a mesmerizing and seductive scene of the dancing fingers of Ameena (Saleem's mother) and her former lover Nadir Khan at an Irani restaurant called Pioneer Cafe; sadly, the scene lasts barely a minute in the play, and the foreplay of fingers remains in the wistful memory of those who have read the book. And then, the fabled perforated sheet: When Saleem's grandfather goes to treat the woman who would become his wife, she sits behind a perforated sheet, and the good, German-trained doctor must touch her tentatively, making out her silhouette through the perforated sheet. In the novel, the scene is delicate and erotic; in the play, instead of a perforated sheet we see a gaping hole, through which various organs of the bride-to-be are flashed (the stomach, calves, a buttock, and then, finally, a breast), transforming a tender and intimate pas de deux into a peepshow.

To be sure, given that Mr. Rushdie co-scripted the play, his talent continues to shine through, as does the power of the narrative and the strength of the history. But the play ends up being a simplified introduction to the novel. It remains an adaptation. It does not succeed in freeing itself in a new medium and soaring in the sky, as Mr. Rushdie's imagination did in 1981. Instead of evoking images, it replicates them. It is like recreating a canvas by painting by numbers.

By making the plot easier to understand to an MTV generation that doesn't have the time to read big books, it simplifies too much. As Mr. Ray had warned: If it is simplified too much, it would not be itself. Yet, the stage version of "Midnight's Children" may have served its purpose if after seeing the play the audiences go to bookshops to buy and then read what is indisputably the great Indian novel.

--- Mr. Tripathi writes from London.