Dr. Rajashree Bargohain
Assistant Professor, Dept. of English, Sonapur College (Assam)
Salman Rushdie’s novels, especially Midnight’s Children, incorporate sundry elements from various sources such as films, epic, fable, national events, family saga, advertisements, popular songs, newspaper clippings, parody, pastiche and gossip et al to create a new kind of ‘chutnified’ language. While being intricately woven into the fabric of the novel at the structural level, films play a significant role in the novel at its thematic level as well. Rushdie, who wishes to restore the past to himself “in Cinemascope and glorious Technicolor” (Rushdie 1991,10), frequently employs elements from popular Hindi films, which is strategic: it does not qualify as ‘high art’, but postmodern thought challenges the foundations of such dichotomies like adult/infant and high culture/low culture. The value of the filmic narrative lies in its being a spectacle, its ultimate aim is entertainment; against traditional realist assumptions, it does not aim at the representation of ‘truth’, or what Derrida terms as the always already present ‘transcendental signified’. The narrative of Midnight’s Children, like popular Bollywood cinema is non-realist and non-mimetic. Both combine elements of the real and the improbable to produce a magic spectacle, conscious of the audience gaze and desire of the spectator, emphasizing upon enticing the audience rather than representing a presumed ‘reality’. Thus the cinema in Rushdie is used to complement an alternative take on ‘reality’ and representation, which forms a major focus in the novel at its thematic as well as structural level. – This paper is an analysis of the spectacular effect of films, especially popular Hindi cinema which acts as metaphor in the novel’s rejection of meaning or profundity, in favour of a spectacular superficiality, sometimes even within the narrative itself. Rushdie’s novel asserts the illusory nature of reality, which is represented by popular Hindi cinema, by challenging the hegemonic realist assumptions of an absolute, monolithic ‘Truth’. Realism no longer suffices to capture the deceptive and multifaceted nature of reality; as Rushdie’s novel shows, one must be willing to make allowances for an amount of magic and mystery in one’s perception of the world as well as in the course of a narrative.
Keywords: Midnight’s Children, cinema, spectacle, postmodern narrative
Ever since its appearance in 1981, the most widely held reception of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children has been in terms of a ‘national allegory’[i]. Such an emphasis, however, does not reduce other narrative priorities of the text. It can also be read as a postmodern text, which questions the validity of such grand narratives like that of the Nation. It embodies a denial of the very possibility of meaning. Rushdie says in his 1982 essay, “Imaginary Homelands”:
Meaning is a shaky edifice we build out of dogmas, childhood injuries, newspaper articles, chance remarks, old films, small victories, people hated, people loved…” (12)
This shaky nature of ‘meaning’ is conveyed in his novel by the motley narrative’s conglomeration of these sundry elements, which include ‘old films’. Rushdie further says that his novel Midnight’s Children was born, “when I realized how much I wanted to restore the past to myself” ( Imaginary Homelands 9-10). This implies that the novel is a restructuring of his memories or perhaps of a collective memory. Memory is not an objective recalling of past events. It “eliminates, alters, exaggerates, glorifies and vilifies also; but in the end it creates its own reality” (Rushdie, Midnight’s Children 253).
Calling himself “a cinema addicted Indian” and Bollywood “the world’s number one movie city” (Midnight’s Children 107), Rushdie wishes to restore his memories “in Cinemascope and glorious Technicolor” (Midnight’s Children 10). In a way, then, his intention is to produce a cinematic reproduction of the India of his memories through words. At a metaphorical level, Lifafa Das – a character in his novel does the same thing through his ‘peep-shows’. His bioscope show is a miniature form of the wider canvas of the Cinema that has an immanent presence throughout the narrative of the novel. The popularity of Bombay Cinema is based upon its recurrent use of improbable characters and situations – larger than life heroes and villains, impossible stunts, abrupt introduction of music and dance – all making up a magical spectacle which is similar to the spectacle of power which gives rise to the semblance of a nation. Rushdie’s juxtaposition of filmic elements in his ‘national allegory’ is, thus, quite strategic.
In the popular Hindi film one can find everything – comedy, tragedy, dance etc; all aspects of human life in the same film. The highly unlikely is always possible in the Indian ‘masala movie’, miracles and sensational deus ex machinas are run-of-the-mill. Indian films create a universe parallel to reality but a little more attractive and gaudily dressed, with scenarios that eschew logic. Rushdie incorporates this filmy ‘monstrous’ diversity in Midnight’s Children where “melodrama upon melodrama” (is produced) and “life acquires the coloring of a Bombay talkie” (203).
Against the convenient fictions of the pre-modernist periods, the condition of the post-modern, as explained by Lyotard, is one of language games, social meaning dissolved into a vast spectacular combinatoire, a dissociation of cause and effect, a concentration on the seductiveness of means and a concomitant disavowal of ends. The value of the filmic narrative lies in its being a spectacle, it embodies what Dana B. Polan calls the “will-to-spectacle”, the assertion that “a world of foreground is the only world that matters or is the only world that is.” (135). Its ultimate aim is entertainment; against traditional realist assumptions, it does not aim at the representation of a ‘truth’, or what Derrida terms as the always already present ‘transcendental signified’. It epitomizes “a world of signs without fault, without truth and without origin, which is offered to our active interpretation” (Derrida 120). Even the Film as a medium of entertainment, does not always aim at coherence, in Polan’s words, “what it offers is exactly that of a breakdown of coherence, a disordering of order for the sake of visual show” (133).
Midnight’s Children challenges the conventions of classical realism. It is often episodic, fragmentary. The presence of the (seemingly) naïve narratee – Padma, with her “what-happened-next” demands is symbolic of the traditional expectation of linearity or wholesomeness in meaning in a work of art. But Rushdie’s narrator challenges the expectations of reliability, “often undermining [his] own seeming omniscience” (Hutcheon 11); Salim Sinai’s body is, in fact, cracking apart gradually. His tale is not the manifestation of an organic vision, but something that Rushdie would term “a shaky edifice” (Imaginary Homelands 12). It is a departure from what Walter Benjamin has termed the ‘auratic’ nature of art. Rushdie says in his introduction to Midnight’s Children:
…I have treated my writing simply as a job to be done, refusing myself all (well, most luxuries of artistic temperament. (xi)
It is this skepticism towards the possibility of a perfect wholesomeness in art[ii] (thereby, in life) generated by an epiphanic vision, that seems to be manifested in Rushdie’s “shaky edifice”. It is embodied in the a-Realist character of his narrative. Salim Sinai’s is not a telos-driven world, nor is his story. At one point, he tries to invoke the abstractions of destiny and purpose:
The thing is, we must be here for a purpose, don’t you think? I mean, there has to be a reason, you must agree? (305-06)
In immediate response, Shiva, Salim’s alter-ego, deflates this invocation of reason:
What purpose, man? What thing in the whole sister-sleeping world got reason, yara? For what reason you’re rich and I’m poor? Where’s the reason in starving, man? God knows how many millions of damn fools living in this country, man, and you think there’s a purpose! Man, I’ll tell you – you got to get what you can, do what you can with it, and then you got to die. That’s reason, rich-boy. Everything else is only mother-sleeping wind. (306)
Shiva’s heated rebuttal of the tenability of reason or purpose is an expression of an underlying post-modern “incredulity towards metanarratives” (Lyotard xxiv), a rejection of the ‘grand narratives’ of progress and perfectibility in favor of the contingent or the provisional. The central character and narrator in Midnight’s Children – Salim Sinai’s own identity is fluid and ambiguous; he invokes destiny, but ironically, what he is reading as destiny is really only a matter of chance, for he is, after all, a changeling.
This is a refutation of the assumptions of liberal Humanism, which is centered upon an always already ‘present’ autonomous individual who has found “release from his self- incurred tutelage”, an “idealized natural human being: an unsleeping self-examining, ever-enlightened being, discovering and illuminating things and fighting secrets, ambiguities, darknesses, twilights” (Lal and Nandi 5). Postmodern thought challenges the foundations of such dichotomies like adult/infant and high culture/low culture. In Midnight’s Children, Saleem Sinai grows up to be thirty-one years old, but even in adulthood, he maintains a free commerce between fantasy and reality, which is considered ‘normal’ in children but ‘madness’ in adults. This provides him with an alternative reality, which is reflected in the juxtaposition of the magical and the realistic in his narrative technique. Besides, it also embodies, for Saleem as for Rushdie, a ‘third principle’ an alternative to the anarchy or rigidity brought on by the ‘adult’ faculty of ‘reason’. In his interesting study of the 1939 film ‘The Wizard of Oz’, Rushdie contends, “[it] is a film whose driving force is the inadequacy of adults, even of good adults, and how the weakness of grown ups forces children to take control of their own destinies, and so, ironically, grow up themselves” (Out of Kansas). His observation embodies a questioning of hierarchical systems in art as well as life. Nadir Khan, a character in Midnight’ says:
I do not believe in high art…Now art must be beyond categories; my poetry and-oh-the game of hit-the-spittoon are equals. (54)
Samir Dayal points out that the gross physicality in the novel is Rushdie’s attempt to revalorize the body to reverse the hegemony of the mental, intellectual and the “high” over the physical, visceral and the “low” (435).
Søren Frank, in Migration and Literature points out that minor literature attempts to disturb the innocence and transparency of official language. “It follows the a-signifying, intensive lines outlined by sounds and smells, by light and tactility, by the free shapes of imagination, and by elements from dreams and nightmares” (155). He says that the intention is to escape the straightjacket of ‘meaning’; the idiosyncratic use of language that escapes doxa manages to create exceptional conditions through the internal tensions of language and by way of exploiting the materiality of language. Rushdie, in his novel, dislocates the English language and opens it up so that other things, apart from conventional reality can leak into it – substances, intensities, affects, sensations and lines of flight.
Many of Rushdie’s ‘sundry elements’ do not qualify as ‘high art’. There is an interesting connection between the Bollywood ethos and the novel’s narrative which contests the hierarchical outlook on aesthetic sensibility and cultural consumption. One of the foremost criticisms against popular Indian Cinema is its ‘lowbrow’ quality manifested through “meaningless digressions from the core narrative, maudlin melodrama, an embarrassingly juvenile conception of the comic as well as the romantic, and ahistoric, inconsistent sequencing” (Lal and Nandi xiv). This is the outlook generated by the assumptions of the Western film world. Classic Western film theory insists on logical sequencing in films. Sergei Eisenstein, for example, has defined the “basic aim and function” of films as – “that role set itself by every work of art, the need for connected and sequential exposition of the theme, the material, the plot, the action, the movement within the film sequence and within the film drama as a whole” (3). Popular Indian cinema does not comply with the Naturalist expectations of western aesthetics, which is devoted to promoting a cinema of rational perception. However, instead of judging the Indian film ethos on the basis of homogenizing Western aesthetic principles, probing the social and cultural forces behind the production and consumption of this popular genre can lend an insight into understanding its nature and thereby of the subaltern voices within it.
Critics see popular cinema as playing “an anti-theoretical role, occasionally offering an explicit critique of the application of Enlightenment assumptions to the Indian context”. (Lal and Nandy 14). The narrator in Midnight’s Children says in the beginning of the chapter ‘All-India Radio’:
Reality is a question of perspective. (229)
Rushdie’s use of magic realism itself offers an alternative take on the standard Realist perception of ‘reality’. When Padma, the narattee, expresses incredulity at Salim Sinai’s claims to having a thousand gifted friends with magical abilities – the midnight’s children, he argues for the plausibility of his experience by resorting to Islam, Christianity and Hinduism by turns―
Even Muhammad …at first believed himself insane: do you think the notion never crossed my mind? But the Prophet had his Khadija, his Abu-Bakr, to reassure him of the genuineness of his Calling; nobody betrayed him into the hands of asylum-doctors…What is truth?.. .What is sanity? Did Jesus rise up from the grave? Do Hindus not accept…that the world is a kind of dream; that Brahma dreamed, is dreaming the universe; that we only see dimly through the dream-web, which is Maya. Maya…may be defined as all that is illusory; as trickery, artifice and deceit. Apparitions, phantasms, mirages, sleight-of-hand, the seeming form of things: all these are parts of Maya. If I say that certain things took place which you, lost in Brahma’s dream, find hard to believe, then which of us is right? (293)
It is this paradox of the illusory nature of reality that Rushdie seems to be negotiating through his use of magic realism. At one point, Salim Sinai uses the metaphor of a schizophrenic moment in a movie hall to illustrate the ambivalent distinction between reality and illusion:
Suppose yourself in a large cinema, sitting at first in the back row, and gradually moving up, row by row, until your nose is almost pressed against the screen. Gradually the stars’ faces dissolve into dancing grain; tiny details assume grotesque proportions; the illusion dissolves or rather, it becomes clear that the illusion itself is reality… (229)
In one of the incidents in the novel, Rashid the rickshawboy, is found watching an ‘eastern-western’ called ‘Gai-Wellah’. It is a parody of the western popular genre of the western – which is itself a departure from Western codes of rationality and verisimilitude. The distinction between ‘real life’ and (filmic) ‘illusion’ is once again mocked when Rashid, “still full of the spirit of Gai-Wallah”, on his way back from the theatre, ‘rescues’ Nadir Khan in ‘cowboy style’, only, like the lock that comes off, it’s “Indian-made” (Midnight’s Children 62).
In “Imaginary Homelands”, Rushdie refers to the song “Mera joota hai Japani”[iii] from the film Mr. 420 and says it could almost be Saleem’s theme song. An identifying feature of India’s popular cinema is the extensive use of music and drama, which transforms it into a magic spectacle. The genre has affinities with the traditional oral and dramatic forms in which music and dance were essential components. This feature of popular films can be explained in terms of the Rasa theory in classical Indian aesthetics which bases the aesthetic experience upon the evocation of some specific (8) categories of moods called rasas. Here, the emphasis is not upon the representation of a ‘reality’ but in the production of a certain effect/affect upon the audience. Traditional Indian art is, thereby, oriented more towards the ‘desire’ of the spectator, and so is popular Indian cinema. In other words, it is conscious of the presence of an audience gaze; the look of the camera presumes the look of the spectator in front of the screen. This is in keeping with Walter Benjamin’s observation in his essay, “The Work of art in the Age of Mechanical Reproducibility”:
For the film, what matters primarily is that the actor represents himself to the public before the camera, rather than representing someone else. (Benjamin 229)
Reception-theory distinguishes the two poles in a (literary) text – the artistic and the aesthetic:
the artistic refers to the text created by the author, and the aesthetic to the realization accomplished by the reader…the literary work cannot be completely identical with the text, or with the realization of the text, but in fact must lie halfway between the two…The convergence of text and reader brings the literary work into existence. (Iser 207)
Although Iser refers specifically to the literary text, his theory can be extended to the filmic text as well; it inhabits the virtual space created by the interaction and exchange between the film and its audience. The popular film’s deviation from standards of rationality and linearity can be explained on the basis of this production-consumption dynamics[iv]. This has affinities in the novel too: the narrative makes no claims to an autonomous existence. Saleem Sinai’s account is continually influenced by the demands of the narratee, what he calls “Padma pressures”:
As my decay accelerates…the risk of unreliability grows…in this condition, I am learning to use Padma’s muscles as my guides. When she’s bored, I can detect in her fibres the ripples of uninterest; when she’s unconvinced, there is a tic which gets going in her cheek. The dance of her musculature helps to keep me the rails; because in autobiography, as in all literature, what actually happens is less important than what the author can persuade his audience to believe. (376)
Thus, the narrative is non-mimetic in that its central concern is not the representation of a presumed ‘reality’ or ‘origin’, which according to Derrida is a philosophical fiction. It is shaped and modified by the expectations and reactions of its audience.[v] Rushdie presents the character Hanif Aziz, “the arch disciple of naturalism” (Midnight’s Children 339) as a failure; his adamant insistence on a strict Realism in his scripts doesn’t work in the Bombay film industry. “In the temple of illusions, he had become the high priest of reality” (338). Rushdie highlights the precariousness of his ideological position by contrasting it with the miraculous nature of his nephew Salim Sinai “which involved [him] beyond all mitigation in the (Hanif-despised) myth-life of India” (338-339). Hanif’s dream project “The Ordinary Life of a Pickle Factory” turns out a failure, he tries to do away with melodrama in favor of documentary realism, but as Saleem acknowledges, the representative Bombay movie is all about melodrama: “Melodrama piling upon melodrama; life acquiring the coloring of a Bombay talkie” (203). The realist mode no longer proves adequate for the post modern Indian experience and as with popular Bombay cinema, the Indian English novel cannot be written by a simple realist, but by one who admits the improbable and the fantastic into his narrative.
Thus, cinema in Midnight’s Children operates as a symbol of the novel’s inherent critique of traditional Humanist principles of rationality. Popular cinema, by the standards of Realism, is ‘irrational’ and therefore ‘non-serious’. However, Probal Dasgupta, in his essay “Popular Cinema, India and Fantasy” brings in the metaphor of Dhyanabhanga, “enchantment’s victory over meditative attention, [as] iconic of the Indian aesthetics’ solution to the level ordering problem of languages and meta languages” (Lal and Nandy 10), a problem which, according to him, cannot be solved in relation to the self of the Enlightenment subjectivity. He points out that the sage’s meditation in dhyana would be completely focused and the very idea of a semi-divine temptress seducing him would be ungrammatical had not seriousness itself been a wish or a desire that shares the same perceptual matrix with wishful thinking. If popular cinema is ‘non-serious’, he positions it in relation to “the dialogic concept of the ludic as a mode of popular deflation of official visions” (Lal and Nandy 15).
Mikhail Bakhtin discerns an inherent carnivalesque spirit in the spectacle, which “belongs to the borderline between art and life. In reality, it is life itself, but shaped according to a certain pattern of play”(198). Bakhtin’s association of the element of ‘play’ with the carnival, and thereby, the spectacle, once again points to a critique of ‘reason’ that the latter embodies. It inhabits the virtual space between reality and illusion, just like the narrative of Midnight’s Children does. Popular cinema manifests the carnivalesque spirit by functioning as a spectacle[vi], for its function is not mimetic, but one of a free play of desire in a production-consumption dialectic, pointing to Bakhtin’s association of the (medieval) spectacle with the culture of the marketplace. In the words of Dana B. Polan, “In the phenomenological world of spectacle – a world of instant perceptions bracketing out the value of perception – an experience, especially in the way it becomes little more than a perceptual impulse, is seen to matter in and of itself” (136). Thus, a cultural analysis projects the cinema in Midnight’s Children as a metaphor for an alternative take on ‘reality’ and ‘artistic representation’, which constitutes a central concern of Rushdie’s novel at a thematic as well as technical level.[vii]
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1. “Salman Rushdie’s brilliant novel Midnight’s Children, from which I have crafted a title for this essay, is about the birth of a child and a nation”- Mohammed, Patricia. “Midnight’s Children and the Legacy of Nationalism”
- “In depicting the nation as a corpus, Midnight’s Children belongs to a group of postcolonial novels – among them, J. M. Coetzee’s Foe (1986), Amitav Ghosh’s The Circle of Reason (1986), and Ben Okri’s The Famished Road (1991) – that allegorize national history through the metaphor of the body politic” – Kane, Jean M. “The Migrant Intellectual and the Body of History”
- “…as is well known, Rushdie’s novel is a national allegory” – Hogan, Patrick Colm. “Midnight’s Children : Kashmir and the Politics of Identity”
- “Readings of Midnight’s Children either insist on Rushdie’s allegiance to nationalism – Josna Rege, for example, suggests that “[d]espite its conceptual freshness and vitality, Midnight’s Children remains very emotionally committed to the narrative of the nation” and that the novel “romanticizes the Congress party ideal of ‘unity in diversity’ – or, alternatively insist that Rushdie is disillusioned not with the nation per se but with the corruption of the postcolonial nation, because those who acme to lead it were, as Timothy Brennan put it, “sell outs and power brokers”.” – Heffernan, Teresa. “Apocalyptic Narratives : The Nation in Salman Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children” ”
 This idea of ‘pure art’ is closely related to the theory of l’art pour l’art, which denies any social function in art.
 Mera joota hai Japani
Ye patloon Inglistani
Sar pe laal topi Rusi-
Phir bhi dil hai Hindustani
– which translates roughly as
*O, my shoes are Japanese
These trousers English, if you please
On my head, red Russian hat-
My heart’s Indian for all that.
[This is also the song sung by Gibreel Farishta as he tumbles from heaven at the beginning of The Satanic Verses]
*Translation by Rushdie
It endorses Walter Benjamin’s contention that with the advent of the New arts, esp. film and photography, the total function of art has shifted from the pole of ritual to that of politics.
Just as the narrative or the art work is influenced by its receiver, so is the latter ‘shaped’ by the former; none of the two has an existence independent of or prior to each other. Both ‘exist’ in the virtual space created by the interaction between the two.
The ‘spectacle’ assumes the character of what Baudrillard calls ‘simulacra’, “in which there is no longer any God to recognize his own, nor any lasting judgment to separate truth from false, the real from its artificial resurrection, since everything is already dead and risen in advance”.
Although the discussion presents Rushdie’s narrative as a championing of the Carnivalesque spirit , an espousal of the ‘non-serious’, ironically, it is only a ‘serious’ return to the ‘non-serious’, for Rushdie’s own work is often accused of intellectual elitism.