Thursday, 25 July 2013

Cinema as an inter-text in 'Midnight’s Children' by Salman Rushdie

“Nobody from Bombay should be without a basic film vocabulary”. The given quotation has been said by Saleem Sinai, the protagonist of the novel Midnight’s Children, written by author Salman Rushdie.

     The movie capital of the world, Bollywood, also known as Hindi cinema, is the largest producer of motion pictures with its foundations based in Mumbai, formerly known as Bombay. The industry typically features fictional musical romances, drama and comedies with a great deal of dancing to songs and hungama, usually lasting for three to four hours in duration. The industry is hugely appreciated by Indians who take pride in it and consider it a positively significant showcase of their cultural heritage, traditions and their grotesque way of life. Its distinct features, including extravagance in music and dance during every important event, differentiate it from the rest of the film industries of the world and perhaps this stark contrast is what has contributed to a flourishing and prosperous Indian cinema.

     The desire of the Indians to distinguish themselves from the Western ideals is what makes Bollywood so successful and reveals their profound obsession with movies. The influence of cinema on Salman Rushdie’s state of mind is apparent in the novel and is relevant through fragmented love, confined and altered perception of life, extravagance of decorum at the time of marriages, family structures and typical Indian style of life in the post-colonial period.

     Throughout the novel, there are scattered references to the cinema. The first instance of cinematic influence is apparent in sexual love that emerges through a perforated sheet, symbolizing forbidden love, between Aadam and Naseem. The incident portrays a typical Indian way of falling in love. The experience is similar to watching two Indian lovers on screen. The idea of a man falling in love with a woman without knowing her completely and only in segments and through mere observation of parts of the body is highly reflective of the 1982 movie ‘Namak Halaal’, where Shashi Kapoor falls for the gorgeous dancer Parveen Babi after she showcases her talent at a hotel. A similar example is that of 1981 movie, Silsila, where Rekha’s dancing immediately causes Amitabh Bachan to get attracted to her.

     Another typical Indian style of falling in love is apparent when Mumtaz meets Ahmed Sinai at her sister’s wedding and later receives a proposal for marriage from him. Such a case of love-at-first-sight can also be seen in Major Zulfiqar’s case when he falls in love with Emerald after seeing her picture. Love-at-first-sight reminds the reader of the movie Kabhi Kabhi where Shashi Kapoor falls in love with the spectator, Nitu Singh, who supports him during his big race and wildly waves at him.

     In another incident, rickshaw driver Rashid comes out of the cinema after watching and eastern-western cowboy film. This shows that despite being a significant part of Indian culture, Bollywood, to an extent, is also shaped by Western ideals. The film portrays a Western-Indian influence. The incident that follows after watching the cowboy film is representative of Indian culture. It is important because it is a reflection of alterations in Indian culture following the Independence. Cinema has played a significant role in shaping the lives of Indians. Saleem’s perception of life in the novel is shaped by the cinema.

     The novel has also portrayed middle-class life in India. The movies ‘Kaagaz ka phool’ of 1959 and ‘Anwaar’ are reminders of working classes in India. It shows the real face and everyday common lives of Indians.

     The ‘’many-headed monster’’, Ravana, immediately presents a picture of the movie ‘Ramayana’. The monster is symbolic of destruction and exploits people, destroys their lives, inundates properties and causes mass devastation. The influence of ‘Ramayana’ is also revealed through side-by-side narration of history and the present. It is similar to a story being told within a story. Historical events in the novel mould history of events.

     Later on in the novel, tensions start rising, leading to unrest among the Indian community. This is apparent when a mob of Muslim adults and children gathers and attempts to attack the Hindu Lifafa Das. The simultaneous screaming of women and a hurl of abuses is like a typical movie scene from ‘Sholay’ where the culprit and perpetrator, Amjad Khan, looted village and practiced corruption, devastating the lives of villagers and is eventually killed.

    Lifafa Das is an Indian arch-type eccentric person who is verbally harassed, attacked and forced to leave. He is then thrown into the basement where Mumtaz lived and that is where cinema comes into play. An intensely melodramatic incident occurs when he is saved by an expecting Amina Sinai, who unexpectedly breaks the news of her pregnancy to the infuriated mob in an attempt to save Lifafa Das’s life. The cinematic influence is that a long-hidden secret is suddenly disclosed in public and its revelation saves a person’s life.
      Other incidents of intense drama are when Doctor Aziz’s mother transforms into a lizard and sticks her tongue out at him and in another case, Amina’s face “bursts into flames”. The drum-beating, singing and dancing is a dominant feature of Indian cinema. A typical scene from an Indian film is presented in the form of cobras and monkeys dancing, mongeese leaping and snakes swaying in baskets. The high amount of hungama is a reminder of the movie ‘Qurbani’. It shows the celebrations of Indians and reveals their conventions. An example of this particular situation is where Saleem narrates:
“…..monkeys dancing; mongeese leaping; snakes swaying in baskets; and on the parapet, the silhouettes of large birds, whose bodies are as hooked and cruel as their beaks: vultures” and again:
“And while monkeys dance on a roof behind the post office, Hanuman the monkey dances with rage………rocking and pulling, pulling and rocking…! rap! rop!”
Another example of cinematic drama is when Ramran Seth says:
“He will have sons without having sons! He will be old before he is old! And he will die….before he is dead.”
     One of the elements Salman Rushdie has ingeniously used is stream of consciousness. The narrator talks about the past and then suddenly switches to the present. There are many things that do not happen but are narrated at the same time. He is physically in once place, but mentally elsewhere, contemplating over history. Moreover, the shift in settings from Kashmir, Amritsar and Agra to Delhi represents the dynamics of cinema – where the picture keeps changing.

     The huge Bollywood influence shapes events in the novel. It takes us on a journey of fantasy, allowing us to experience suspense and arousing our curiosity of what happens next. The events are so full of life and energy that the reader feels a part of it, as if everything is happening before our very eyes, on a big screen. Indian cinema shapes Saleem’s perspective of reality. His perception of life is moulded by the cinema.

     Cinema also becomes a driving vehicle for magic realism – a device that closely integrates Indian culture with the contemporary society. It reflects the post-colonial Indian society and culture. The novel shows the ability of films to alter our perceptions. Indians are obsessed with films and love Bollywood. For them, Bollywood is something that expressed their identity and rich culture. The novel moves slowly at first, it then picks up pace when a lot of incidents start occurring simultaneously. Important incidents in the novel coincide with a major event in history. For instance, the day Reverend Mother breaks her vows of silence is when United States of America drops the bomb in Hiroshima. In another case, Saleem’s birth coincides with India’s Independence from British post-colonial power.

     When writing the novel, Salman Rushdie was thinking of a lost time. The novel is not a memoir, it’s a “recovery of last time”, which shrewdly develops the sequence of the novel. He was experiencing “erratic nature of memory”. Many problems were going through his head at the same time, which he calls, “misremembering”, which, where the novel is concerned, “becomes more important than the truth.” He further added that the “erratic nature of remembering” became his strategy for the novel. “How we remember”, “what we remember” and “misremember” affects our perspective of the world. Cinematic influence on Indian culture is presented in an enjoyable manner and perhaps this element is what makes our reading thrilling, exhilarating and fulfilling.

     Throughout the novel, something is always going on somewhere. The novel connects with history through its characters. The Bombay cinema of 1960’s and 1970’s had a big influence on Salman Rushdie’s writing. As Rushdie said, part of the novel “has to do with growing up in a movie city” and “having it going on all around you”. He further added that he felt lucky to be young at a time when the Indian cinema was at its peak, constituting a Golden Age of mid-twentieth century of Bollywood. He exclaimed to have learnt a huge deal from classical movies of the “world cinema” of 60’s and 70’s. According to Rushdie, “film language” was one his techniques for novel writing. His works portray the ability of films to transform our imagination and alter our perspective. The history and defiant structure of families are the “pieces of architecture” for Midnight’s Children.  

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