Staging fiction, rewriting history
7 October 2013
The makers of ‘Midnight’s Children’ are known for their anti-fundamentalist stance, but the production of the film in Sri Lanka raises questions.
At sunrise, Saleem parachutes from a Pakistani Air Force transporter plane with a mission to kill. But he arrives too late in what was then East Pakistan – the Pakistani Army has already lost to the Bengali Mukti Bahini (freedom fighters) and the Indian Army. Mass killings of Bengali civilians had taken place at the hands of Yahya Khan’s ruthless army. Among the trapped Pakistani soldiers is Saleem, a young recruit in the Pakistani army. He finds himself in the midst of a lush green landscape, wearing his helmet, protective glasses and uniform. The camera slowly ascends to capture the beautiful Bengali wetlands, and moves over piles of half-naked bodies, spread over the wet grass, mingling with the idyllic landscape. Smoke rises in the distance from behind the jungle. Saleem limps past dead civilians in his Pakistani uniform. A singing farmer appears. The only living person in sight, he desperately tries to catczh up with Saleem. He rushes past half-naked, blood-smeared bodies of men, both Mukti Bahini and ordinary farmers, who seem to have been handcuffed and executed. Some of the dead are blindfolded, too. Sounds of gunfire can be heard in the background. The fighting is still raging, it appears, despite Pakistan’s official capitulation. The farmer catches up with Saleem, who trips and falls into a puddle surrounded by dead bodies. He examines Saleem, who lies exhausted and wordless, before helping him up. Saleem stares in confusion at the bodies around him. The farmer tells Saleem about Pakistan’s defeat. Saleem and the man suddenly get into a fight over a silver basin Saleem is carrying. Saleem clings to the item and walks off, looking confused. The farmer throws a sarong at him, instructing him to change out of his army uniform. This is now Bangladesh.
This scene appears half-way through Canadian-Indian director Deepa Mehta’s 2012 film Midnight’s Children, an adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s bestselling, award-winning novel of the same title published in 1981. Both the novel and the film follow the life of Saleem Sinai, a Muslim boy born with magical powers, at point zero of India’s Independence. The story traces 30 years of postcolonial developments and catastrophes in both India and Pakistan.
Mehta and Rushdie are artists whose works have been widely celebrated but also tied to local and global controversies. Their collaboration for Midnight’s Children was always going to be controversial, as both artists have prompted violent reactions in Southasia and around the globe. Ever since Mehta made headlines with Fire (1996), a film depicting a same-sex relationship between sisters-in-law, she has been the target of Hindu fundamentalist backlash in India, accused of falsely depicting Hinduism and catering to Orientalist Western cinematic desires. The story of the 1989 Iranian fatwa against Rushdie after the publication of The Satanic Verses needs no repetition. The controversies surrounding the work of both diasporic artists have had long-lasting effects upon their lives and work. Rushdie, as well as having to go into exile for a number of years, continues to face obstacles when travelling to India. Mehta’s attempts to film and screen her films in India have been blocked, and mere rumours of her presence have at times provoked violent protests from Hindu fundamentalists. Despite virulent opposition to their creative work, the artists have resisted attempts to silence their expression.
The fear of a Hindu and Muslim fundamentalist backlash in India and Pakistan forced the film’s production team to scout for an alternative location with a similar landscape to India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Sri Lanka emerged as an ideal location. It could, visually, pass for its three major Southasian neighbours, and the bargain of this three-for-the-price-of-one deal paid off economically and politically for the director and her team. Mehta had earlier made a film in Sri Lanka, so she was familiar with the nation. Water, about the treatment of Hindu widows, had initially begun production in Varanasi in 2000, but came under violent attacks from Hindutva activists. Mehta was forced to relocate filming to Sri Lanka after receiving little support from the governments in Lucknow or New Delhi. Water began filming again in 2003, a time when war-torn Sri Lanka was just one year into a fragile ceasefire. During this period, peace was no longer just an abstract idea, but seemed to be an actual possibility. A peacetime economy began to flourish, and filming movies in Sri Lanka seemed an ideal way of advertising “Brand Sri Lanka”, as well as stimulating the local film culture. The relationship between Mehta and Sri Lanka was symbiotic and highly beneficial to both parties.
The Midnight’s Children film nevertheless faced troubles in the form of a call from Iran to halt filming in Sri Lanka, and an informal Indian boycott when no local distributors were initially found to screen it. These types of disputes have monopolised the discourse on the film and diverted attention from matters regarding its content, as well as from the fact that the filming location of Sri Lanka was highly problematic in the first place.Tea time with war criminalsMehta wanted to avoid filming again in India where possible, and the production team of Midnight’s Children did not even seek permission to shoot the movie there. Prior to filming, Mehta entered discussions with Sri Lanka’s government to seek permission. Such interactions are usually coordinated through the National Film Corporation of Sri Lanka, under the Ministry of Mass Media and Information, which is in charge of the island’s small film industry and of overseeing the country’s production of foreign films. In this case, however, Mehta was granted support directly from President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
When Mehta met with Rajapaksa in 2010, his government had just emerged victoriously from three decades of war with the Tamil secessionist movement. Rajapaksa was riding a wave of ethno-religious triumphalism and nationalism, securing his dynasty and helping expand his clan’s powers. By the time Mehta arrived for talks at the Presidential Palace in Colombo, there was already robust evidence suggesting the Sri Lankan Armed Forces had perpetrated war crimes and crimes against humanity in its pursuit of an absolute war victory. The Sri Lankan Armed Forces are accused of having bombed churches, temples and other civilian facilities filled with Tamil refugees. The Sri Lankan army also stands accused by the UN of having repeatedly and intentionally targeted Tamil hospitals and civilian makeshift settlements with heavy weaponry, causing thousands of civilian casualties. Casualty figures are still debated, but aid and human rights agencies have established that tens of thousands of Tamil civilians perished during the last months of the war, and that hundreds of thousands more languished in internment camps in the north, or as the government called them, “welfare villages”. It was clear that international media organisations, NGOs and foreign governments, including the Canadian government, had already started to question the narrative of the war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) by the time international aid workers were evicted from where the final stages of the war took place. For Mehta, based in Toronto, it would have been almost impossible to miss the weekly protests of the large Tamil diaspora in Canada.
Like many earlier Sri Lankan governments, Rajapaksa came to power on an ethno-religious nationalist platform during the short period of ceasefire. His coalition government, the United People’s Freedom Alliance, won the election by promoting a military solution to the Tamil political question and proposing to advance the interests of the Sinhalese Buddhist majority. This right-wing, fundamentalist coalition government has ruled the country since 2004. By brutally fulfilling his election promises, Rajapaksa convinced the Sinhalese Buddhist majority of his legitimacy to rule the so-called island of Buddha. Rajapaksa, also the Commander in Chief of the Sri Lankan Armed Forces, stands directly accused of having masterminded and engineered the attacks on a besieged population in 2008 and 2009. The call for justice and accountability by diasporic Tamil advocacy groups and activists had already listed Rajapaksa and his siblings as potential war criminals by October 2008. Court cases against President Rajapaksa, Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa (the president’s brother), and Army General Sarath Fonseka, were pending at US Courts by the time Mehta arrived in Colombo in 2010. But while the smoke of the war still covered the Sri Lankan sky, and while the Tamil dead were neither acknowledged nor buried or cremated, Mehta felt comfortable enough to meet Sri Lanka’s president, who was possibly a perpetrator of genocide, for a simple cup of chai. Despite the moral and ethical questions that arise regarding Mehta’s seemingly cosy relationship with the Sri Lankan president, it hardly attracted any attention from the usual defenders of freedom of speech and human rights around the world.Producing controversiesThis wasn’t Sri Lanka’s first encounter with Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. In 1997 the BBC had approached the Sri Lankan Government, then under President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunge, to obtain permission to shoot a 280-minute television adaptation of Rushdie’s novel in the country. Kumaratunge communicated her strong support for the project. She was convinced of the economic importance of the programme for Sri Lanka, and entered discussions with the Sri Lankan Muslim community to reassure them of the non-controversial nature of the screenplay. The project, however, collapsed in its initial stages, after locations had been found and local and international actors cast, following pressure exerted on the President by Sri Lankan Muslim MPs.
Mehta’s Midnight’s Children began filming in January 2011, under the alias ‘Wind of Change’, to avoid possible protests by local Muslim groups. In addition to changing the title, the international cast and crew of thousands were obliged to sign confidentiality agreements prior to production. Less than two years after Sri Lanka’s civil war came to an end, the movie was shot in secrecy within 79 days, in 64 locations. The security measures taken did not, however, prevent the Iranian government under President Ahmadinejad from finding out about the production. The Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs made an official complaint to the Sri Lankan ambassador in Tehran. As one of Sri Lanka’s closest political allies and fiscal backers during the war, Iran demanded the Sri Lankan government stop the filming after just a month. Production came to a sudden halt as the Sri Lankan ambassador to Teheran reversed the government’s approval without asking the President for permission. Mehta rushed to Colombo to meet Rajapaksa again.
When Mehta met Rajapaksa he read the letter of protest from Teheran and tore it up. According to Mehta, the President called Teheran’s concerns rubbish and granted permission to resume filming. Iran’s criticism was understood to be part of a larger international campaign to interfere with Sri Lanka’s internal affairs and its government’s interests. In interviews, Mehta later praised the country’s leadership for not giving in to being bullied by Iran, India or anyone else. Mehta’s less-than-critical engagement with the ruling clan of Sri Lanka seems to lead to one conclusion: that some forms of religious fundamentalism, authoritarianism, racism and violence seem to be more acceptable than others.
Saleem Sinai, in the scenes with which this article opened, took part in the West Pakistani ‘Operation Searchlight’, an attempt to curb the Bengali nationalist revolution by military force. It was initiated by Pakistani President and former Army General Yahya Khan, who famously ordered his men to “kill three million (Bangladeshis) and the rest will eat out of our hands”. Since its creation in 1947, the Pakistani Government needed to send troops and military supplies from the West to its contested territories in the East, to stifle the Bengali nationalist revolution that emerged from 1948 as a protest against ethno-linguistic discrimination. India refused its archenemy overfly rights, which meant that the Pakistani Army had to fly around the whole of India to reach its Eastern enclave. Army transport planes, however, couldn’t cover such a detour without refuelling. Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), under the leadership of Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike, offered Pakistan rights to its airspace and airports for refuelling. At that time Sri Lanka’s Sinhala-centric government was busy with its own postcolonial nation-building project. Like Pakistan, Sri Lanka faced challenges from a decentralised, disenfranchised, and marginalised population, the Tamils. West Pakistan’s opposition to East Pakistani independence was driven by anti-Bengali racism and Islamic fundamentalism, and Sinhalese nation-building was similarly driven by anti-Tamil racism and Buddhist fundamentalism. In fear of provoking a similar secession movement in Sri Lanka (the Tamil wish for independence wasn’t yet expressed), Bandaranaike’s Sinhala nationalist government objected to the Bengali nationalists’ demand for independence and provided facilities that aided Yahya Khan’s pogrom in 1971. West Pakistani troops were moved through Sri Lanka to East Pakistan.
Saleem almost certainly landed in Bangladesh after a short stop-over in Sri Lanka. He finds himself in an idyllic landscape resembling rural East Bengal, which in reality is southern Sri Lanka. When he stumbles through Bangladesh he passes piles of bodies of executed civilians. The bodies were, in reality, not Bengali, but mostly Sinhalese actors and lay-people employed as extras. The visual images are haunting and some of the most violent scenes in the film. Although actual acts of violence are absent from the screen, the visual traces of a massacre contain and transmit enough imagery of violence. Mehta, who already had cinematographic experience restaging mass violence for her 1998 film Earth (set in Lahore during 1947’s Partition), again powerfully depicted another violent political period of Southasian history. But at what ethical cost has she done so by choosing Sri Lanka as her site of production? And what does it mean for the Bangladeshi pogrom to be re-enacted in a country that had aided the crime?Visual cuesStaging a scene from the Bangladeshi liberation war has multiple geopolitical meanings. Viewers are provided with a visual reminder of the violence in Sri Lanka that had taken place less than two years before Midnight’s Children was filmed. Mehta’s gruesome imagery is reminiscent of footage that emerged from the last period of the war in 2009, when the Sri Lankan Army killed Tamil combatants and civilians en masse. Some of the scenes were almost identical to footage from the final battle zones in the Vanni region. It’s impossible that nobody on Mehta’s team was aware of the political circumstances in Sri Lanka. So much evidence of atrocities was disseminated that even the notoriously slow-to-act UN felt compelled to establish a panel of experts to review the alleged violations. By the time Midnight’s Childrenbegan filming in January 2011, the UN panel had already existed for more than six months. Instead of critically interrogating and admitting the difficult position she had put herself in by shaking hands with Sinhala Buddhist fundamentalists after having championed the cause of fighting religious extremism in India, Mehta chose to shower the very institutions that were instrumental in the crimes against the Tamil population with praise.
Both Rushdie and Mehta have so far gone unchallenged in their decision to film the movie in Sri Lanka and, more specifically, to re-enact the Bangladeshi pogrom in a land that abetted the crime, and then later gave birth to the structural and physical destruction of a people within its own territory. The political left continue to celebrate the Indian-born director and author as martyrs of freedom of expression, secularism and liberalism. Challenging them appears to be sacrilege to some on the political left in India and elsewhere. Southasian artists whose politics and works are progressive, relatable and translatable, who have the ability to act as native informants and speak authoritatively to a Western audience on subjects such as censorship and religious fundamentalism, are feted.
Critiquing the balancing acts both artists undertook to realise their projects would mean acknowledging their fallibility as politicised individuals, and idols of the Indian liberal imagination. This critical stance similarly pushes its liberal critics, though reluctantly, closer to the already vocal groups who are criticising religious and right-wing sections of Southasian societies.
It seems ironic that the Sri Lankan government agreed to allow the filming of scenes that imply executions of civilians while vehemently denouncing the footage that emerged from the war in 2008-09 as staged and manipulated. Were the Sinhalese actors who worked as extras at any point of filming reminded, or even cognisant of, the crimes committed against their fellow citizens? More importantly though, how did the Sri Lankan government, armed forces and the police, who all appear in the closing credits, relate to the scenes? Did they consider how it was possible that more than a year after having massacred tens of thousands of Tamils, it was possible to dramatise similar crimes in their land for a fictional foreign film? Did Mehta and Rushdie’s fictional adventure contribute towards the obfuscation of the Tamil experience of 2009 in the country? And have they both contributed to the Sri Lankan race to forget crimes perpetrated against Tamils between 1983 and 2009?
Considering the widespread reluctance of Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese majority to engage with the crimes perpetrated by its own governments over the decades, particularly the violence of the final stages of the war, it seems unlikely that Sinhalese actors would have been sensitive towards the roles they portrayed in the Bangladeshi killing fields and similarities to the reality of Sri Lanka’s killing fields. For Sri Lanka’s state institutions Midnight’s Children seems to have been an ideal opportunity at a time of rising international criticism to reclaim credibility, acceptability and marketability while conveniently rewriting its own history. Indeed, Mehta and Rushdie could not have joined hands with Sri Lanka at a better time. By fictionalising part of the island’s political past in the name of another people’s past, both artists helped to distance and displace the national discourse on what occurred in the long months of 2008 and 2009 in the jungles, fields, lagoons and beaches of the Vanni region of Northern Sri Lanka onto another country, another people and another history. Struggling to find peace, reconciliation and resolution with the ghosts of its own tumultuous political past (and present), the Sri Lankan government has so far done everything possible to avoid confronting the architects of its violent nation-building project. Internationally acclaimed artists who could help rebrand Sri Lanka while diverting attention from local concerns are eagerly welcomed with open arms. Mehta and Rushdie’s relationship with Rajapaksa leaves no doubt about their willingness to dismiss ethical concerns and act in a politically and socially irresponsible manner regarding questions of rights and the memory of a people when it suits their own interests. Significantly, some very important groups are explicitly mentioned in the film’s closing credits: the Government of Sri Lanka, the Sri Lankan Ministry of Defence, Army, Air Force, Police, and Army Major General Palitah, who was a Military Liaison Officer during the war and is now the Chief of the Sri Lanka Athletic Association. This raises the question of the extent of involvement of these institutions in the production of the film. Considering that in 1998 the Sri Lankan Army offered Rushdie and the BBC help in staging war scenes, it seems likely that the Armed Forces actively participated in Mehta’s movie as well. Moreover, the director has favourably spoken about the regime in a number of interviews.
It seems that Mehta was eager to realise this project at any cost, and that Muslim and Hindu fundamentalisms are the only forms of religious extremism that matter to liberal and secular (diasporic) Indians. This points to a larger issue: the wilful ignorance of liberals from all over the world of fundamentalisms and political violence that affect only numerically smaller groups of people, such as in the case of the Lhotshampas of Bhutan, the Zainichi Koreans of Japan, or the Shias of Bahrain.
Midnight’s Children responds to another important Southasian crisis, Indira Gandhi’s Emergency of 1975-77. Gandhi’s political campaign is made responsible for the destruction of the midnight’s children, the group of people possessing special powers born at the stroke of midnight on 15th August 1947, that Gandhi considered threatening to her rule. Rushdie holds Gandhi responsible for the destruction of the promise and hope of a new future after Independence. Mehta and Rushdie, however, conveniently ignored the fact that Sri Lanka has repeatedly been under similar, if not worse, emergency regulations since 1971. Under Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka headed towards dictatorship, or an oligarchy at best.
As film viewers we should all question the modes of production and political conditions of movie-making, as well as the industry’s relationship to human and labour rights. Public figures, including artists, should be held accountable for their actions. However, in the context of an already controversial and emotional debate about censorship in India and elsewhere, it would be counterproductive and problematic to suggest a boycott of Mehta’s and Rushdie’s work. Instead, it is important for cinephiles to be more cognisant and critical in order to be able to uncover underlying issues within and surrounding works of art, and eventually bring them to light through the media. Ideally, critical viewers might be able to positively influence artists to acknowledge their past wrongs and alter future practices.
Mehta and Rushdie have been complicit in making the historical events of Sri Lanka part of the background scenery. The violence faced by Sri Lanka’s Tamil community has, for Sinhalese and (diasporic) Indians, become, or perhaps always has been, distanced from its everyday presence and unresolved graveyards and memories in the Tamil areas of the island. Their reality becomes a tale disconnected from present memories, traumas and aspirations, unimaginable in its scope and fictional in its substance. Just as Saleem wastes no thoughts on the death he has witnessed in the killing fields of Bangladesh and returns without much delay to India, so Mehta and Rushdie have returned to their cosmopolitan lives in the West.
~ This article is one of the articles from Under the Shadow of the Bollywood Tree: web-exclusive package.
~Sinthujan Varatharajah is a PhD student in political geography at University College London, University of London. Follow him on twitter @varathas