Midnight’s Children – Deepa Mehta squashes generations into two hours. (SFF film review)
Most of what matters in our life, takes place in our absence.
(Salman Rushdie from Midnight’s Children)
It’s difficult to put your finger on what is “wrong” with Midnight’s Children, because all the ingredients are there for the making of a very brilliant film, and I can see decades into my own future, still no doubt discussing film at social gatherings, coming across at least a person a year who will declare Midnight’s Children to be grossly underrated and one of the best films ever made. Perhaps it was made a little too close to Life of Pi and a little too far away from those ‘fascinated with India’ films in the 80’s (when the book was written) like Gandhi and A Passage to India. Excuse me if that sounds dismissive, I happen to love both those films, but despite Midnight’s Children being so lovely with so many special things about it, I can’t help thinking context and the problem of ‘epic’ will shamefully doom it to a certain kind of obscurity.
If you’re a fan of the book, there’s great news to be had here. Salman Rushdie didn’t just write the screenplay, therefore translating his own work, but he also provides the voice of the narrator and it is so successful one wonders why this doesn’t happen more often. He has a lovely, characteristic voice anyway, and to be fair there is so much power in the Booker Prize winning novel that his physical presence gives the film some authority it lacks and therefore transfers it into a pedigree film translation where other films (think the current Great Gatsby) badly needed the presence of the author to give it that much-needed weighted authority. I can see the biggest fans of this film being those who love the book. Rushdie reportedly sold the film rights for $1 and then took two years to pare down the 600 page book into a 130 page script. Midnight’s Children had previously been abandoned as a film and as a BBC special (which actually might have been the place for it) and really came to fruition here because of Rushdie and Mehta’s desire to work together. As if all this argy-bargy wasn’t enough, Mehta kept the film under wraps and gave it an alternate working title fearing reprisals from Islamist’s AND Hindu’s and because of all of this the film couldn’t actually be made in Pakistan or Mumbai. Even now (to my knowledge) the film hasn’t been released in India because of the way it portrays Indira Gandhi who in an all-too-brief moment to be thorough is shown in a negative light. With all this baggage it’s no wonder the film seems to have come out technically lovely, but missing some sort of passionate spark.
The film suffers also from the squashing of a 600 page narrative into a 130 page script. The character of Shiva played by Siddharth Narayan, is hugely marginalized so that he just looks like an angry dude who has no right to be but for the fact that he is poor. He is given virtually no back story outside of the swapped at birth as a revolutionary act, so the enormously important point of nature v’s nurture is carried completely by Saleem Sinai (Satya Bhabha) within his own life. One of the books most important and exciting themes is the power of the environment to affect the individual and it’s virtually lost between the two boys. The magic realism aspect of the novels narrative devices comes across with more power and strength, though again its a plot hole when (trying to avoid spoilers here) things turn bad for Midnight’s Children and we are not entirely sure why that is. Midnight’s Children are so potently linked to the development of free India, Pakistan and Bangladesh and the film doesn’t compromise on this strength, but surprisingly the straight narrative suffers for all the effort gone into the magic. I kept thinking how wonderful it wold have been to see this as a twelve-hour, six part BBC miniseries with Mehta and Rushdie and all this attention to detail, and beauty that Mehta brings to the book. I certainly wanted more, not less by the time I got to the end.
If you are not familiar with the book, Midnight’s Children refers to all the children born on or close to the stroke of midnight on the dawning of India’s independence from British occupation. A nurse tending the newborns in the local hospital wants to assist her revolutionary boyfriend, who is out fighting for independence. He visits her briefly, points to the newborns and claims the poor will become rich and the rich poor. He leaves and in an act of revolutionary defiance, the nurse swaps a local rich baby for a local poor baby, condemning both to forever being a part of India’s social upheaval. The book is about generations – those that have come before and those that follow, the baby swapping moment become the pivot that alters all things. As the poor baby is the child of a poor Indian woman raped by a local wealthy British colonizer, his blood and his upbringing work against and at other times, for the development of his identity. Of course there will be clashes all his life with the rich boy condemned to poverty. The magic realism comes in when Shiva discovers he has the ability to call all the children together (unite all of India) and that they all have special gifts.
Deepa Mehta films India beautifully casting it in a light that makes the passion for country translatable. Even the slums are beautiful, with her emphasis on the colors and the rain-soaked fertility of this complicated and unusual country. Despite the emphasis on acknowledgement of influence, the British-free India is treated with great optimism. Midnights Children are now in their sixties, but one feels the optimism their perspective from their crossroads represent as India, Pakistan and Bangladesh work through their sheared and separate histories. Mehta also directs women well, and her female cast with the stand outs being Shriya Saran as Parvati and Shahana Goswami as Amina. Despite the main character being male, Rushdie’s female characters are deep and interesting and Mehta’s touch brings them to the fore.
If you’re not familiar with the book, and are unlikely to read it, the film will give you access in just over two hours that you won’t be sorry for. If you love the book very much, then I think you will like the film for the treatment the subject matter that made it into the script gets. If you have no interest in the book at all, then I think the film will probably be lost for you.