Film Review: ‘Midnight’s Children’
Director: Deepa Mehta
Cast: Satya Bhabha, Ronit Roy, Shahana Goswami, Seema Biswas, Rajat Kapoor, Siddharth, Shriya Saran, Darsheel Safary, Shabana Azmi, Rahul Bose
At a recent event to promote Deepa Mehta’s adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, the film’s producer David Hamilton said that fans of the book were likely to have their own cinematic versions playing in their heads, each incomparable to the other. It’s that sort of novel. Perhaps these films should never be allowed to leave cranial walls as Midnight’s Children, to use an arboreal comparison, is like a lush banyan tree—its narrative branches off into scores of delightful digressions and mini stories that would be impossible to fit into a movie of watchable length. However the Midnight’s Children to emerge from Mehta’s attractive salt and pepper head—and Rushdie’s ruddy, bald one as he wrote the screenplay—is like a tree in winter. The film is a clipped rendition that races to cover a period that spans pre-Independence India and the end of the Emergency in two and a half hours and in the process minimises characters and crucial events.
The only character you get a sense of is Saleem Sinai (Satya Bhabha). Born on the midnight of Independence, Saleem and his fellow midnight’s children, all of whom have special powers, embody the promise of a new India. (Scenes in which the kids telepathically meet seem like an Indian version of X-Men.) But Saleem is hardly given a chance to fulfill the promise because events beyond his control take charge of his life the moment he’s born. The illegitimate child of a minstrel and a Brit on his way out of the country (Charles Dance), Saleem is swapped at birth with Shiva by nurse Mary (Seema Biswas, who delivers the best performance in the film), who in a misguided tribute to her communist lover Joe decides that the boy born to a poor woman must lead a life of comfort and the boy born to rich parents a life of poverty.
And so Saleem is brought up by the affluent Sinais while Shiva grows up as an angry tough guy on the streets of Bombay. Life casts Saleem among Pakistani generals, erases his memory with a flying spittoon, air drops him into Bangladesh during the 1971 war and repatriates him to India in a magic basket. On the other hand little is shown of Saleem’s antithesis, Shiva, a fantastic character who is only shown as a pugnacious boy and a stony-faced Aviator-wearing military hero (Siddharth). Saleem’s love interest and midnight’s child Parvati (Shriya Saran) too is unsatisfactorily etched. Saran turns Parvati, a magician living in a colony of entertainers in Delhi that Mehta imbues with a perplexing exoticism, into a simpering, eyelid-batting flirt with little emotional weight.
A large part of the novel’s appeal lies in Rushdie’s ability to conjure the bizarre and magic realism with wit and incredibly evocative language. Mehta’s film is leached of humour and strangeness and the magic real bits are often ridiculous. In a Harry Potter-esque moment, the day-time sky darkens ominously when Indira Gandhi announces the Emergency and Picture Singh (Kulbhushan Kharbanda), a turbaned patriarch in the colony of entertainers, gazes upwards and gutturally declares, “Curse is upon us”. Rushdie tries to compensate by way of a voice-over—he delivers it himself—that draws from the language of the novel. But it’s simply not enough.