In many ways Midnight’s Children, the long gestating adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s 1981 Booker Prize winning novel and high school and university syllabus staple, stands to be looked at in almost a similar light to Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate, or possibly even the recent box office dud Cloud Atlas in terms of making a valiant, but somewhat foolhardy attempt to bring unfilmable material to the big screen. It will be heralded by some as a daring masterpiece, but despite some really excellent touches director Deepa Mehta seems in somewhat over her head and the film’s sprawling, multigenerational narrative doesn’t port very naturally to the screen.
On the evening of India’s independence from England, a rogue nurse who wants to impress a revolutionary that she once loved switches a rich baby and a poor baby at birth, giving them opposing lives. The child that should have gone to the rich family becomes the son of a drunken, begging musician and eventually becoming a military leader. The poor child on the other hand lives an oddly harder life growing up in affluence thanks to a domineering father and a psychic ability to connect to all of the other midnight babies in India, all of whom possess different special abilities. The now well off Saleem (Satya Bhabha) and the soon to be militaristic and cold blooded Shiva (Siddharth) will eventually have to square off once and for all for control over the group of Midnight’s Children.
The actual thrust of the film for the middle hour or so is quite well staged and thought out. As we follow the main characters through childhood and their rise and fall in adulthood, Metha and Rushdie – adapting his own work here – seem to be on the same page. Magnetic performances from Bhabha and Siddharth also go a long way in selling the material and giving each character a true sense of purpose. Throw in some truly excellent work from Shriya Saran in the film’s second half as a perceived witch that Saleem and Shiva both have intimate relationships with of different sorts, and it’s easy to see that Mehta’s instincts were spot on in terms of casting.
Mehta also asserts herself quite well to working on a much bigger canvas than she has been given in the past. Her other vastly smaller Canadian and Indian co-productions have never had this much to coordinate before. She films everything from palatial estates and slums to battlefields and destruction with the proper grandeur and wonder to make it all seem realistic, but sadly despite her best efforts, the film still remains only slightly passable at best.
Almost nothing that goes wrong with Midnight’s Children, aside from some fairly wonky sequences of seduction, can be faulted or blamed on Mehta’s work. For someone making their first large scale blockbuster, she asserts herself very well. Every problem with the film comes entirely from Rushdie’s almost outright arrogance to port his work laboriously and almost word for word to the screen. The only other fault overall that can be traced back to Mehta and her producers was never telling Rushdie to get over himself.
The opening 45 minutes of the film can be cut entirely. It’s nice to see the genealogy of Saleem’s extended family and to have a small sense of Indian culture going back to the early 1940s, but absolutely none of it is relevant to anything that follows in the rest of the film once the actual story kicks in. It’s something that can work on the page with patient readers and sometimes can work with patient viewers if you give them some sort of payoff, but this literally goes nowhere. Confounding things further is how Rushdie doesn’t even let Bhabha narrate his character’s own story in the film’s ponderous and wholly redundant voiceover that Rushdie just does himself.
This voiceover absolutely kills any momentum that the film manages to gain, and Rushdie reads it (possibly unsurprisingly) as a proud author speaking in front of a crowd of people gathered to hear him read directly from a book. There’s a maddening push and pull between showing and telling in this film. It shows too much at the start, and as it drones on in Rushdie’s almost smug, insufferable intonations, you almost wish it would shut up already. Further damning Rushdie’s screenplay is how he flat out glosses over his own material by pushing the underlying conflict between Muslims and Hindus at the time in India to the background, only brining it up in the narration and even then only to shrug it off. He’ll gladly show us 45 minutes of useless (but admittedly well shot and directed) material, but the actual backbone of his own book that provides much needed context for the struggle of the characters is missing almost entirely.
In the end, despite how much Rushdie is known to be a cinephile at heart, he still doesn’t really know how to make a film, and he’s clearly too closely in love with the sound of his own highly lauded work to really be objective enough to make it into a film. Mehta and her cast do what they can, but this is the Rushdie Show all the way, and for all the wrong reasons. The book is still pretty good, though. See the film if you must for how Mehta asserts herself as a director, but for a good story without the smug, self-satisfaction, just stay home and read the book instead.
Cast: Satya Bhabha, Siddharth, Shahana Goswami
Directed by: Deepa Mehta
Top image: A scene from Midnight’s Children. Courtesy Mongrel Media.