Movie review – Midnight’s Children
- By Elana Shepert
Midnight’s Children is one of the most ambitious films of the last decade. Based on Salman Rushdie’s epic novel, the narrative includes the colonization of India by the British, the birth of India and Pakistan, and the resulting bloody feud between nations. With an intricate plot, which includes an endless number of characters and themes, the 1980 novel was considered unfilmable. But with a screenplay by Rushdie himself, director Deepa Mehta (Water, Fire, Earth), along with a cast and crew of thousands, almost pulls it off.
The story begins with hundreds of children born around midnight on the eve of India’s independence. Each has a unique power. The most powerful is Saleem Sinai. With his magical nose, he can telepathically communicate with all the children. His antagonist is Shiva, the fighter. The two boys are switched at birth, thus condemning Shiva to a life of poverty while Saleem lives a life of fortune. Their fates continue to intermingle as they struggle to find their way amidst the chaos of the aftermath of Indian independence.
Besides writing the screenplay, Rushdie narrates at critical points with a few choice words, which help make the story intelligible. When Saleem’s mother, Amina, weds her new husband, we are told, “But love is a rare thing.” The facade of love is sorrowfully unveiled, as each proceeding moment in her new marriage betrays a profound longing. Her proceeding disillusionment is a slow, painful heartbreak. She will never love him, or anyone, like she loved her former husband, a sentimental poet, and the audience is privy to a masterful depiction of the unraveling of choice.
While it is crucial for the novel’s success, Rushdie’s voice isn’t enough to carry the film. On the night India officially becomes independent, his voiceover fails to explain a nurse’s reason for switching the two babies. Such an extraordinary decision seems psychotic without a motive. We have no idea who she is, why she loves a mysterious man who leaps into her window, or really anything at all.
Other parts of the film are also poorly handled. Conjured up by Saleem’s mystical nose, the midnight’schildren meetings have potential to be incredibly cinematic—but they feel like corny staged theatre, and almost all the characters lack enough screen time to be noteworthy. Moments of strife between Shiva and Saleem feel comical and out of place, more reminiscent of a brawl out of Grease or West Side Story than a supernatural congregation.
Other interactions and scenes can stand on their own, without the back story included in the novel. Although they have only met previously in the magical meetings, the reunion between Saleem and Parvati, his love interest, carries convincing passion. Her gypsy-like allure pulls a disconcerted and bemused Saleem from the sidelines of a parade and onto a colourful float where she is dancing. Their union helps him regain composure, and rescues the narrative, which had been flailing amidst confusing war scenes.
The main issue in Midnight’s Children, however, is time. There are too many characters, and too many themes in the novel, for a coherent translation, even in a movie that is two-and-a-half hours long. Yet the parts that do work are captivating, and it is possible to get lost in the enchantment. This is in part due to Satya Bhabha, an English actor whose resume includes Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. As Saleem, he is remarkable, and he carries the emotional weight of the script. His charming earnestness communicates his sense of wonder, creating depth in his strange magic and ethereal love.
Fans of the novel may be disappointed by this faithful, flawed take on the book’s epic scope. Others, however, may enjoy the movie for what it is – a magical romance set against a historical backdrop.