Salman Rushdie is, by all accounts, one of the great contemporary authors and Midnight’s Children is his crowning glory. It might not have brought him the scandalous attention of his other works but it did bring him accolades – and rightly so – from all quarters. Unfortunately for him, the same praise cannot be heaped on the cinematic adaptation.
Midnight’s Children follows the story of Saleem Sinai, born at the stroke of midnight on 15 August, 1947, making him the same age as his homeland of India. As he grows up, he discovers that all children born between midnight and one o’clock on that fateful date have been endowed with special powers, his being the gift of telepathy. The strongest Midnight Child, Saleem uses his powers to locate others like him, two of whom (Parvati, the witch who can cast real spells, and Shiva, who has a penchant for creating conflict) become key players in his life. Saleem’s journey is juxtaposed against the historical events that shaped India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, including a long introduction that not only describes the background of India’s independence but also introduces Saleem’s family.
This historical backdrop is portrayed very well and is probably one of the better ways to teach an often-overlooked but rich period of Asian history to the uninitiated. Director Deepa Mehta, complements the tale with some beautiful visuals of the subcontinent. Unfortunately, the project seems to have been steered by Rushdie (in charge of casting and in choosing the director in the first place) who, despite his considerable prowess as a writer, is no film maestro. Nowhere is this presence more strongly – and regrettably – felt than in the constant narration provided by Rushdie himself. It might be a good way to introduce a few key elements like the history and culture without resorting to characters directly breaking the fourth wall, but the unseen narrator has more lines than anyone else in the film. Annoyingly, this includes providing voiceovers for the characters. This makes it feel like Rushdie is sitting next to you in the audience, nudging you in the ribs, over-explaining the story and still expecting you to laugh and cry at the right moments.
The clever way in which history is intertwined with the characters’ lives in the book is lost in the transition to the screen. The editing feels choppy, jumping from one scene to the next without appropriate transition which results in the characters coming across as flighty and one-dimensional. Their lives should have been detailed tapestries; instead they feel like a half-heartedly completed game of join-the-dots. The supporting players do a decent job with their roles, but Satya Bhabha’s portrayal of Saleem comes across as disingenuous. This is largely due to his accent; Bhabha is British-born and has spent a large part of his life in America, but he intentionally tries to add an Indian tinge to his dialogues, perhaps to make it similar to his co-stars, all of whom are from India. In all fairness to him, it is not a stereotyped attempt, but it comes short of its intentions.
Where stereotypes do come into play are in several of the key scenes. Mehta is known for breaking away from the norms of Indian film-making, but the scenes feel like they are straight out of a (bad) Bollywood melodrama, particularly when they foretell the difficulties Saleem will face before the climax. The soundtrack adds to the discomfort, constantly breaking into sitar riffs that continue the unflattering ‘exotic India’ stereotype. It does not help that Mehta’s nuanced style blatantly comes through in patches, making the whole experience feel more like a mismatched collaboration between her and Rushdie than a talented director offering her take on a talented writer.
Midnight’s Children is a critical book that tells of the many failures of the subcontinent while still promising the hope for improvement. Sadly, the film, despite its potential, is more akin to the failings than to that still-elusive promise.