Midnight’s Children is storytelling on a grand stage. It spans across sixty years, describes over twenty different characters and sets itself against the backdrop of history that changed the geographical lines in South-East Asia. In short, this is an overwhelming film that attempts to capture the aroma, colours and tears of Salman Rushdie’s classic novel in 148 minutes. And it does so spectacularly. It begins with a voice. Rushdie’s voice to be exact. And immediately you realise this was never going to be Deepa Mehta’s film (who directed the brilliant Elements Trilogy) but Rushdie’s, who narrates as Saleem Sinai, the main protagonist, explaining how his birth coincided with the birth of India, mirroring its tragic history with his own. As Writer, Narrator and Exec Producer – Rushdie saw principle photography wrap up adapting his beloved novel thirty years after it was published. So… was it worth the wait?
The story opens in Kashmir in 1915 with a doctor on a boat, gliding through an untouched, fertile and serene landscape. Aadam Aziz (Rajat Kapoor) is being summoned by a prominent landowner Ghani (Anupam Kher) to examine his poorly daughter Naseem through a hole in a large bed sheet that is protecting her modesty. Through many cross examinations, touching many parts of her body, Aadam eventually sees her face and falls in love. The couple marry and move to Agra where Aadam opens his own practice and Naseem gives birth to three daughters. Second World War has just ended and the British Raj cannot sustain its vast empire. Independence whispers in the air, shared between politicians and poets, who favour the move for the whole country while extreme militants wish for partition creating a separate Islamic country. After a failed marriage to a political poet, one of Aadam’s daughter, Mumtaz (Shahana Goswami) marries Ahmed Sinai (Ronit Roy), a successful business man, and relocates herself to Bombay where she changes her name to Amina Sinai upon Ahmed’s request. A new name, in a new place, for a new beginning.
August 15th, 1947 approaches and Ahmed has just purchased a spectacular house from an Englishman named William Methwold (Charles Dance) who sells on the proviso that nothing changes in the house until the first hour of independence and to maintain a relationship with others on the Estate. Wee Willie Winkie, a poor xylophonist, entertains the occupants of the estates daily while his pregnant wife sings and collects their offerings. At the stroke of midnight on August 15th, – Shiva, Wee Willie Winkie’s son, is born. Soon after, Amina gives birth to a baby boy and names him Saleem. Both are taken to the baby room where Mary (Seema Biswas), a Christian nurse, has been inspired by a communist radical that the Independence will only benefit the rich and the poor will continue to suffer. If an opportunity came her way to change the weight of fortunes then she was obliged to change it. Mary thus changes the name tags to Shiva and Saleem, who lie next to each other, so that a son of a rich businessman lives a life of poverty and desperation, while the son of the street dweller is educated and inspired. Rushdie narrates as Saleem, “Let the rich be poor, and the poor… rich.”
Ten years pass and the two boys mature to their surroundings, except one particular day young Saleem is able to hear voices in his head. Strange, magical powers have been granted to him and all the other children born on the auspicious midnight hour. Saleem, born closest to the hour, is the strongest and is able to hallucinate other children, all one-thousand of them, at the sniff of his nose. But as with all heroes, Saleem’s antithesis is Shiva – who holds great vengeance for being born poor and wishes to change the balance of power just like Mary did. Along the way, Saleem encounters great horrors of war and love unlike anything he imagined. Rushdie continues to narrate that Saleem’s life is “mysteriously handcuffed to history,” and that his destiny is forever chained to his country’s.
As with all novel adaptations, many segments, characters and sub-plots had to be omitted to support the visual medium of cinema. It seems simple with something small like Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mocking Bird, but on scale this large, the film only captures the essence of what made the book so special. Character dynamics is what makes such books and others like Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy such demanding but pleasurable reads but without their back story – the actions the characters take in the film seem absurd to the uninitiated or even hasty. Indeed the editing is snappy, with years and decades whizzing past in minutes leaving the actors – all of which played their respective roles brilliantly – little, if anything to work with. Which is a shame considering many of the characters are mysterious and enigmatic in their own ways, wanting to share their story but we’ve not been privileged to hear it. Charles Dance, Shabana Azmi, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Anupam Kher – all were a delight to view but left the screen as soon as they arrived. Only Seema Biswas, a Mehta regular, was utilised adequately as her story stretched across half the time span of the story.
Some of the more enjoyable scenes are with Darsheel Safary, who poignantly portrays Saleem with the burden of expectation from his father, “Big things are in store for you my son,” says Ahmed, not realising of course Saleem isn’t his real son or in fact the things in store for him are as tragic as they are big. The ‘indirect kiss’ he witnesses from the outside of a coffee shop, exchanged between his mother and her ex-poet husband, disappoints him more than anything else. Saleem here is fighting battles with the voices in his heads as well as the visions in front of his eyes.
The elder Saleem, played by Satya Bhabha, is pushed to evolve into manhood in a short space of time. And while the spirit of that ten-year old Saleem resides in him, war torn India torments him completely but as a result the audience isn’t entirely sure of the emotions he’s trying to emote. “There is nothing like a War for the reinvention of lives,” Rushdie narrates. The confusion reflects his constant rebirth although it is never entirely clear in the film.
Significant characters to look out for are indeed the elder Shiva, played by Siddharth, whose jealousy of being poor plagues his life – almost subconsciously knowing he was meant for better things. Wanting to change his fortunes, Shiva (also the name of a Hindu deity for the Destroyer) rises to great acclaim using brute force (his midnight gift) and gains great accolade as a national hero in India’s army during the Indo-Pakistan war. Parvati-the-witch is another Midnight Child who attains the gift of magic and plays a pivotal role at the end giving life and death to those closest her. As the only friend to Saleem, she comforts him when they return from the newly formed Bangladesh, and hope to start a life together except her fate is very different from Saleem’s.
The cinematography is beautiful. As is always from Mehta’s regular cinematographer Giles Nuttgens, with an amazing soundtrack supported by the equally amazing Nitin Sawhney and outstanding production designed by Mehta’s brother Dilip Mehta. Wanting to avoid any Islamic fundamentalists in India, Deepa Mehta chose to shoot most of the film in Colombo, Sri Lanka where the city bound streets of Karachi, to the slums of Bombay and the lush green of Dhaka play a wonderful substitute.
Midnight’s Children will polarise opinions. The script, written by Rusdie, almost takes the highlights of the novel leaving out the cake and offering only the cream. As the opening intro suggests, Saleem’s life reflects that of India’s in the mid twentieth century, which was struggling to find its feet due to its turbulent political ambitions and social upheaval. Rushdie’s writing has always been about mysticism. In the case of Saleem, he builds, or rather fabricates, a story around real events such as the State of Emergency period instigated by Indira Ghandi – who felt the Midnight Children posed a threat to her ideals if not contained. Gorgeous metaphors are used to blend between the scenes such as the elderly Naseem “eavesdropping into her daughter’s dreams,” when one night she couldn’t dream herself and kept a watchful eye on their futures.
Director Deepa Mehta concedes the adaptation was never going to fulfill the promise of imagery laid out by the novel but would attempt to capture its spiritual, colourful and exotic nature. And she does. Beautifully. Ultimately the actions carried out by all the characters were done out of love. For country. For parents. For faith. For discipline. For rebirth. For good. For tolerance. Or for the sake love itself. Rushdie aptly concludes Saleem’s life by saying, “A child and a country were born at midnight once upon a time. And our lives has been, in spite of everything, acts of love.”
Reviewed by Vaskar S. Kayastha