“Midnight’s Children”… India yesterday

Posted on February 2, 2013

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When the young Saleem Sinai, him of the protuberant proboscis reminiscent of the Deccan peninsula, hears in his head for the first time the voices of the other “midnight’s children,” he bounds down the stairs to tell his parents, only to receive a sound thrashing from his father. Stung, he races back up, all alone – but soon, he is surrounded by manifestations of the boys and girls to whom these voices belong, these others born at and around 12 a.m. on August 15, 1947. It’s something like what we see in the X-Men movies. A child with strange and somewhat frightening powers learns that he is not alone, and that his real family lies scattered throughout the subcontinent. After they depart, he smiles and thinks up a name for him and his newfound cohorts. “Children of midnight,” he says to himself, and then changes his mind. “Midnight’s children.”

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He is, in a sense, following the footsteps of his creator Salman Rushdie, who faced a similar dilemma when naming the novel that would make him famous. Introducing a later edition, Rushdie wrote, “In the end, I had two titles and couldn’t choose between them: Midnight’s Children and Children of Midnight. I typed them out one after the other, over and over, and then all at once I understood that there was no contest, that Children of Midnight was a banal title and Midnight’s Children a good one.” But other echoes of Rushdie are harder to find in this sprawling adaptation (he wrote the screenplay), which is filled with lush filmmaking and fine performances (especially by Shahana Goswami, Seema Biswas, and Darsheel Safary, who plays Saleem Sinai as a boy; Satya Bhabha takes over as the adult), but is weighed down by a literalness that’s never there in the book.

Several novels, when their screen adaptations are announced, are instantly termed “unfilmable.” What this means isn’t that these stories cannot be filmed, but that it’s difficult to imagine a film that will stand out in the way the books did. And a lot of this has to do with the singularity of the author’s voice, because without this voice, we’re left with just the story, the skeleton inside a supermodel. Midnight’s Children is essentially an irreverent jaunt through modern India, bits and pieces of real and made-up history patched together in a colourful, crazy quilt of Rushdiana. His style, his flamboyance, his devilish wit knit it all together, and a filmmaker attempting to translate Rushdie’s narrative energy to screen would need to possess an equally distinct personality; the filmic language needed to be as inventive and as attentive to form (even at the expense of content). Someone like Terry Gilliam springs to mind.

Deepa Mehta, on the other hand, is a scrupulously literal-minded filmmaker. All the magical-realist contrivances – the emotions stirred into food; the eavesdropping on dreams – she relegates to voiceover, which is a bit like having to explain a punch line. The zing is gone. Due to the inevitable concessions to running time, Mehta sticks to the happenings around the protagonists (Saleem Sinai, Parvati the Witch, and Saleem’s nemesis Shiva) – and some of the memorable events that appear automatic candidates for the big screen, like the death of Joseph D’Costa in an action-packed set piece around a clock tower, are left behind. The political storms are present, but inelegantly shoehorned in – Mehta is far better at capturing the smaller upheavals in people. In fact, the film might have worked better as just the story of these people, with history reduced to a “Quit India” graffiti here, a Mother India poster there. The politics-free opening portions are wonderful.

Midnight’s Children, which unfolds in a natural-sounding mix of English and Hindi, is little more than a stately procession of pretty pictures – but at least, it’s never boring. Part of this may be the unintentional effect, at least in the eyes of an Indian audience, of contrivances derived from Bombay cinema. Manmohan Desai would have approved heartily of Saleem Sinai’s reunion with a mother figure through her signature green chutney, which he stumbles upon in a roadside restaurant many miles away. And in the internecine relationship of Saleem and Shiva (played by Siddharth; in X-Men terms, the pessimistic Magneto to Saleem’s pacifist Charles Xavier) we have an evil twist on the one-time staple of “Hindu-Muslim bhai-bhai.” There’s even a terrific villain in Sarita Choudhury’s impersonation of the iron lady of Indian politics. She’s there in just a handful of scenes, but she wreaks such mayhem that she could be stroking a tiger in a sequin-studded lair, Mona Darling by her side.

An edited version of this piece can be found here.

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