Midnight's Children | Film reviews, news & interviews
Salman Rushdie scripts and narrates an inert paraphrase of subcontinental history
It’s always the second-rate fiction which makes first-rate films, because there’s nothing to lose but plot. Midnight’s Children, lest anyone be allowed to forget, is first-rate fiction. It has won the Booker, the Booker of Bookers and James Tait Black Memorial Prizes and is listed somewhere or other as one of the Great Books of the 20th Century. That year you missed the broadcast it probably won Miss World. The novel has been sitting around on the runway awaiting adaptation since the late 1990s, when production in Sri Lanka was pulled at the last minute. To help it along this time round, it has been given a little extra shove by Salman Rushdie himself.
There used to be a time when there wasn't a lot of Rushdie to go round. Certain undesirables would seek him here, seek him there. One place they’d never think to look for him is on the soundtrack narrating his own novel. But here the author unquestionably is, (see trailer below) telling of his birth – by which he means his protagonist Saleem Sinai’s - on the stroke of midnight as India turns independent, thus intertwining his fate with that of the world’s largest democracy. It’s important now and then to check your pomposometer for over-reactivity, but this self-placement does detonate in the film’s face as a kind of narcissism. Which is a lot of people’s problem with Rushdie.
Anyway, not everything is quite as one recalls from the book. Budgets being what they are, the party to cheer in Indian independence is here attended by, apparently, two blokes and a bicycle with someone offscreen to let off the meagre ration of fireworks. Not that one can hold financial paucity against a film when necessity can often be the mother of invention. The frustration here is that director Deepa Mehta struggles to find a cinematic language to match the insistent playfulness of Rushdie’s language.
This map of subcontinental history – all shot secretly in Sri Lanka, which plays Delhi, Rawalpindi and Dhaka – begins comically enough with the piecemeal seduction of Dr Aziz (Rajat Kapoor) by his Kashmiri future bride, whom he meets body part by body part via a hole modestly cut in a sheet. Watching Midnight’s Children is a bit like Dr Aziz’s experience of courtship: seismic events are seen piecemeal through this round hole and that. The British (in the form of Charles Dance’s Raj hangover) leave, and the Indians are soon squabbling. The young Saleem is shipped off to Pakistan to witness the military crackdown and, later, Bangladesh's war of independence before returning to India for Mrs Gandhi’s Emergency and her son Sanjay’s slum clearances.
For much of this journey Saleem (played as a child by Darsheel Safary and as an adult by Satya Bhabha) is accompanied by the small army of "midnight's children", all born on the same seismic night and endowed with special powers. He communicates with them via his dripping and highly telepathic proboscis (inherited from his grandfather Dr Aziz). Whether you buy into Rushdie’s magic realist image for India as a clamorous Babel or not, this is the crux of the story that needs to enthral, and it simply doesn’t. The simpler symbol of national confusion is in the swapping at birth of Saleem and his nemesis, Shiva (Siddharth Narayan, pictured above left with Satya Bhabha), who grows up at the other end of the social ladder as the son of a busking beggar, though here too there is little sense of deep-seated anxiety about identity and belonging.
The performances are all fine, but put at the service of a vision which feels inert and, at well over two hours, fatally bloated. Where scenes of romance should move, they don’t; where injustice should enrage, it doesn’t; where violence should terrify, it fizzles; and where a story of social and political upheaval on a massive scale should provoke awe and wonder, it flatlines. What we get instead is a soap opera with wide angles and a voiceover, which is rarely a good idea even when it's not the author and scriptwriter reading his own lines. “The child will speak when he has something to say,” it’s said of the mute son of Shiva. If only Rushdie filletting his own novel had paid heed. This Midnight’s Children will get up your nose.
Watch the trailer to Midnight's Children
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