November Issue 2012

By | Arts & Culture | Movies | Published 8 years ago

Deepa Mehta is a brave filmmaker, and she has proven it again by taking on the ‘Booker of Bookers,’ Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. Published in 1980, 33 years after India’s independence, it has taken a year less than that for the book to be adapted into a screen version. Long considered to be ‘unfilmable,’ Mehta and everyone involved should be commended for first attempting and then managing to pull off something that was considered impossible in the first place.

That aside, the book is said to be ‘unfilmable’ for a reason. So rich is Rushdie’s tale of India’s transition from British rule to independence and the subsequent partition, so choice its language, so distinct the characters and so iconic the situations, that something was inevitably bound to get lost in translation. Rushdie can’t, however, blame anyone but himself for this, because along with giving Mehta his blessings, he also provided the screenplay for the film.

Staying true to its literary source, the film tells the story of main character Saleem Sinai (played by Satya Bhabha and accompanied by Rushdie’s voice-over) and how his birth at the exact moment of India’s independence affects not only his life, but that of India and Pakistan as countries itself. There are many historical events, all from the book, but only so much can be condensed into 2.5 hours. Therefore, one doesn’t really get a sense of structure and one is not invested in the characters. And since the narrative feels rushed, the lengthy running-time of Midnight’s Children is incomprehensible.

Nonetheless, memorable parts of the book are lovingly recreated here by Mehta, such as the famous meeting of Saleem’s grandparents in Kashmir, the subsequent circumstances of his parents’ marriage and how he discovers his ‘gift’ of being able to communicate with all other children born that fateful midnight. In these ‘meetings’ we are introduced to Shiva, whose destiny is directly intertwined with Saleem’s, and we also meet Parvati-the-witch, Saleem’s love interest. Of course the key moment earlier on in the film, where midwife Mary Pereira (Seema Biswas) switches Saleem and Shiva in the hospital, is given most importance (Let the rich be poor and the poor, rich). The best scene however is, by far, Saleem and his sister Jamila (Soha Ali Khan, sadly underwritten) dancing on Aao Twist Karein and talking about the impending war.

Midnight’s Children is not a bad film (wonderful performances, wonderful music), but it is unfulfilling. The film would have benefited from a tighter screenplay, rather than having this episodic nature. For viewers who haven’t read the book, especially, the timeline could be confusing: locations change pretty frequently between India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Nonetheless, it should be said that for someone who has openly criticised Pakistan in the past, Rushdie depicts the reel-and-not-real-Pakistan in a dignified manner. Midnight’s Children is clear about partition, how both India and Pakistan (and Bangladesh) have suffered. The film doesn’t dwell too much on the ‘why,’ but rather shows things as they are, without much judgement.

It was always going to be a challenge to bring any Rushdie film to the screen and most of all Midnight’s Children; therefore, in the final analysis Mehta has prevailed. “Our lives have been, inspite of everything, acts of love,” says Saleem and the film is an act of love too. This effort will always remain significant. But it would have been more memorable if Midnight’s Children the film was rewarding in itself, rather than only because it is the first screen adaptation of a Salman Rushdie novel. The fact that it’s only the latter is deplorable.

Meanwhile, is Shame next on the agenda?

This review was originally published in the November issue.

Schayan Riaz is a film critic based in Germany