Reviewed by Marc Glassman
Deepa Mehta, director
Salman Rushdie, script based on his novel
Starring: Satya Bhabha (Saleem Sinai), Shriya Saran (Parvati), Darsheel Safary (Saleem as a child), Anupam Kher (Ghani), Seema Biswas (Mary), Shabana Azmi (Naseem), Rahul Bose (Zulfikar), Siddharth (Shiva), Anita Majumdar (Emerald)
Have two famously controversial artists, one a director, the other a novelist, combine on a film and you’re bound to get buzz.
Deepa Mehta, the Canadian-Indian filmmaker, had the shooting of her film Water cancelled in India after its sets were destroyed by Hindu fundamentalists. Years later, she was able to make the film in Sri Lanka and Water went on to garner worldwide acclaim including an Oscar nomination. For many in India, she is a notorious figure: a feminist and freethinker who is never afraid to rock the boat in an increasingly conservative political climate.
Salman Rushdie is the most famous genuinely literary figure in the world. That will happen when a fatwa is proclaimed on you. Thanks to the Ayatollah Khomeini, at one time spiritual leader of Iran, Rushdie’s life was in danger for a decade. The book that so upset the Ayatollah wasn’t Midnight’s Children; it was The Satanic Verses but the earlier novel was also embroiled in controversy.
Midnight’s Children is one of the most highly touted novels in recent history. It not only won the prestigious Booker Prize upon its publication in 1981, it also won the “best over all” when the Booker celebrated its first 25 years (1993)—and then, its first 40 years in 2008. But its fierce portrayal of Indira Gandhi as a nearly crazy anti-populist whose imposition of Emergency Laws and a martial regime in the mid-1970s was a betrayal of India’s principles was certainly upsetting, particularly to Hindus.
So—controversial novel, novelist and director. Result—global buzz.
Historical epic, political allegory, tall tale, magical realism in cinema
Saleem Sinai is born at midnight on August 15, 1947, at the exact moment when India became an independent republic, freed from British rule after nearly a century (and quite a bit longer, if you consider the influence of the British East India Company in the area).
As a newborn, Saleem’s identity is switched with another midnight baby, Shiva, by a nurse, Mary, who was besotted by radical ideas told to her by the man she loved, Joe. Instead of being raised as a poor boy, Saleem’s life is spent among the rich and privileged. Meanwhile Shiva becomes an impoverished child, who grows up angry and determined to rise above his supposed roots and become successful.
As a boy, Saleem realizes that he has magic powers. He can summon all the children born at midnight to his room, where they get to talk and argue about their lives and futures. In this dream-like state, he meet Parvati, the beautiful witch and Shiva, his hostile “double.” The children all have fantastic powers but many don’t develop them though they are all telepathic.
In his real life, Saleem, who is Muslim, is sent by his mother to live with his aunt Emerald and uncle Zulfikar in Pakistan. An operation on his nose robs him of the power to summon his midnight’s children but he does develop a magical sense of smell. The India-Pakistani war orphans him and Saleem loses his memory. Eventually, he meets Parvati and Shiva and their fates become entwined with that of India as the Emergency Laws bring a darkness to the subcontinent. After much tragedy and romance, Saleem survives—wiser and still loving but not the heroic figure he appeared to be in his youth and adolescence.
Midnight’s Children has an epic sweep, covering a multitude of characters, events and moments in time. Performers have to establish themselves quickly and authoritatively. Mehta has cast well and many performances are fine—in particular, Satya Bhabha as Saleem and Seema Biswas as Mary.
The director, the writer and the skinny
This film covers a lot of time, a lot of land and a lot of characters. Mehta in combination with Rushdie has made a coherent, moving film out of a great novel. She shows command in a film that moves from romance to war to tragedy. As a film, Midnight’s Children doesn’t measure up to Rushdie’s novel, with its comedy and brilliant linguistic style. But this is a film worth seeing—even if its qualities will never match that of the book.