Cineswami feels Deepa Mehta’s Midnight’s Children is a film South Asians will love although its initial reviews in the West were not positive
To even attempt filming a book that was widely considered impossible to film is praiseworthy in itself. And to tackle a much-loved book that carries the burden of so much acclaim, not to mention winning the Booker and Booker of Bookers is worth some kudos. But for Deepa Mehta to have pulled off the feat of translating Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children to celluloid and managing to make it for the most part engaging cinema is deserving of the highest praise.
The film is essentially the story of Saleem Sinai, a boy born on the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947, that precise, joyous moment when India gained independence from the colonial yoke. Saleem is actually not born into the wealthy Sinai family. He is in fact the bastard child of an eccentric Englishman, William Methwold and Vanita, the wife of the itinerant accordionist Wee Willie Winkie. However, hospital nurse Mary Pereira, in a fit of revolutionary fervour decides to give a rich baby a poor life and vice versa. So she switches Vanita’s baby, born at the exact same time as Saleem with that of Mrs Sinai. Thus the real Sinai heir is brought up as Shiva, a glowering child, simmering with rage at his poverty, reduced to barking in time with his accordionist father’s off-key rendition of ‘How much is that doggie in the window’. Meanwhile, a repentant Mary quits her job at the hospital and joins the Sinai household as Saleem’s ayah. As Saleem grows, he discovers that he can telepathically communicate with hundreds of children who have been born in the hour after midnight on August 15 and he alone has the power to unite them. Each of these children has a special power and is meant for a great calling. Amongst these is Parvati, who has magical powers. The destinies of Saleem, Shiva and Parvati are inextricably linked in the tumultuous years following India’s independence, as events like wars with Pakistan, the formation of Bangladesh and the Emergency unfold.
Rushdie’s novel is dense, layered, complex and magic realist and the author has done a commendable job of condensing it into a screenplay, his debut in the format. It helps that significant passages are told in voice-over, in Rushdie’s own distinctive voice. Inevitably, transposing a 446-page book into a 146-minute movie means some sacrifices and therefore some characters and events have had to be excised, but the film is none the poorer for it.
Mehta’s career has lurched from the sublime (1947: Earth) to the ridiculous (Bollywood Hollywood) and though Water earned her an Oscar nomination and was stunning to look at, it was badly let down by the casting of the ever-wooden John Abraham in a central role. In Midnight’s Children, Mehta gets the casting mostly right. Debutant Satya Bhabha passes muster in the central role of Saleem, but it is Siddharth who has the most commanding screen presence as Saleem’s nemesis Shiva. After failing abjectly in her last international film The Other End Of The Line, Shriya Saran is luminous as Parvati. Other standouts include the ever-reliable Shahana Goswami as Saleem’s mother Amina, Seema Biswas as Mary, and Kulbhushan Kharbanda as Picture Singh, a gnarled snake charmer. And Ronit Roy reprises his glowering father from Udaan. Shabana Azmi plays herself, a shrew, and the stiff Rahul Bose is perfectly cast as a stiff army man. But there are missteps too. Soha Ali Khan is woefully miscast as Saleem’s sister Jamila. Her character is based on the nightingale of Pakistan, Noor Jehan, and casting Soha is as insulting as Veena Malik playing Lata Mangeshkar in a biopic. Try as she might, Soha looks like her brother Saif Ali Khan in drag, during his younger, more feminine looking days. Clearly none of the Sharmila Tagore acting genes has been transferred to her.
But these are minor quibbles in a film, a grand spectacle that takes in the sweep of sub-continental history in a flourish thanks to Mehta’s confident direction, Giles Nuttgens’s lavish cinematography and Nitin Sawhney’s outstanding score. It’s all the more remarkable for the fact that, thanks to her experience with fundamentalists during Water, Mehta chose to film in Sri Lanka and has managed to recreate India, Pakistan and Bangladesh in the island country with nary a seam showing.
However, many overseas critics have been left cold by Mehta’s vivid film and reviews have not been great. They can be forgiven as only audiences with beating South Asian hearts for whom our history is embedded in our DNA will truly be immersed in the film, and immersive it is, without a trace of ennui. It is sad that if Indian audiences do get to see the film, it will be a censored version as, like the book, the movie is heavily critical of the Emergency and Indira Gandhi’s role in it. And, since we live in the world’s largest democracy, freedom of expression is not allowed. Pity, because the film is an allegory for India’s progress or lack thereof in the 40-odd years after independence, as exemplified by the titular midnight’s children, all of whom are supposed to attain greatness, but don’t.