Like many people, my first and most significant familiarity with the acclaimed British-Indian novelist Salman Rushdie arose from the fatwā issued against him by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini over his authorship of The Satanic Verses. But there is more to Rushdie and his blend of historical fiction and magical realism than this one incident. His second novel, Midnight’s Children not only won the 1981 Booker Prize, it was selected in 1993 as the best of all the first 25 winners of the prize, and again in 2008 as the best of the first 40 winners. For Deepa Mehta to even attempt an adaptation must have been an awesome responsibility, but with Rushdie’s participation writing the screenplay and providing the narration there is no question that this is a wonderful film and a worthy companion to its source.
On the stroke of midnight on the 15th of August, 1947, two countries were born: India and Pakistan both declared their independence from British rule. And with these two nations were born two children, one to a wealthy Muslim family with roots in Kashmir, and the other to poor Hindu street musicians who would beg at the first family’s palatial Bombay house. But through the meddling of a nurse (Seema Biswas) the two are switched at birth. The child born into poverty is raised in comfort as Saleem Sinai (Darsheel Safary as a child; Satya Bhabha later) by his unwittingly adoptive parents Ahmed (Ronit Roy) and Amina (Shahana Goswami), while the child born into wealth is raised on the streets as Shiva (Siddarth) by his surrogate father (Samrat Chakrabarti), derisively named “Wee Willie Winkie” by the same British man who truly fathered Saleem. Their fates are bound together, and to those of the two infant nations.
But these are not the only two bound together; all the children of that midnight are linked, as Saleem discovers when they are ten. Each of them has special powers, the stronger the closer they were born to the exact stroke of midnight. One can fly; one can turn invisible; one can change his shape. Parvati “the witch” (Shriya Saran) can perform real magic. Saleem and Shiva are the most powerful; Shiva is a natural warrior, while it is Saleem’s gift to bring all of Midnight’s Children into contact.
At ten, Saleem is sent to live with his mother’s sister, Emerald Zulfikar (Anita Majumdar) and her husband (Rahul Bose), a prominent general in Pakistan, and key player in the Islamic coup that ensues. Seven years later, Saleem is in East Pakistan as it fights — with India’s help — for its independent existence as Bangladesh. Seven years after that, he is back in Delhi for the “Emergency” declared by Indira Gandhi (Sarita Choudhury). Do these numbers quite square with the real timeline? Well, not quite, but to focus on literal truth rather misses the point of Rushdie’s beautifully crafted allegory.
Which allegory is clearly present in the film for those who think to look for it. Having only two and a half hours — the result of a screenplay less than a quarter the length of the original novel — of course necessitates that some elements must be simplified or less explicitly embellished, which in turn demands more attention and thought from the audience to get the most out of a moving picture that continues ever on its way. A book does give the opportunity for contemplative pauses that film as a medium simply cannot afford. A reader — as opposed to a viewer — can stop and turn Rushdie’s deliciously-textured prose over and over in the mouth before continuing.
Luckily, Rushdie and Mehta preserve large chunks of this prose in the narration that helps pull from one scene into the next before things get too bogged down. And Mehta’s gorgeous Sri Lankan landscapes — shot by the same Giles Nuttgens as directed photography of her Elements trilogy — are some compensation for what is lost from the text. Beautiful pictures cannot entirely replace a singular gem of literature, of course, but what is left is still a powerful and moving film that carries much of the flavor and spirit of its source, and which may draw new readers back to the original to discover this fantastic story all over again.
Worth It: yes, absolutely.
Bechdel Test: fail.