A celebrated book that many thought was un-filmable. So its celebrated author writes the screenplay himself and teams up with a director whose work has thus far not revealed the ability to create magical experiences. While watching Deepa Mehta’s filming of Salman Rushdie’s script based on his novel Midnight’s Children, I kept recalling the experience of Ang Lee’s beautiful Life of Pi. The latter created magical cinematic moments; this film remained two-dimensional.
The narrator (Rushdie) recounts the story of his life – the life of Saleem Sinai born in Bombay at the stroke of midnight when India became independent. All the children born in that first hour of independence are linked together and each one is bestowed with a unique magical power. These scenes where the midnight’s children meet in another plane of consciousness is when you miss a visual swell, some cinematic sorcery.
The film begins where it ends — 30 years after independence during which time a newly born India has seen wars and the Emergency. During which time Saleem (Satya Bhabha) has faced issues of identity, responsibility and questioned political change. His fate influenced by a maternity nurse (Seema Biswas) who impulsively switches a poor man’s son with a rich man’s newborn. Shiva (Siddharth) and Saleem – the switched at birth boys – go through dramatic ups and downs in their lives, tables turn and flip back. The strongest scenes were of the Emergency, interpreted like an unending Scandinavian winter – dark, bleak, hopeless and brazenly depicting the then Prime Minister.
The locations, cinematography, production design and actors bring alive this period film, but the choppy narrative disjointed scenes are stumbling blocks.
Coming back to the ensemble, besides stalwarts Shabana Azmi, Seema Biswas and Charles Dance, the younger cast of Siddharth, Shahana Goswami, Shriya Saran, Rajat Kapoor and Rahul Bose deliver surefooted performances. Bhabha acts well though his stilted attempt at an Indian twang is jarring.
Rushdie’s script is unsentimental; straightforward in it’s telling; without emotional manipulation. The film is a little like a bedtime story version read in Rushdie’s voice. It made me want to revisit the book, which I had found so hard to complete years ago, and discover the magic within the author’s words that was missing from the movie.