Salman Rushdie‘s first film screenplay adapts his own Booker Prize-winning novel – an allegory that parallels the upheavals in one family’s history with the events that would shape a post-colonial India, from the British exit to the partitioning of Pakistan.
Born on the cusp of India’s independence from Britain and switched at birth by a maternity nurse in a secret act of protest, Saleem Sinai‘s fate is not only inextricably bound to the future of his country, but also to that of Shiva, the boy whose place of privilege he takes.
Following a traumatic incident, Saleem discovers he has special powers and is able to communicate with other children who share his special birthday. As the outside world become more chaotic, wielding his new-found magic becomes Saleem’s most powerful tactic for navigating the tumultuous course of history.
I’ll start by saying I haven’t read the book, so anything that follows is based solely on the film as I’ve seen it. I also cannot comment on how accurately the events are portrayed. Midnight’s Children was one the films at the London Film Festival that I really wanted to see and for a few reasons: it’s an Indian film that isn’t in a Bollywood style, based on a book by Salman Rushdie, whose other books I’ve enjoyed and that I was hoping it would serve as an elementary history lesson. And as someone who has benefited culturally, from Britain’s former empire in another part of Asia I did feel a personal draw to this movie.
Instinctively, the title of the movie is wrong, as Midnight’s Child would be more apt given the amount of the film given to Saleem’s journey, but this is a facile thing to say really. Of the important things that I felt fell short, the most significant would be my confusion / convenience of Saleem’s appearance (his nose) and the notion of switching a poor child for a rich child at birth. As we see at the beginning, “Saleem’s” grandfather has a gigantic nose and so when his own resembles this, no suspicion is aroused that he isn’t their biological son. It transpires that he is in fact the illegitimate son of an eccentric Brit (Charles Dance) and the young wife of a poor musician who plays the accordion and sings at his villa each day. Overlooking this however, I still can’t quite reconcile the switching of babies at birth as a justifiable action of Marxist revolution (let the rich be poor and the poor be rich) when the reality is that there are still the same number of rich/poor babies, who have no concept of what their life would have been anyway and who have been unnecessarily taken away from their own true parents. The futility of this gesture is played out with the stories of both Saleem and Shiva and in material terms you have to say that the rich-made-poor kid achieves a far higher station in life, although it’s not explained fully as to how.
At times I felt that perhaps there should have been more attention given to the other characters in the story – not so much for their sake, but so that there would be a better context to Saleem’s own life. That said, at two and a half hours, this is a lengthy film, so where this would come from isn’t clear. Thankfully, given the scale of the story (it starts in the early 20th century, ends in the 1970s), we have Salman Rushdie himself narrating and keeping the viewer in touch, should he/she have become a bit disconnected. Make no mistake though; this is a great film to watch and you will be able to follow it all the way through.
Deepa Mehta has created a film that looks and feels beautiful; it sent me back in time and place, easily evoking the emotions and tensions of the era and the beauty of this part of the world. Towards the end of the film when the dark times come and all of Midnight’s Children are imprisoned for insurrection, the sun simply fails to shine and it is black. Even this is poetically and subtly filmed and I think other directors would have made too much of this in a harsher and more obvious way.
There are many memorable moments, but seeing a young Saleem helping the generals plot the coup in Pakistan by moving the knives and forks and salt and pepper pots around the dinner table as tanks, soldiers and buildings around the battlefield was brilliant. There’s a positively black piece of humour when Saleem is knocked out by a silver spittoon, harking back to earlier scenes with his mother. And dancing to a Hindi version of Chubby Checker’s The Twist I loved and is as close to a Bollywood musical interlude as you’ll get. Satya Bhabha, playing Saleem, really is excellent and I felt very attached to his character and his journey. He has everything an affluent family can provide, loses it all, is beaten, humiliated, tortured, falls in love, is betrayed and still ends up happy with his lot in life. The story ends with the “circle” being completed as it were. Having invested nearly all my energy into Saleem, when the credits rolled I just breathed a big sigh of relief and was thankful for a wonderful movie.
I’ll end by giving a special mention to the musical score. Rarely, if ever have I heard such gorgeous music in a film and as sure as I am that Midnight’s Children will be nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director, plus some of the technical ones, if Nitin Sawhney doesn’t win Best Music (original score) then any hint of respect I may have for the Oscars will cease to exist.
With Satya Bhabha, Shahana Goswami, Seema Biswas