Film Review – Midnight’s Children
Midnight’s Children, the new film from Deepa Mehta, based on the novel by Salman Rushdie, is a grand and epic story compacted into two and a half hours that paradoxically feels rushed and drawn out at the same time. The novel, an allegory of a country’s fractious coming of age after gaining independence from colonial rule, is full of colorful characters, impressive language, Indian slang, magical realism, ambition and sweeping scope. To try to adapt this to film seems like an exercise in futility. Mehta is only partially successful. While Rushdie’s novel had the space to create a grand cohesiveness, where one event segued into the next and a narrative momentum was achieved, Mehta’s film, in order to contain the whole of the story, jumps disjointedly forward, creating an awkward pacing that tired me after a while. But the heart is still there.
In a manner allusive to The Tin Drum—a novel which Midnight’s Children, both book and film, remind me of—the story doesn’t start with the main character, but with the grandparents. The grandfather is a doctor who one day visits the daughter of a wealthy landowner. He is allowed to view her only through a hole in a sheet, and so he begins to fall in love with each of her separate parts before he loves her fully. It is an endearing introduction. However, as stated above, this works in the novel because there is time and space to devote to such character and plot development. In the film, while it still retains its poignancy, this episode feels awkward because it seems somewhat unrelated to the rest of the narrative. We don’t meet the main character until nearly forty minutes into the film.
The process of adaptation is a process of distillation, a paring down to the most necessary parts. Novels as large and imaginative as Midnight’s Children are often deemed unfilmable, but when such adaptations are successful, the director and screenwriter take the story apart and apply an intense focus to a certain section, or play fast and loose with the conventions of filmic narrative and create a film as crazy, ambitious, and go-for-broke as the original. Neither tack was taken here. The film, though expertly made, is entirely conventional and far too reverent to the source material. This is most likely due to the fact that the script was written by Salman Rushdie himself. Subplots were cut off and some minor characters eliminated, but he did not have the scriptwriter’s intuition to condense the main narrative.
It starts with the grandparents, who meet as previously stated, and wed and give birth to three daughters, Amina, Alia, and Emerald. Amina (Shahana Goswami) marries then divorces a poet hidden in their cellar, to subsequently marry Ahmed (Ronit Roy), the protagonist’s father. And so, finally, Saleem (Satya Bhabha) enters the story. Born at the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947, Saleem is born at the exact same moment India is reborn as an independent country. Thus, he is “handcuffed” to history, his destiny entwined with that of his country’s. Saleem, initially born to a poverty-stricken accordion player, is swapped in the hospital with the child of affluent parents, an act of revolution on the part of the resident nurse (making the rich child poor and the poor child rich). On that same night, in that same hour, one thousand and one other children are born, each imbued with supernatural powers that are more powerful the closer to midnight they were born. And so the main narrative takes hold.
Everything is metaphor. And in an irritating manner, the narrator’s voiceover telegraphs this all to the audience. “We were the promises of independence,” Rushdie’s voiceover tells us. “And like all promises: made to be broken.” And at another point: “There are certain ironies that must not go unnoticed,” he says when the irony is pretty apparent. This narration is also a cheap way of fitting together all the scattered pieces of the narrative, to make a character who was that way then and this way now less of a logical inconsistency. Whenever the narration begins, it is either stating the obvious meaning of things or smoothing over a large jump in chronological time. This all helps things fit, but awkwardly so.
And because so much from the novel has been fit, many characters get little screen time. Everything is so rushed, as if this actor needs to hit this mark at this time, that there is no breathing room. A character we’ve just been introduced to performs an action for which the motivation is unclear, and so our empathy is muddled. Everything has been cut down and diluted to such a point that I began to lose interest and, though I was invested in the overall story, I kept checking my watch. The film dragged. It was exhausting. It’s really counter-intuitive for a film to feel rushed and yet drag at the same time, but there it is.
This review seems overwhelmingly negative, but I assure you it’s not. The direction is artful, the cinematography excellent, and the acting above par. This elevates the film. There are moments of sublime beauty and poignancy, but I wished these moments had been given the time they deserved. This story calls out for a long form approach, such as a trilogy of films or a miniseries. To fit such a magnificent epic into two hours is tantamount to trying to fit the ocean into a thimble. No matter how well you succeed in spirit, you’ll ultimately fail.
Final Grade: B-