For Salman Rushdie, modesty must be something that troubles other people. “I am very proud of this film,” reads his glowing endorsement on the posters for Midnight’s Children, a film that Rushdie has spent two years faithfully adapting from his own 1981 Booker Prize-winning magic-realist novel.
As well as acting as scriptwriter, he also served as executive producer and selected the director, Deepa Mehta, an Indian filmmaker best known for her Elements trilogy (Fire, Earth and Water; 1996-2005). He was heavily involved in the casting process too, and performs the role of narrator, who may well have more lines of dialogue than any other character. What Rushdie means is, “I am very proud of my film,” and there is nothing like authorial micro-management for turning a literary adaptation into a sludgy and tedious vanity project.
Midnight’s Children tells the story of Saleem Sinai, played as a boy by Darsheel Safary and as a young man by Satya Bhabha. Saleem is born in Bombay to a pauper family at the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947: the day India became an independent nation. He and Shiva (Purav Bhandare), a child born to wealthier parents, are switched at birth by a nurse whose interpretation of the maxim “let the rich be poor and the poor rich” is slightly over-literal.
Over two and a half bottom-punishing hours we watch Saleem grow up, from a boyhood of post-colonial comfort to more troubled teenage years in Pakistan, Bangladesh and New Delhi. Saleem’s path to maturity intertwines with Shiva’s, and his growing pains mirror those of his country. And here is where the magic comes in: Saleem discovers he is telepathically connected to the other children born in the first hour of India’s Independence, and in late-night seances their spirits descend on his bedroom.
Unfortunately, these scenes play out like meetings of a ghostly high-school drama club, with each spectral member doomed to overplay their single line or gesture for all eternity. Meanwhile, in the background we hear the unstintingly tinkly score by Nitin Sawhney, who never met a glissando he didn’t like.
Here is the problem: Rushdie is an accomplished and experienced writer — of books. This, however, is his first screenplay, and his novelistic approach to storytelling has resulted in an unfocused, meandering script. Like a bad Dickens adaptation, the characters lack inner lives, and their movements from one scene to the next feel like a game of narrative join-the-dots.
Rushdie also (and this is quite sweet before it gets annoying) has absolutely no idea when to pipe down and let the actors and cameras do their job. His earnest voiceover over-explains the plot to the point of redundancy. Watching Midnight’s Children often feels like Rushdie is sitting beside you in the cinema, forever grinning hopefully and nudging you in the ribs.
Why didn’t Mehta rein in her collaborator? Did she dare, or care? India is a voguish destination for English and American directors, and Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited (2007), Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire (2008) and John Madden’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2012) are three recent films with a rapturous outsider’s eye-view of the subcontinent.
To an extent Mehta apes them all, but Midnight’s Children and its visual engagement with India should have transcended the touristic. The New Delhi section in particular feels like a Slumdog pastiche: we’re in the gutter looking at the sitars.
Considering Midnight’s Children is bound up in notions of identity, it is faintly disastrous that this adaptation should be so lacking in one of its own.
Midnight’s children (a)
Director: Deepa Mehta
Cast: Satya Bhabha, Rahul Bose, Siddharth, Shriya Saran, Soha Ali Khan, Shahana Goswami, Seema Biswas, Ronit Roy, Anupam Kher, Darsheel Safary
Running time: 146 minutes