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Midnight’s Children

My review of Midnight’s Children or anything else — is not to be taken too seriously, for more often than not I find myself in a minority of one. Still, for what it is worth, I absolutely loved the film.

Just going through the notes I made sitting in a darkened cinema hall when I first saw Midnight’s Children last October at the London Film Festival, I have to admit I can’t read my shorthand back. But no matter. I remember a Sri Lankan journalist coming out of the Leicester Square Odeon and summing up what he felt in one word: “Wonderful!”.... My sentiments exactly.

I do hope this Calcutta ban on Salman Rushdie is only temporary and that his visit to your city and mine is merely postponed. It is claimed the authorities acted to prevent “the minority community” from being offended. But as we say in the pub here in London, “Look mate, this is your movie.” Go and see the film and you will understand what I mean. I suspect when you finally get to meet Rushdie, you will shake him warmly by the hand and buy him a double helping of mishti doi with an extra portion of gulab jamun thrown in. And if you still disagree with me, I will compensate you by distributing free DVDs of Delhi Belly.

Generally speaking, an author shouldn’t do the screenplay of his own novel but this is an exceptional case. Only Rushdie could have adapted a book with a cast seemingly of thousands, getting to the heart of the story and taking viewers through the many twists and turns of contemporary Indian history. He does so from the moment Saleem Sinai (Darsheel Safary/Satya Bhabha) and Shiva (Siddharth) are born — and switched at the stroke of the midnight hour in Dr Narlikar’s Nursing Home in Bombay just as India achieves freedom.

In sticking up for Midnight’s Children, when others more knowledgeable about the deeper meaning of cinema have been lukewarm, I am not being deliberately perverse. The moment Rahul Bose struts in as General Zulfi, he is superb. I don’t think Rahul has done anything better. It is worth the ticket price just to hear him announce to his accompanying junior officer that he is going to marry Emerald, the very pretty girl he has just met — and Anita Majumdar as Emerald is quite a find.

Pakistani generals, watching pirated copies of Midnight’s Children over a bottle or two of single malt, will be cross with the way they have been depicted. On the other hand, they may chuckle over the surrender scene at the end of the 1971 Bangladesh civil war.

We see Gen. Zulfi handing over his ceremonial sword to “Sonny”, Gen. Arora of India. The latter merely blesses the proffered sword before consoling Zulfi: “Good, that’s that... I am sorry for your losses in the battle, Zulfi.” Zulfi: “Thank you, sir.”

Arora pushes forward Shiva, wearing dark glasses and with hair slicked down as the archetypal Bollywood villain, as “our most decorated officer — he fought quite a battle”! Zulfi: “Good show, major.”

It could have been almost a game of cricket, the voiceover by Rushdie suggests. “When Gen. Zulfikar surrendered to his old friend, Gen. Arora of India, Pakistan also lost more than half its population who became citizens of Bangladesh... in those days all our wars were fights between friends.”

Cinematically, the section that doesn’t work deals with the Emergency — it’s much too long and tortured with Indira Gandhi reduced to a harsh caricature. That said, although Rahul is outstanding, there are many other excellent performances, among which I will pick that of Seema Biswas as the nurse Mary Pereira; Ronit Roy as Saleem Sinai’s disciplinarian father, Ahmed Sinai; and Anupam Kher as Ghani whose daughter is examined by a doctor through holes in a sheet.

Midnight’s Children is a book written from the heart — perhaps it is the most important book to come out of India since Independence. There must be a reason why it won the Booker Prize in 1981 and the Booker of Bookers, that is the best Booker, after 25 years and then 40 years of the prize being instituted. I hope the film will encourage cinemagoers in Calcutta and elsewhere either to read or re-read Midnight’s Children.

Midnight’s cChildren (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