Early reviews of Deepa Mehta’s adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s masterpiece, “Midnight’s Children,” have obsessively focused on the issue of the book-to-screenplay adaptation — once believed to be a near impossibility in this instance The teeming cross-currents of characters and events from that boisterous novel, according to these critics, either baffle or fail to engage the viewer.
I do wonder how many of these critics hastily read the novel just prior to seeing the film, then lectured Mehta and Rushdie, who adapted his own novel to the screen, on why it was wrong to leave in — or leave out — this or that subplot.
For that is the time-honored tradition we critics perform when confronted with iconic or well-know books newly translated into a movie: The rush to read and the instant literary expertise thereby gained.
A true confession: I have read some of Rushdie novels and stories long ago but find him a challenge, much in the way James Joyce is a challenge with magical thinking and endless word play in many languages. I did begin “Midnight’s Children” many years ago and fully intend to go back and finish it.
Rushdie himself narrates the film, which is told from the point of view of Saleem, a boy born at the very stroke of midnight when India earned its independence from Britain in 1947. Early scenes introduce the boy’s grandfather, Dr. Aziz (Rajat Kapoor), his wife and three daughters.
The doctor and his family are Muslims living in India, and the film captures the tensions that led to the partition of the British Raj into India and Pakistan and, later, the creation of a third country, Bangladesh. Yet “Midnight” is less a historical tract or political story than a fairy tale about babies switched at birth and a group of children with magical powers.
At this point, film unfolds at a pace that is quick yet unhurried. You meet characters, experience events both domestic and historical and start to understand the problems and foibles of a family that wants to see itself as Indian after Partition despite the best efforts of the government and Hindus to make them think otherwise.
(Such are the sectarian tensions and international sensitivities that still surround these events and the controversial figure of Rushdie, the film had to be shot to be shot almost entirely in Sri Lanka under a fake title and even then was shut down for 92 hours because Iran protested to that country about hosting a film production associated with Rushdie.)
The film acquires a genuine protagonist only when Saleem has grown up. Satya Bhabha, a British-born and Yale-trained actor who is of Indian heritage, assumes the role. Bhabha has about him an aura of sweetness and tenderness that suits a character “handcuffed to history,” as Rushdie puts it.
The secret about Saleem, known only to Mary (veteran actress Seema Biswas), his “ayah” (nanny), is that he is not his parent’s child. Mary, in an act of political rebellion influenced by a revolutionary lover soon dead, switched their baby, a rich man’s son as it were, for a baby born to a poor street performer named Wee Willie Winkie.
The rich man’s baby, named after the Hindu god Shiva, grows up bitter and impoverished. Saleem and Shiva’s paths will cross more than once over the many years of conflict between India and Pakistan and between Hindus and Muslims.
The most extraordinary thing about their lives as well as other children born within an hour after independence, is their magical power. They are Indian “X-Men,” if you will, only Rushdie conceives them for metaphoric purposes rather than as super heroes.
Having been born on the stroke of midnight, Saleem possesses the most powerful magic. Indeed only he can convene a telepathic congress of Midnight’s Children that includes an surly, roughneck Shiva and the exotic sorcerer Parvati.
So our hero has his own nemesis, Shiva (played by the South Indian and Hindi star Siddharth), and love interest, Parvati (a major actress in South India, the luminous Shriya Saran). Their star-crossed relations over the years touch on the events and seismic power shifts on the subcontinent extending through the tyrannical “Emergency” declared by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
A two-film adaptation of the book — one that was considered but abandoned when financing could not be found — may have allowed a deeper and more resonant development of the latter stages of Rushdie’s story.
In a single film, the rush toward the climax causes an audience to lose track of what is important especially when it comes to Midnight’s Children, those magical beings who represent the best hopes and dreams of Indian independence that are never completely realized.
This is a loss but not a great one for much of the story remains including the charming period where Saleem and Parvati live in the Magician’s Ghetto in New Delhi amid circus performers, fire-eaters, and the snake charmer Picture Singh (Kulbushan Kharbanda).
The actors deliver meticulous and often playful performances that capture their characters’ quirks with inner smiles. Such is the vitality of Indian cinema in its many manifestations, its actors are among the world’s finest and few films show this off better than “Midnight’s Children.”
The richness of Giles Nuttgens’ lush cinematography and Dilip Mehta’s vibrant production design cause the past to come alive in pulsating colors and enchanting details. The movie is an eye-fill. Nitin Sawhney’s sweeping score is another major asset.
Despite the fact the director is a North American (Mehta lives in Toronto), I fear “Midnight’s Children” may fail to get traction on this continent. It isn’t helping that American critics are mostly expressing bewilderment or a disconnect from the film.
Their reviews mostly reflect an unawareness that the movie, like the novel, is an allegory for India’s progress or lack thereof in the years since independence, as exemplified by Midnight’s Children, all of whom seemed destined for a greatness never achieved.
Opens: May 5, 2013 (Paladin and 108 Media)
Production companies: Hamilton-Mehta Midnight Productions in association with Number 9 Midnight Films
Cast: Satya Bhabha, Shahana Goswami, Rajat Kapoor, Seema Biswas, Shriya Saran, Siddharth, Ronit Roy, Rahul Bose, Charles Dance
Director: Deepa Mehta
Screenwriter/narrator: Salman Rushdie
Based on the novel by: Salman Rushdie
Producer: David Hamilton.
Director of photography: Giles Nuttgens
Production designer: Dilip Mehta
Music: Nitin Sawhney
Costume designer: Dolly Ahluwalia
Editor: Colin Monie
No rating, 140 minutes