Dir: Deepa Mehta
There is a good reason why Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude has not been made into a film.Garcia has wisely not sold the film rights to that magnificent book. Ergo, a film based on Salman Rushdie’s iconic magic realism infused 1981 novel Midnights Children is reason for mild alarm.That it is being directed by the controversial Deepa Mehta is a further surprise and when Rushdie decides to write the screenplay, executive produce and provide a voiceover, one is very intrigued indeed.
A book with a jacket adorned with the legend ”Now a Major Motion Picture” is a very blessed book indeed.But Deepa Mehta’s film may sell few copies of the book, unlike say Life of Pi.I read the book as a teenager and it left me reeling with the inventiveness of its language.While literary novels make us do the heavy lifting of creating the images in our head, cinema spoon-feeds us the images and asks us to interpret and assimilate them.
The film starts in Kashmir at the beginning of the 20th century on a Kama Sutraesqe note with a shy doctor reaching through a hole in a bedsheet to examine an exposed breast.He is allowed to see only the affected part of the body.Finally the phantom illness prone girl decides to have a headache and they get married.They are the grandparents of Salim Sinai( Satya Bhaba), the hero of the film who is born at the stroke of the midnight, the exact moment of India’s independence.The story of his grandparents Dr Aziz ( Rajat Gupta) and his grandmother Naseem (Shabana Azmi) is charming and quirky.When Saleem Sinai does tumble forth into the world its not from the womb of their romantic daughter Amina (Shahana Goswami) but that of a street singer who dies during childbirth.In the tumult of a nations birth, a socialist nurse Mary (Seema Biswas) decides to switch the children and the child of the Sinai’s is raised in poverty and grows up to become Shiva (Siddhartha).
The young Saleem Sinai has a privileged south Bombay life but starts to hear strange voices in his head. They belong to his fellow midnights children who were also born around midnight on independence day and each is bestowed with supernatural powers. Saleem and Shiva are the most powerful since they were born on the exact stroke of midnight and are natural adversaries but Saleem alone can summon a meeting of the gang by sniffing on his huge snot filled nose. The scenes involving the magical midnights children are handled competently but unimaginatively. Rushdie`s lush voiceover tries to sprinkle some fancy prose over them but the treatment of these key scenes remain unsatisfactory.
When the swap at birth is discovered, Saleem is packed off to Pakistan to live with his uncle, General Zia (Rahul Bose).Hanging on Zia’s coat-tails Saleem will play a part in the creation of Bangladesh. He grows up sniffing and brainstorming with his fellow midnights children to find higher purpose but all he manages to do is earn Shivas wrath.He come back to India a confused young man. Suddenly emergency is declared and Indira Gandhi is told by her astrologer that these magical midnights children pose a threat to her and she orders them all executed. Here was an opportunity to glimpse Indira Gandhi on screen but Ms Mehta royally squanders it by portraying her as a raving caricature.Sinai gets picked up and beaten by the CID which comprises the on screen duo of Ranvir Shorey and Vinay Pathak, one of the few examples of inspired casting in this film.
Midnights Children is adapted by Rushdie for the screen and the screenplay is the undoing of the film. It yielded footage running into several hours and it seems the editing team just gave up after paring it down to 145 minutes.Magic does happen when Shabana Azmi smiles as she eavesdrop on the dreams of her three unmarried daughters.This enigmatic smile is one singular moment of cinematic triumph when the image becomes more powerful than the written word.The film is not totally devoid of magic and has many beautiful compositions and stunning imagery.The Sri Lankan locations look gorgeous and the music will surely please Indian audiences, which makes the film watchable for the most part.
Rushdie’s 1981 novel captured the disappointment Indians felt through the seventies but there is no bridge from that time to the present in this film. It ends on a note of hope with the lifting of the emergency but the midnights children are old men now.I am myself a child of the emergency, conceived and born during that dark chapter in India’s history.Indeed my generation has been the direct beneficiary of a resurgent India as we stepped into adulthood in the mid nineties. Nehru’s tryst with destiny has come a full circle for most of India’s youth for whom a much better life than their parents is a reality.
Deepa Mehta and Salman Rushdie scratch each others back feverishly on this project, Rushdie has not written a great novel in a long time and desperately needs to be in the limelight to promote his memoirs which focus on his fatwa days and Deepa Mehta is search of a bigger profile. Both love controversies and have perfected the art of playing victims. Saleem Sinai would be 66 years old now and no doubt be sipping single malts in Bombay Gymkhana and his son would be Wall Street banker.The midnights children who have been excluded from this party can be found in the films of Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, Adoor Gopalakrishan and Girish Kasaravalli.
Categories: World Cinema