Salman Rushdie’s 1981 novel, Midnight’s Children recounts the life of a man of destiny, Saleem Sinai, born on the stroke of midnight on India’s independence day and thus “handcuffed to history” throughout his life. Deepa Mehta’s new film is, similarly, handcuffed to the novel, making it watchable without ever feeling essential. Running well over two hours, the film delivers the key events of Rushdie’s sprawling 60-year, border-hopping, tragic-comical story like a series of parade floats of key scenes, illustrating moments of whimsy and mild melodrama.
The mistake here is to aim for the scope of Rushdie’s book rather than its trickster spirit. (One can imagine Michel Gondry or Terry Gilliam tackling this material). That’s not to say that Indian-Canadian Mehta, best known for her trilogy of films about the lives of ordinary Indian women, Earth, Fire and the Oscar-nominated Water, has betrayed Rushdie’s vision. On the contrary, Rushdie wrote the screenplay, served as executive producer and offers the wryly avuncular voice-over of the protagonist, Saleem.
Rushdie has also chosen to include long introductory scenes of family history before Saleem arrives on the screen. We begin with a humorous domestic tableaux of colonial Kashmir, where Saleem’s putative grandfather, Dr. Aziz (Rajat Kapoor), gets wed to one of his patients at the end of the First World War. Later, the doctor’s adult daughter, heads to Bombay with her merchant husband, where she gives birth to a son at the magic moment of Indian independence.
A pediatric nurse, and later a nanny, Mary (Seema Biswas), in a moment of revolutionary fervour, switches the middle-class couple’s son with the child of itinerant musicians, though the actual father is cocktail-swigging British aristocrat (Charles Dance), Thus, Saleem is raised in middle-class discomfort with his drunken father and unhappy mother, while the disinherited Shiva begs with his busker father.
Moving ahead a few years to the magic part of our story, when the 10-year-old Saleem (Darsheel Safary) discovers his ability, by sniffing his nose, to summon (in soft-focus) the spirits of hundreds of children from across India, born at the hour of Indian independence. Each of the 581 surviving children possesses a special gift, though only two are important: Shiva, the boy whose life Saleem stole, is a fierce fighter, while Parvati is a spell-weaving witch. The three are intertwined again as adults in the film’s slum-set last act when Shiva (Siddharth), now a ruthless military commander, and Saleem, following six years of amnesia, become involved with the beautiful adult witch, Parvati (Shriya Saran) against the background of Indira Gandhi’s brutal emergency measures.
The struggle here is establishing drama among characters we’ve barely gotten to know. The ensemble cast, studded with Bollywood stars, offers bright performances tempered to the fable-like nature of the narrative (Rahul Bose as a vain Pakistani general is a standout), but too often, as with Biswas’s nurse, limited screen time undermines the character’s impact. By spreading itself so thin, Midnight’s Children brushes by without leaving its imprint.
Editor's Note: The film is well over two hours. Incorrect information in an earlier version of this article has been corrected.