Directed by Deepa Mehta. Starring Satya Bhabha, Shahana Goswami, Rajat Kapoor, Shabana Azmi 12A cert, limited release, 146 mins
Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children is a grand, sprawling allegorical take on India’s troubled transition from British colony to modern democracy. Its hero, Saleem Sinai, is one of the children born at midnight on August 15, 1947. His arrival at the precise moment of the handover leaves him, and others born at the same instant, with supernatural abilities.
The 1980 novel is defined by magic realism, a tone that seldom sits comfortably on the big screen. And the film of the book is defined by voiceover, provided by the author himself, as a desperate, bridging device across the source’s many settings.
Budgetary constraints tell throughout Deepa Mehta’s adaptation. The director and her cinematographer, Giles Nuttgens, keep their tableaux close and their framing closer, but clever design can’t atone for the lack of grandeur. Every crowd scene looks like too few extras throwing Peter Shilton-sized shapes; every action sequence is uncomfortably boxed.
It doesn’t help that the screenplay, by Rushdie and Mehta, is far too inclusive and referential toward a source text that requires slashing and pruning into an X-Men: Caltech Class shape if it’s ever going to work as a movie. Many have pointed toward the close involvement of the author, with some wags suggesting that he even wrote the music.
To be fair, Rushdie’s narration is plenty entertaining and provides enough incident to keep us involved for a sizable 146-minute duration. The central performances are charming, the intergenerational soap opera (two boys, one rich, one poor, swapped at birth, etc), is strong and, as a primer for 20th-century Indian history, Midnight’s Children provides a fine set of cheat notes.
More than 30 years after the book’s publication, Rushdie’s anger over Indira Gandhi’s “Emergency” has lost none of its potency. It’s enough fire to keep Midnight’s Children warmed up when, unhappily, the historical material and epic source demand to blaze across the screen.