|Salman Rushdie, Shriya Saran, Deepa Mehta and Staya Bhabha
at the UK premiere of MIDNIGHT'S CHILDREN
Oh dear. Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children is a wonderful book - vibrant, mysterious, magical, all-encompassing, particular. There is a richness in the text and an elegance of phrase that not only won it the Booker Prize of that year, but also the Booker's Booker and the Best of Booker. It is, then, judged by the English literary establishment to be the best novel published in the last 40 years. To adapt such a novel might be assumed to be a daunting task, and although many were relieved to see that Rushdie himself had taken on that role, I suspect that it is one of the reasons this movie fails.
For the movie feels almost too tame, too faithful to the key plot points of the book, and yet entirely missing its mischievous magic and political wisdom. I suspect that a more independent screenwriter might have had more luck taking a fresh perspective. Maybe a director like Joe Wright with his bold (if ultimately over-powering) theatre-conceit for his recent ANNA KARENINA could've matched Rushdie's daring style. Maybe Wes Anderson could've brought that sense of childhood magic to the film? And we will shortly see if Ang Lee has better luck with his adaptation of the heavily magic realist, THE LIFE OF PI. Instead, what we get with this adaptation is a lusciously filmed, rather stickily sentimental, aimless movie, that gets us from A to B, from the 1920s to the 1970s, with faltering energy, pace and interest. It is, sadly, a failure.
The movie tells the story of a boy called Saleem Sinai, born in 1947 on the stroke of midnight as India gains her independence. He is raised as a prosperous Indian Muslim, but is sent to Pakistan, where he sees first hand the military coup and the war that saw Pakistan forfeit Bangladesh. He returns to Mumbai a slum dweller, suffers through Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's Emergency, before finally creating a kind of family of misfits. Such a plot makes the book sound much simpler than it really is, of course. For Saleem is an imposter - a baby switched at birth with another "midnight's child" - a boy called Shiva who will grow to become a gangster and an Army officer - the dark backing of Saleem's life. Furthermore, all of the "midnight's children", born at India's independence have magical powers, but Saleem's are the greatest, because he can summon them all in a kind of mystical conference.
There are small delights in this film - the prologue which tells of how Saleem's grandparents met in Kashmir is beautifully told - thanks largely to a superb cameo performance from Rajat Kapoor. Darsheel Safary was enchanting as the young Saleem, perplexed at his "father"'s sudden rejection and his cold upbringing by the hilarious Major Zulfikar (Rahul Bose). But as Saleem becomes an adult the movie loses all its energy and pace. I don't think that's the fault of the casting - just the rather 1066 And All That approach to the storytelling - history as a series of disjointed events whose meaning and context we don't really understand. In other words, the tragedy of this film is that it has transformed a history of India that was numinous and magical and rich and textured into something rather plodding and banal.
MIDNIGHT'S CHILDREN played Telluride, Toronto and London 2012 and opens in the USA and Canada on Oct 26th. The running time is 148 minutes.