A Film Review
By Diana Cheng
CALGARY — Midnight’s Children was the Red Carpet Opening Gala presentation at the Calgary International Film Festival.
Directed by Indo-Canadian, Oscar nominated director Deepa Mehta (Water, 2005) in close collaboration with author Salman Rushdie, the film’s screening on September 20 marked its Western Canadian premiere.
Midnight’s Children won the Booker Prize in 1981, and then in 2008 voted the Best of the Booker. While the novel is magic realism in genre, the film adaptation is a realistic, almost exact transposition of the novel into screen. Author Salman Rushdie asserts his authority in condensing 533 pages into 148 minutes of screen time, offering us a concise rendition of an epic story spanning four generations.
“It was an exercise in discovering the essence of the book,” Rushdie said in an interview on CBC radio.
The audience has much to gain not only from Rushdie adapting his own work, but also from his voiceover narration. This is especially beneficial for those who have not read the novel. Here, the narrator is speaking directly to the viewers, and not like the book narrator Saleem telling his story to Padma as the reader eavesdrops. Rushdie’s narration strings together time, places, events, emotions and nuances into coherence.
Not only is the condensing of an epic a daunting task, the actual production faced numerous hurdles in the process. Deepa Mehta had to shoot the film in Sri Lanka under another title to avoid protests, but even there were still obstacles to deal with including Iran’s pressure to stop the filming.
Mehta has proficiently brought the story to screen with relatively fast pacing, engaging us with a kaleidoscope of sights and sounds as we zip past sixty years of India’s history. From Kashmir in 1917 to Bombay 1977, it brings us through the ending of British rule, the birth of a nation, the Partition of India and Pakistan, later the war of independence of Bangladesh, and finally, the Emergency under the government of Indira Gandhi.
Amidst the torrents of history emerges the main character Saleem Sinai. The film begins with his grandfather Dr. Aziz (Rajat Kapoor) in Kashmir, examining his patient and future wife Naseem (Shabana Azmi) through a perforated sheet. Humour adds to the enjoyment of seeing the scene visualized.
Then comes the next generation of Saleem’s parents Amina (Shahana Goshwami) and her husband Ahmed Sinai (Ronit Roy), moving to Bombay, giving birth to a baby boy at the stroke of midnight, the dawn of India’s independence on August 14, 1947. But baby Saleem is a changeling with another baby born the same time, Shiva, by the hands of Mary (Seema Biswas) the nurse.
Young Saleem is played by the charming Darsheel Safary. He has an appealing and affable screen presence, brightening up the film instantly when his story comes into focus. Saleem discovers that he has the special power to summon all midnight children to appear in his mind, children born at the stroke of India’s birth.
It is interesting to see how these Midnight’s Children Conferences convene, and watch the confrontations intensify between Saleem and his rival changeling, Shiva. If there’s any line that sticks out from the movie, it is this: Wars are often fought between friends. These Conferences only mirror the adult world of governments and nations, as we see conflicts and wars unfold chronologically with Saleem being tossed in the torrents of it all.
Music adds an interesting touch to the film. Remnants of British colonial culture is reflected by Wee Willie Winkie’s (Samrat Chakrabarti) busking tunes in Methwold’s Estate as well as the hymn singing in Saleem’s boys school. We also see the change of political climate with Saleem’s sister Jamina (Soha Ali Khan) humming Indian melodies with her sweet young voice at home, but after the family moves to Pakistan, growing up to be a popular singer supported by the Pakistani leader as Saleem warns her, something doesn’t smell right. Throughout, music in the film enriches the storytelling, adding more colours to the cultural canvas.
After a forced surgery to correct his snotnose, the now adult Saleem (Satya Bhabha) gains a special power of smell, and is delighted by the smell of love. And love it is that leads him later to marry Parvati (Shriya Saran), another midnight’s child, abandoned by Shiva and pregnant with his son. It is love that prompts Saleem to raise Shiva’s child as his own. He knows full well what that means as he himself is not his parents’ son by birth. In turn, his reunion with his nanny Mary in a pickle factory later in Bombay ends with the moving moment when he acknowledges her role in raising him, addressing her as mother.
The character of Saleem carries the story affectively throughout, culminating in the final moment of love, for a son who is not his own, for a nation that has caused him pain and hardship. The last scene is another birthday of Saleem’s, thus India’s. Against the celebrative fireworks in the night sky, Saleem holds his son, a second generation of magical children, and looks out towards a brighter future, with the love that is essential to fuel the furnace of hope.
Indeed, the tone of the film is less acerbic and irreverent than the book, the two spanning a gap of 30 years. The milder cinematic version nevertheless is no less engrossing. With the realization of characters and emotions plainly in sight, it is effective in its conveyance of pathos and sentiments.
The shortfall of a 148-minute cinematic adaptation from a long, written work can be expected. The mega canvas of countless lives, deaths, and historical events in the book may appear cursory in the film and sometimes quickly wrapped up by the narration instead of being dealt with in greater depth. Nevertheless, all in all, the cinematic offering is entertaining and engaging, its characterization authentic, making it an enjoyable rendition of Rushdie’s literary work.
General Release of the film in the U.S. is October 26, 2012.
Contact Diana Cheng on Twitter @Arti_Ripples or through her blog Ripple Effects rippleeffects.wordpress.com.