The problem with authors adapting their own books into screenplays is that they’re often so attached to the material, it’s hard for them to yank out what doesn’t necessarily work for the film and stick to the best bits. Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie’s look at the history of India and Pakistan as illustrated through the journey of Saleem Sinai, is an unquestionably engrossing tale, but it’s impossible to squeeze it all into a two-and-a-half-hour film without it feeling like a slog.
Directed by Deepa Mehta, the film begins in Kashmir in 1917 with the charming courtship of our protagonist’s grandparents, then quickly moves to the moment of Saleem Sinai’s birth at the stroke of midnight on August 15 1947, when India receives its independence.
Just minutes after coming into the world, the boy is swapped in the hospital with another baby, and lands up in the hands of a wealthy couple (Shahana Goswami and Ronit Roy), while their child is taken home by a poor street-singer. As Saleem grows up, we travel with him from Bombay to Pakistan, to Bangladesh, and to New Delhi around the time of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency.
Saleem, incidentally, has a unique gift – by sniffling his constantly running nose, he can summon the spirits of hundreds of children who, like him, were born at the exact hour of India’s independence. Among these is Shiva (Siddharth), the Sinais’ biological son, who becomes his sworn enemy, and the spell-weaving witch Parvati (Shriya Saran) who Saleem becomes romantically involved with.
Ambitious, but perhaps too much for its own good, the film struggles to incorporate the many subplots of Rushdie’s Booker Prize-winning novel. As a result the film feels overlong and exhausting, many of the characters come off underdeveloped, and the magic-realism element of the story fails to blend seamlessly with its political and cultural sweep.
That’s a shame because the film is beautifully shot, contains charming moments of humor, and Rushdie even manages to slip some of his rich prose into the film’s voiceovers that he’s delivered himself. In explaining how Saleem’s life is metaphorically linked to the fate of the nation, Rushdie says our protagonist was "handcuffed to history".
It also helps that director Deepa Mehta draws some solid acting from her talented cast. Shahana Goswami skillfully conveys the emotional turmoil of a helpless mother, and Darsheel Safary is particularly touching in the part of young Saleem. But the most moving performance comes from Seema Biswas as the guilt-ridden Nurse Mary, who in a moment of misguided revolutionary fervor changes the destiny of our hero.
As the grown up Saleem, the relatively lesser known Satya Bhabha offers a sensitive turn, but it’s a pity that a fine actor like Siddharth is shortchanged in the half-baked part of Shiva.
Midnight’s Children has an episodic TV serial feel to it, and hits speed-bumps when you get to the clunky magic realism portions. Yet the film is never unwatchable, although your interest does begin to wane after you’ve hit the 100-minute mark.
I’m going with two-and-a-half out of five for Deepa Mehta’s Midnight’s Children. Despite the hiccups, it’s a film I recommend that you watch if you have an appetite for the unusual.