From the first ethnic twangs of the sitar on its score, one feels comfortably served by Deepa Mehta’s adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s landmark 1980 novel, the defiantly un-adaptable Midnight’s Children. Interestingly enough, it’s after protagonist Saleem is introduced about half an hour in that this safe, entertaining mediocrity becomes less than comfortable as it sours into incompetence. The first act, charting the story of Saleem’s grandparents and parents, brings no surprises, but it coasts on its quietly pretty visualization of 1917 Kashmir, decent performances, and a modicum of narrative poetry and wit that’s bolstered by Rushdie’s own affable, distinctly literary narration. But as the story moves to Delhi and the birth of its hapless hero on the night of India’s independence from Britain—which heralds the magic that so powerfully underscores the novel—Mehta seems to have no idea what to do with the monstrous scope of this tale.
Midnight’s Children follows the family tree of Saleem Sinai (an earnest Satya Bhabha, unrecognizable from his role as Matthew Patel in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World) a boy gifted with the ability to telepathically gather all of the children born on and around that fortuitous midnight with his perpetually leaky nose. This host of “midnight’s children” are all magically endowed with different powers, and Saleem struggles to direct their abilities for the good of the nation that shares their birthday. Among them is his nemesis Shiva (Siddharth), a boy born into poverty and connected to Saleem by a secret, and Parvati (Shriya Saran), a benevolent “witch” Saleem grows close to. It might sound like a South Asian take on Marvel’s superhero franchises, but the film’s closer to an extended family soap opera; talky, visually glossy to the point of colourful ugliness, and performed with histrionic sincerity. The fantasy elements of the book are handled without any sense of wonder or mystery, rendering them patently ridiculous on-screen when they resonated with mythic beauty and absurdity on the page.
The film presents the novel as seen by someone with no imagination, set in an India cobbled together from the technicolour stills in a shuttered travel agent’s office. It’s dull and insipid despite the epic oddness of the tale it tells, despite its unoriginal bursts of colour. Because of the bland prestige-sheen that coats the proceedings, the occasional outlandish image, concessions to the potential of its fantastical story, feel completely incongruous. The import of these images—including adult Shiva riding away from a nuclear test blast on a motorbike, or Prime Minister Indira Gandhi calling down a literal darkness upon India by declaring a state of emergency—is reduced to cheese by dutch angles, cheap effects, and poor composition.
As a result, Midnight’s Children has neither the magic nor the realism of the magic realist narrative it regurgitates into soft, digestible pablum for a Western audience it clearly expects little but cooing approval from. It instead falls into the curious, heightened artifice of high-school theatre—most blatantly evident in the painfully directed, soft-focus scenes of the telepathically gathered “midnight’s children,” all diversely costumed and over-emphatically illustrating their devotion to either Saleem’s pacifist optimism or Shiva’s brutal pragmatism. Decades of history and love are compressed into bloodless, passion-less Sparknotes of the same, limited by budget, Mehta’s uninspired direction, and the decision to shoot in Sri Lanka (a sadly understandable move to avoid protests in India or Pakistan, though the film’s hardly offensive to anyone). Keeping the locations in Sri Lanka leads to a very restricted visual canvas with which to evoke India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Since none of those countries actually appears in most of the film, Mehta is forced to give us the most generic location-shooting possible, painting a portrait of the subcontinent that is entirely lacking in any real sense of place. Cities like Mumbai, Agra, Delhi and Karachi are reduced to a few establishing shots of obvious landmarks followed by endless interiors and interchangeable (and suspiciously clean) slums. Since Midnight’s Children is as much about the countries it’s set in as it is about its characters, this strikes a fairly lethal blow to the film’s credibility.
Indian-born Canadian director Mehta has proven herself a commendable and courageous filmmaker in the past by taking on the conservatives and fundamentalists of India by confronting taboo topics like homosexuality, sectarian violence and the mistreatment of women in her Elements trilogy. But lauded as those films were, they showcased her good intentions more than her talents as a director. This latest feature has neither the courage nor the artistry one expects from a filmmaker whose work led to protesters storming theatres and burning posters in 1998 (in response to the portrayal of a lesbian relationship in Fire, arguably the best of the trilogy). Considering that Rushdie himself toiled for two years to help shape his novel into a screenplay with Mehta, one might expect some of the book’s subversive passion to have leaked onto the screen. Instead, his idiosyncratic modern mythification of Indian (and Pakistani, and Bangladeshi) independence is reduced to yet another opportunity for the generic cultural tourism and easy exoticism that proved so popular with Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire. The muscular tragedy and sweep of Rushdie’s original story and dialogue carries Midnight’s Children beyond the badly-written, pandering tripe of Boyle’s film (though its directorial achievements are more sturdy than Mehta’s), but only so far. Of course, Slumdog Millionare bagged Best Picture at the Academy Awards, so perhaps Mehta and Rushdie know what they’re doing. My recommendation; read the book.