Salman Rushdie’s Booker prize winning novel, Midnight’s Children, first published in 1981, was known as the “the book that was impossible to film”. Unfortunately, this has in many ways been confirmed by Deepa Mehta’s adaptation.
The usual criticism aimed at film adaptations, that they change or distort the book’s story and message, cannot be applied here however. Rushdie himself painstakingly distilled his original 600-page tome into a screenplay for the film, as well as serving as its executive producer and providing voiceover.
Running over four generations and five decades, the core plot of both novel and film centres on Saleem, a Muslim boy born in Bombay at the time of India’s independence – at midnight on 15 August 1947. Except that Saleem should have been Shiva, a beggar’s boy born at the same time. They are swapped at birth in a revolutionary act of love by their midwife, in honour of her lover’s will to “let the poor become rich and the rich become poor”.
The “magical realism” appears with Saleem’s discovery that he has telepathic powers that enable him to communicate with the 580 other children born at the same moment in India. They conduct Midnight’s Children Conferences in his head.
This serves as the allegory of nationhood: the children beautifully enact Benedict Anderson’s idea of the nation as imagined community, made up of strangers who will never meet “yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion”.
And so these children are “handcuffed to history” and to each other, their lives entwined with the fate of their homeland. We see Saleem and his family grow up in and through India’s political and historical changes including the Partition, the Pakistani military coup, wars between India, Pakistan and Bangladesh and Indira Gandhi’s suspension of democracy during the Emergency years. Saleem finds himself accidentally entangled in these events, which push the plot of love and loss along.
Although the political is used more as a plot device than a scathing probing of postcolonial India, the film has had huge problems in finding distributors in India due to the critical portrayal of Indira Gandhi (who sued Rushdie for defamation in the novel) and Rushdie’s controversial standing in India, where his Satanic Verses is still banned.
This is a visually very beautiful film which enchants with its fairytale aesthetic – though the Press Trust of India has criticised it for its exoticising “all India package” of snake charmers and happy slum dwellers. The acting by an almost all-Indian cast is engaging but overall the film struggles to condense such a long and rich story into a digestible film; the plot survives, but not much else.
The result is an episodic sweeping through of 50 years of history. Midnight’s Children is at once epic and intimate familial, but feels rushed, with a flat rhythm lacking in crescendo.
The beautifully textured and intricate story and characters of the novel – perhaps because they are woven directly into the poetry, wit and playfulness of Rushdie’s use of language – are too weak in the film. What is felt by the reader is sadly only told to the viewer, in a truncated and passing manner.
Overall, this remains a warm and endearing film with charm which is very enjoyable to watch, but only, and especially, if you’ve read the book first.
Midnight’s Children is directed by Deepa Mehta and is out on 26 December
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