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Review: Midnight’s Children

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Deepa Mehta’s films have become widely revered for their unflinching depiction of just how harsh the life in colonial India used to be. As such, it seemed appropriate for her to helm the adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s quasi-historical novel Midnight’s Children since both Rushdie and Mehta seem to share a similar outlook when it comes to colonial India — that of a beautiful, but very harsh land where only few get to enjoy its many gifts, while the rest remain poor and oppressed. However, while Mehta’s films tend to stick to realism and historical accuracy, Rushdie’s books often do the opposite — they mix reality with fantasy. Perhaps that is the reason why Mehta’s adaptation of Midnight’s Children is not quite as impressive as it should be.

The film follows the story of Saleem Sinai (Sataya Bhabha) who was born at midnight — and the exact moment India became independent. As a result, he was born with telepathic powers and a huge, dripping nose. The title of the film refers to the children born at that fateful moment. Saleem remains in contact with them via his telepathy.

Just like the book, the film can be looked at as consisting of three different parts. The first part follows the story of the Sinai family, which culminates with Saleem’s birth and his misfortune (or fortune?) of being switched at birth to be part of the Sinai family. The second part of the film deals with Saleem’s formative years as he learns to control his special powers and slowly uncovers the truth behind his past. In the third and most confusing part of the film, Saleem finds himself journeying aimlessly until he finally gets to meet some of the “midnight’s children” in person.

There is quite a bit of magic going on in the film, and its influence on the plot and characters only increases as the narrative progresses. But whereas the novel weaves history and magic together seamlessly to form an almost mythical tale of India’s rebirth, the film simply fails to do the same — and what we get is a narrative so disjointed and incomprehensible that any sort of poignancy goes completely unnoticed.

The last part of the film is particularly troublesome — since that is when magic begins to play a truly big role. Now there is absolutely nothing wrong with having magic as part of a narrative, but there is a problem with failing to introduce it in an organic manner, which is exactly what happens in this adaptation. Early on, the film subtly hints at magic’s existence by “revealing” that Saleem possesses telepathic abilities, but those abilities just make Saleem seem crazy rather than someone with special powers. Aside from that, most of the movie is “magic-free” — until the final act. Yes, close to the end, the movie suddenly dumps a whole bucket of magical characters, happenings, and contrivances without even a hint as to how any of this nonsense works. At that point, the story just stops making any sense.

The major problem with Midnight’s Children, however, is not even its nonsensical narrative, but the fact that it tries to be too many things at once without ever establishing a solid identity of its own. It jumps constantly from one genre to the next — from a romantic comedy to a historical war drama to a fairy tale, and so on. Now, there are films that have mixed various genres together successfully — like Tim Burton’s 2003 fantasy film The Big Fish and Darren Aronofsky’s 2000 drama Requiem for a Dream — but those films had an all-encompassing vision that brought all the seemingly unrelated pieces into one. In the case of Midnight’s Children, there is no singular vision to keep everything together, which is why the film is just a huge mess with many underdeveloped ideas.

In spite of this lack of cohesion, Midnight’s Children still manages to showcase some rather impressive performances. Mehta was absolutely right to cast Sataya Bhabha as the film’s protagonist Saleem Sinai. He imbues the character with so much youthful vulnerability and internal pain that it is almost impossible not to sympathize with him. The same goes for Seema Biswas as Saleem’s guilt-ridden nanny and nurse — the one who performs the abovementioned baby switch.

On the technical level, Midnight’s Children fairs rather well too. The look and feel of colonial India is re-recreated perfectly — thanks to wonderful costume and set designs as well as top-notch cinematography. If there is one thing this movie is successful at, it is immersing the audience in the time period and culture of colonial India.

However, as good as the acting and technical aspects are, they cannot save Midnight’s Children from feeling terribly underwhelming. Its narrative lacks cohesion, while its central theme (I’m not even sure what it is) fails to make an impact. As a result, Midnight’s Children is not the sort of movie that I can fully recommend. If you are a big Mehta fan, then give this one a try, but you have been warned!

Rating: C-

By: Taras Trofimov