Directed by Deepa Mehta
Midnight’s Children is a decades-spanning epic told in a way that only Salman Rushdie can.
Rushdie of India
For those new to Salman Rushdie’s work, his traditional mode of delivery is black-and-white, words on paper, but the images he so vividly and engagingly conjures are pure Technicolor. He delivers 4K resolution via an analog medium and it's hard to think of him as ever being a struggling artist, but that is a part of his real-life narrative as told in his elegant memoir called Joseph Anton. Yes. We’re talking about the author of The Satanic Verses, an incredible phantasm of social commentary and parody that is well worth a read before passing judgment on it.
Midnight’s Children is the book that put Salman Rushdie in the spotlight for the first time. It won the Booker prize and topped that by being named the “Booker of Bookers,” the best of the prize winners during the Booker’s first quarter century. It’s a hefty piece of reading, but Rushdie has distilled the essence in his own screenplay. And there’s something so sweetly comforting in hearing Rushdie’s voice as he serves as the movie’s narrator. That is perfect casting indeed.
To distill even further this distillation of words, think of Midnight’s Children not as an epic of an individual or a group, but rather as a biographical account of an entire nation colorfully told. The story covers roughly 60 years in India’s history. The premise starts with the nation’s birth in 1947 but backs up to 1917 for a little stage setting. From there, it’s a story of love and war that follows India’s history right on up to Indira Gandhi and 1977.
Midnight Is When the Day Begins
Midnight’s Children are those children born at the same time as the Republic of India was borne into independence in 1947. Those born close to the magical moment of midnight on August 15 were endowed with magical powers; the closer to midnight, the more powerful the capabilities. It’s a remarkably fanciful way of creating a canvas on which to paint the pains and joys of liberation.
In the broadest strokes, the story captures the elements that still simmer – and boil over – in the region. The heat between India and Pakistan continues on today As always, to understand why the world is the way it is now, it’s a matter of digging into the past. In that regard, Lawrence of Arabia equally delves into the fundamentals that led to the persistent pressures seen in the Middle East today.
As for those children, Midnight’s Children, one boy is a child of peace, named Saleem Sinai (Satya Bhabha, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World). He’s telepathic, but his ability to hear voices is of course the kind of power that borders on madness. Saleem’s polar opposite is Shiva (Siddharth, Once Upon a Warrior). Shiva’s a warmonger and a brilliant strategist.
Piling on an additional layer of complexity and commentary, Saleem and Shiva were switched at birth by a nurse swept up with radical leanings. It was her gesture to turn the tables on wealth and poverty. Saleem was born to buskers but raised by a wealthy family. Shiva was born to that same wealthy family, but put in the hands of the busker, who loses his wife during childbirth. Besides the economic disparity, the families are also worlds apart in religious ideology.
Yes. There’s plenty of meat to chew on in Midnight’s Children.
So. How does Rushdie do as a screenwriter? To quote from the novel, “nobody from Bombay should be without a basic film vocabulary.” It’s no surprise Rushdie is fairly fluent in the language of cinema. Sure, Midnight’s Children isn’t perfect, but it is an exciting piece of filmwork in its own right.
There’s no confusing Midnight’s Children with the likes of Iron Man 3 or the other summer blockbusters, but its vibrant visuals by cinematographer Giles Nuttgens (Water) and spirited story are every bit as worthy of being seen on a big screen. The book isn’t light reading and the movie is one that requires patience as the story’s richness unfolds.
The rewards for that patience are food for thought and the sharing of an artist’s point of view. But more importantly, savor the complex themes and historical touch points Rushdie stirs into the mix and then take a step back and consider all the ideas – historical, fictional, fanciful, magical – Rushdie crammed into both his novel and his screenplay.
• Originally published at MovieHabit.com.