A film as overburdened with ideas, characters and plot as its protagonist’s enormous nose is full of snot, Midnight’s Children is an ambitious adaptation of the much-garlanded 1981 novel by Anglo-Indian writer Salman Rushdie.
It’s a post-colonial parable about two boys, one rich, one poor, who are swapped soon after the moment of their births at the very moment English rule in India finished in 1947. Though there’s a flashback leading up to those events, our main man for the meat of the narrative is Saleem Sinai (the so-so Satya Brabha); a big-nosed lad with telepathic tendencies who is thrown from pillar to post across a host of key historical moments in his country’s history. It’s like Cyrano de Bergerac playing Forrest Gump in an episode of Quantum Leap.
Rushdie’s behemoth proves an awkward one to adapt. The author (alongside director Deepa Mehta) was responsible for condensing the 600-page novel into an 130-page script, and the compressed nature of the narrative really shows. Entire eras are sprinted through in a matter of moments, while various characters are introduced and frequently disappear without trace. Amid all the clashing tones, there’s even a Bollywood insert! To tie things together, there’s a self-satisfied, fiercely literal narration (delivered by Rushdie himself) which is meant to be Saleem, but doesn’t really reflect the character we’re seeing on screen. Instead it sounds very much like an author imposing himself on his own work.
There are issues with the adaptation other than structural ones. On the page, magical realism is the reader’s friend, allowing us to conceptualise mysterious happenings with the unfettered creativity of our mind’s eye. On the page, a boy with a massive nose could be a fantastically grotesque creation. On screen, it’s not remotely magical, it’s just a bit silly, not to mention annoying (all that snuffling)! Similarly, the scenes with all the “midnight’s children” gathered together in Saleem’s head lack the verve that they should. Instead of vibrant, chilling visions, the director has just stuck a bunch of kids in a room, slathered vaseline on the lens and turned up the lighting.
However, despite its messy nature and (very) long running time, Midnight’s Children is never boring. It’s not the epic it wants to be, but it has a certain sweep thanks to the sheer range of locations, and it is full of spirit, local colour and intriguing musical choices. Thematically, it’s a bold attempt to tell the story of a crucial period in Indian history (even if it minimises real pain and terror into quick scenes and soundbites), but overall it’s an inessential adaptation of a classic book which does those themes much greater justice.
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