For many years Midnight’s Children, the Booker of Bookers and Salman Rushdie’s second-best known novel, stumbled uncertainly on the road to a cinematic adaptation. Through international storms and fatwa shaped holes in the world it was looking likely for a time that the promised land of a BBC mini-series would be journey’s end. Sadly permission to film was denied and more years lay ahead until Deepa Mehta and David Hamilton offered the film adaptation a home and so thirty-one years after it was published the story of Saleem Sinai, the wicked Shiva and Parvati the Witch is now retold on the big screen.
Rushdie adapted his own generation spanning tale of civil war, the fight for independence, days of darkness and the allure of a well made jar of pickles. The story is a feast of internal and external families, of occupation and exile, of magic and dark times and in maintaining the flurry of characters and confluence of situations some of the magic is lost.
Director Deepa Mehta has done a good job in bringing the images Rushdie conjures (and narrates) to the big screen, the design is understated but intensely detailed and there are moments of genuine triumph.Rushdie’s world blooms onscreen thanks to some wonderful production and costume design and there are standouts to the ensemble cast, notably Shahana Goswami as the unageing mother of Saleem, our hero and, literally, the born leader of the Midnight’s Children.
Aligning the fates of the thousand members of the titular group to the fate of India is a very strong foundation from which the story flourishes on the page but not from the film. The compromises made with the narrative don’t allow us to connect with each of the characters as much as we need to for the events, tragic and uplifting both, to shake us and this is only occasionally so. Quite rightly though the film never feels grounded and with the border switching and homeland exile, as well as the shifting political sands, this feels right however the central element of the hunt for the magical children is relegated to the shadows of the story. The days of darkness and the circus players at the parade following the surrender are beautifully rendered and there is much to enjoy on the surface here, and perhaps this is only natural considering the adaptation process where things are lost and gaps are created, and only sometimes bridged.
Bereft of Rushdie’s bejewelled prose Mehta places her faith in the cast and they are all very solid performances, however the necessary temporal and spatial jumps in the narrative let us loose when they occur and there is a cool distancing effect which creeps in as the film goes on. As an adaptation of a classic book it fares very well, as a film on its own terms it suffers from its faith to the whole story. And love – there is a tangible feeling that everyone involved was in love with the story and it perhaps made the creative process one of compromise.