Jazz, film, and improvised culture.
Midnight’s Children: Rushdie’s Novel Finally Comes to Big Screens
any garden variety financial advisor will happily pitch you a BRIC fund. However, the Indian economy was not always a
magnet for foreign capital. In fact, the
years following independence were decidedly rocky. Salman Rushdie’s 1981 Booker Prize winner served
as both an indictment of the corruption and human rights abuses India had
endured and a challenge to the nation to do better. Despite the best efforts of Iran, Rushdie’s
novel finally comes to the big screen, adapted and narrated by the author
himself. A significant cinematic event, Deepa Mehta’s Midnight’s Children (trailer here) opens this
Friday in New York.
with any self-respecting epic, Midnight begins
not with its protagonist, but with his grandparents’ generation. Saleem Sinai would
certainly seem to have Dr. Aadam Aziz’s nose, but he does not have his
grandfather’s blood. A Muslim proponent
of a unified India, Dr. Aziz harbors a fellow moderate political leader from
separatist extremists. Unfortunately, Aziz’s allies wind up on the losing side
of history, resulting in a family schism.
Saleem starts life as the son of Aziz’s daughter and an ambitious businessman,
but he was actually the child of a destitute street performer, impulsively
switched at birth by his nurse and future nanny, Mary Peirera.
and Shiva, the boy whose life he unknowingly usurped, were born at the stroke
of midnight on Independence Day, August 15, 1947. All “Midnight’s Children” have special
powers, but Sinai serves as the glue holding them together, hosting telepathic
conferences with the help of his uncanny nose.
Sinai quickly forms a bond with Parvati-the-Witch, a young girl with
real magical powers. Shiva however, is openly resentful of Sinai’s privileged
life and the sheepishness of his fellow Midnight Children. Over the succeeding decades, their fates will
become intertwined as they participate as bit players in the India-Pakistan
Wars, the creation of Bangladesh, and Indira Gandhi’s oppressive State of Emergency.
Iranian government did not want you to see this film. It is not even about Iran, but anything by
the author of The Satanic Verses is
apparently enough to send the mad mullahs into apoplexy. Fortunately, after a
92 hour shut down precipitated by the Iranian ambassador’s protests, the Sri
Lankan President decided to act civilized and allow production to
continue. The film resulting from the
necessarily rushed shoot is quite a powerful work.
very premise of the psychically linked Midnight’s Children personifying the
newly independent India has deep resonance.
When Sinai acknowledges the failure of this special generation (and
India by extension), it is a heavy moment.
As Rushdie’s surrogate, Sinai cuts through the propaganda, calling out India’s
government and society for failing to live up to its professed democratic
ideals. Yet, the film is also inspiring,
explicitly placing its hopes on the next generation to make due on the promise
of the children of 1947. From the vantage point of 2013, one could argue that
they have indeed.
Midnight’s Children, it is clear
Rushdie is not ready to forgive and forget the excesses of Indira Gandhi’s
State of Emergency. He is also highly
critical of religious fundamentalism, clearly implying it is no accident of
fate the relatively secular India routed the militantly Islamic Pakistan. Indeed, the scenes in Islamabad are nearly as
unsettling as those in Gandhi’s interrogation cells.
Bhabha has some effective moments as the adult Sinai, but it is almost too much
the allegorical everyman role for an actor to truly inhabit in a flesh and
blood way. In contrast, Siddharth
(billed simply by his first name) is a genuinely malevolent presence as Shiva
(named after the Hindu deity of destruction).
Likewise, Shriya Saran is wonderfully earthy and mysterious as
Parvati-the-Witch. Jewel in the Crown veteran
Charles Dance even lends his regal bearing as William Methwold, the
dispossessed former owner of Sinai’s early family villa. Yet, it is the author’s
warm, evocative voice that truly sets the tenor of the film.
For obvious reasons, Midnight’s Children will be a difficult film for many critics and
commentators to get their heads around.
Yet, the magical realist trappings illuminate rather than obscure the country’s
awkward Twentieth Century history.
Frankly, the Raj does not always look so bad, compared to some of what follows. While the one hundred forty-six minute
running feels just a tad long, Mehta wrangles decades of subtly fantastical
material into a logical and accessible narrative. Highly recommended, Midnight’s Children opens this Friday (4/26) in New York at the
Angelika Film Center downtown and the Beekman uptown.
Labels: Deepa Mehta, Salman Rushdie