By Shamain Nisar
Deepa Mehta is a Canadian Indian filmmaker and screenwriter. Her artistic films and style of storytelling have turned her into one of the first names that come to mind when asked who the leading women in cinema are. Her work ranges from humorous films belonging to mainstream Bollywood/Hollywood, to the critically acclaimed element series: Earth, Water and Fire. Her most recent project entailed bringing to life Salman Rushdie’s 1981 novel, Midnight’s Children.
Midnight’s Children is an interesting mix between historical events surrounding the India-Pakistan partition and magical elements. The story, mainly centered around Saleem Sinai (Satya Bhabha), first takes us two generations back in time, introducing us to the world of Saleem’s grandfather, Dr.Aziz (Rajat Kapoor). Dr. Aziz had fallen in love with a patient, Naseem (Shabana Azmi), he had only seen parts of from behind a veil, and eventually ends up marrying her. We then move on, following the lives of their three daughters: Aliya, Emerald (married to army man Zulfiqar, played by Rahul Bose) and Mumtaz (Shahana Goswami), Saleem’s future mother. Mumtaz initially marries Nadir, a poet taking refuge in their underground cellar from the anti-freedom extremists, but later ends up divorced and re-marrying businessman Ahmed Sinai (Ronit Roy). Their son, Saleem, is born at midnight, on August 14th 1947, when the country is celebrating its independence. On that same night, he is exchanged with a street singer’s son, born at the same time, by the nurse, Mary (Seema Biwas), who later becomes a nanny at the Sinais’ house in an attempt to relieve her own guilt. Saleem discovers, at age 10, that he has some magical powers though which he is connected with children all over the country, children born at the hour of midnight on August 14th. We then see Saleem’s life unfold with the historical events as background, always connected to the other children of midnight.
What is admirable about this movie is that unlike many adapted films, it does not have a feeling of disconnect. Usually, when a book is transformed to fit the screen, it can sometimes seem as if blocks of story had been put together while major chunks had gone missing, making it impossible for a person who hadn’t read the book to fully understand it, and leaving those who had read it, unsatisfied. The movie adaptation of Midnight’s Children feels complete on its own, which must be, in part, because Salman Rushdie himself has been a part of the writing process. On the downside, due to the length of the novel, the film runs for 148 minutes, which is a little long for this critic’s taste.
The film also boasts an incredible ensemble cast, which only enhances the viewing pleasure; veterans like Shabana Azmi and Anupam Kher, though in small roles, are a delight to watch, and the younger cast members match the standards set by the veterans quite respectably. Satya Bhabha, who plays Saleem, in particular, gives a satisfying performance which, coupled with his striking facial features – the big mouth and the phased out doe eyes, truly captures the atmosphere of the story’s protagonist. It is interesting to see the fantasy element of the film roll out against the stark realities and destruction of the partition, and through the birth of the two new countries as this story weaves its way through India, Pakistan and then back to India again.
Overall, Midnight’s Children makes for an intense, rewarding watch, something everyone should see at least once. It may seem a bit long, but the cast and ambiance definitely make up for it. Deepa Mehta has done a commendable job at bringing a 600 page novel to the screen without hacking it up to a point where it loses its integrity.
Film Critic Shamain Nisar is a member of The Missing Slate’s Film Team.