Writing on the perils of adapting novels into films in 2009, Salman Rushdie noted a few rules: the best films are those where the source material is no masterpiece; the less the viewer knows of the original the better; it’s best when a film is allowed to become its own animal. Directed by Deepa Mehta, this adaptation of Midnight's Children seems to ignore all of the above: it’s hard to enter the film without any prior knowledge of what is Rushdie’s best work and with the author also in charge of the screenplay (as well as narration and serving as executive producer), the odds of him not being overly slavish are probably slim.
Sure enough, this doesn’t put an entirely new spin on the story, stuck on ensuring all plot essentials are perfectly replicated, which makes the film unable to become something new. But to Rushdie’s credit, even when the end result is a visual cliff notes for the novel, the sheer magnitude of the story means this is still deserving of attention.
Telling the story of partition – a subject Mehta already tackled in the Earth part of her elements trilogy, Midnight's Children is an allegory for the political and social upheaval of the events that led to and from 1947, told through the parallel lives of two babies switched at birth. One child, Shiva, is destined to poverty as the son of a street musician. The other, Saleem, gets to live a life in an ex-colonial’s mansion. They are metaphors for India’s fractured history and dreams - Shiva is aggressive, cynical and prone to violent urges, while the tolerant Saleem is anxious but peaceful, and has visions of children born on the same night he was.
With Shiva allowed only cameos and Saleem carrying the film, it never gets fully to grips with its nature vs nurture premise.
Ironically, Midnight's Children most resembles Merchant Ivory's Raj epics, the films Rushdie had earlier criticized. The film has a buttoned up air and parched patina, while Rushdie as narrator immediately sets a tone as affectionate as it is gently mocking of Muslim and Indian customs.
Characters serve up a comprehensive spectrum of Indian archetypes, not to mention complexion and physiognomy, a pleasing change from fair and lovely Bollywood. You have the favouritism of sons, fathers who drink away feelings of failure, pressure on children to achieve academically, sadistic teachers with god complexes, pre-ordained fate, and of course, noses – sinus trouble has never had such fantastical dimensions. Say what you want about Rushdie, but he understands the milieu.
Sex is rarely straightforward, though the difference between Saleem’s grandmother and his mother’s generation could be seen to reflect some relaxing of attitudes. His grandmother refuses to “move” in bed like those promiscuous foreign women; his own mother and aunt are less prim.
This is a world where love is felt deeply, often impulsively, but sex is nearly always fraught with complication – when the first husband of Saleem’s mother can’t consummate their wedding night, it only makes her love stronger. In a scene that might make a friend of the Indian censors, the most sensual moment comes when Saleem’s mother is seen kissing the tip of a glass before letting her ex-husband do the same. Sweetly illicit, it’s a nod to the Hindi films of Rushdie’s youth.
Bollywood also makes its influence felt in the film’s main thread - the contrast between two would-be brothers pitted against each other, though it undoes some of its tension by making the disparity between the pair unnecessarily explicit as the film passes the halfway mark. An unevenness in tone also starts to appear, with noir-ish scenes depicting the Emergency shifting the film into sudden comic book mode and the novel’s magical realism never convincingly rendered.
There’s also the matter of Nitin Sawhney’s score which, though beautiful, typically errs towards the soporific.
But set against the conflicts of partition, this story of three generations is hugely emotive, with the resulting political and social turmoil powerfully implied. Never at the fore, this is a film more concerned with staple themes of the Indian screen - fate and family.
Perhaps when modifying his heaving text, Rushdie realised that there was no way that even a film clocking in at 150 minutes could possibly capture all the novel’s layers. So he stripped it down to what was most essential, with just enough political subtext and allegorical appeal to give it added literary meat. In this respect, Midnight's Children is a success.
As sweeping in scope as it is lacking in ambition to reshape the structure of the epic to suit its own ends, it avoids the trickier, slippery ambiguities of the novel (such risk was always going to be dangerous for such a high-profile adaptation) for a story that’s more straightforward, but no less affecting. So even as it starts to panic under its sheer weight as it nears the end, its last hour a panic to systematically wrap everything up before turning lazily sentimental, it stays poignant.
When listing his dos and don’ts for anyone making the jump from bookshelves to the multiplex (or as he might prefer, arthouse), Rushdie wrote of the importance of preserving a novel’s essence when translating for cinema. Inevitably, this lacks the novel’s most notable essence – the magical realism which oddly might have been its most cinematic quality, here disappointingly underplayed in favour of plain old period-picture realism. But within this compacted incarnation, it still retains a neater, gentler version of its message: a plea for pluralism and recognition that no matter where you are on the social totem pole, fate can always drag you back down.