Deepa Mehta’s radiant film Midnight’s Children is based on a sprawling novel by Salman Rushdie, and Rushdie (although never seen on screen) contributes the voice-over narration of the main character “Saleem Sinai.”
This is a huge historical epic spanning the years from 1917 all the way to 1977, years in which the Asian subcontinent transformed itself from a British colony into the nation states of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. One of the narrative’s primary goals is to show how this fragmentation happened, and if you care anything about the world in which we all live today, then you will want to know.
American movie audiences can probably relate best to Midnight’s Children as an Indian version of the Oscar-winning film Forrest Gump. But instead of the folksy Gulf Coast wisdom of “a box of chocolates,” Mehta fills the screen with vibrant Bollywood colors. She also digs deep into the intimate lives of her characters, showing she is now as much a Canadian (her adopted homeland) as she is Punjabi (the land of her birth).
Unfortunately Midnight’s Children is scheduled for a very limited release in the USA so most Americans will never get the chance to see it with an audience on a big screen. Sadly, it seems sprawling historical epics no longer have a place at the American multiplex, meaning we are now in danger of losing one of humanity’s most time-honored narrative genres. But if you are a lover of family sagas, as I am, then you will likely treasure every moment of the 145 minute runtime too.
Review by FF2 Editor-in-Chief Jan Lisa Huttner
The clock strikes midnight, and moments later a lovelorn woman makes a fateful decision. The date is now August 15, 1947, and two infant boys have been set on divergent paths as they grow to manhood in Bombay, the largest city in the newly independent nation of India.
Deepa Mehta’s radiant film Midnight’s Children is based on a sprawling novel by Salman Rushdie. They wrote the screenplay together, and Rushdie (although never seen on screen) provides an interior monologue for the main character “Saleem Sinai.” Using his rich and melodious voice, touched with mischief, Rushdie’s adult reflections serve to link episodes that span most of the 20th Century from 1917 all the way to 1977. The novel is over 500 pages long – compressed for the screen, the film runs approximately 2.5 hours. But for me, the time passed in a flash. If you are a lover of family sagas, as I am, then you too will likely treasure every moment.
Saleem cannot begin with his own birth, of course. In his telling, the story starts when his grandfather, Aadam Aziz, a liberal doctor with a European education, is rowed across Dal Lake to treat the daughter of a wealthy Kashmiri landowner. According to custom, Dr. Aziz cannot actually examine his patient Naseem. He must treat her through a hole in a curtain with her father and various servants also in the room to chaperone. But Naseem sees Aadam and she likes what she sees, so soon they are married and living a prosperous life in Agra (the home of the Taj Mahal).
It is now the late 1930s, and Aadam and Naseem are the parents of three nubile daughters in the center of a political swirl. Yet even as they struggle together against British colonial rule, Hindus and Moslems are already at odds with one another. The split eventually divides the Aziz family too. After a doomed relationship with a young idealist, daughter Amina marries a pragmatic businessman named Ahmed Sinai who moves her to the south, while daughter Emerald marries an ambitious soldier named Zulfikar who moves her to the north.
Looking to settle in Bombay, Ahmed Sinai buys an enormous mansion from William Methwold, an Englishman who has spent his entire life in lucrative service to King and Country, but now stands alone at the shoreline following the sun as it crosses the ocean. Methwold knows he also has no choice but to follow the setting sun west.
Cushioned in the luxury of her Bombay home, Amina becomes pregnant. On the eve of independence, her newborn son is placed in the care of Mary, a young nurse in love with a Communist radical, and at long last, Saleem Sinai finally enters the narrative, in the first person, as the child of a wealthy, well-connected Muslim couple.
Born at almost the same instant is “Shiva,” the son of poor Hindu street musicians. Saleem tells us that he and Shiva are both “Midnight’s Children;” endowed with magical powers, they are two of the one thousand children born in the first hour of Indian statehood. In movie lingo, this is merely the end of Act One.
Acts Two and Three follow Saleem (played first by Darsheel Safary and then by Satya Bhabha) as he grows from infancy through childhood and youth before eventually attaining a hard-won adult maturity. In creating Saleem’s narrative arc, Mehta and Rushdie follow the time-honored conventions of historical fiction. Just like Odysseus hiding inside the Trojan Horse in The Iliad,and Pierre Bezukhov captured by Napoleon’s army in War and Peace, Saleem is always in just the right place at just the right time to provide a first-hand account of a critical moment in world history.
American movie audiences might well relate to Midnight’s Children as an Indian version of the Oscar-winning film Forrest Gump. But instead of the folksy Gulf Coast wisdom of “a box of chocolates,” Mehta fills the screen with the vibrant colors of Bollywood as women in gorgeous saris swirl to enchanting music. But there are no static characters in Midnight’s Children. Mehta also digs deep into their interior lives and even (gasp!) into their intimate sexual lives, showing she is now as much a Canadian (her adopted homeland) as she is Punjabi (the land of her birth).
Once again her creative team includes cinematographer Giles Nuttgens and editor Colin Monie, both of whom also worked with Mehta on her Oscar-nominated film Water (the third in her “Elements Trilogy”) as well as Heaven on Earth (the little-seen but wonderful film she made in Canada right after Water). Like Water, Midnight’s Children was actually made in Sri Lanka rather than in India because of protests that have dogged Mehta since the incendiary release of Fire (the second film in her “Elements Trilogy”). And once again her younger brother Dilip Mehta (a photojournalist and documentary filmmaker in his own right) is also a critical part of the team, serving as Executive Producer and Production Designer.
Normally I would now provide the names of all the excellent actors who play key roles in this enormous cast. I was amazed that, even though I have seen many Indian films in the past (including all of Deepa Mehta’s films and all of Mira Nair’s films, as well as films by Sara Gavron and Gurinder Chadha, and, of course, Slumdog Millionaire which was co-directed by Loveleen Tandan), almost all of these wonderful faces were new to me.
In such a huge cast, the only Indian actor I recognized was Seema Biswas. Biswas played the lead role in Water, and in Midnight’s Children she plays Mary. When Mary and Saleem are reunited in the film’s final moments, my tears flowed full. And although Saleem clearly provides the film’s central point of view, days later the sharpest images in my mind are the warring Aziz sisters: Amina (Shahana Goswami), the sister who remained Indian, and Emerald (Anita Majumdar), the sister who became Pakistani. Mehta always shows us the fates of women who live in a world controlled by men.
On the other hand, the cast’s one English actor—Charles Dance as William Methwold—is very recognizable. He is a well-established character actor who first came to international prominence in the early 1980s playing the lead role of “Guy Perron” in the blockbuster BBC series The Jewel in the Crown. Since The Jewel in the Crown was about the final days of the British Raj, this small but critical part is a fitting grace note to his long career.
In a lovely touch, Mehta runs her closing credits over a large map, showing us where the various characters have traveled on the narrative arc from 1917 to 1977. Locations in chronological order are: Bombay, Kashmir, Agra, Bombay, Rawalpindi, Karachi, Bombay, Dacca, and, coming full circle, back to Bombay (now known as Mumbai). When the story begins, in 1917, these places are all part of Colonial India (“The Jewel in the Crown” of Great Britain), but by the end, in 1977, these places are to be found in three separate nation states: India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. One of the narrative’s primary goals is to show how this fragmentation happened, and if you care about the world in which we all now live today, you will want to know.
Unfortunately Midnight’s Children is scheduled for a very limited release in the USA and most Americans will never get the chance to see it with an audience on a theatrical screen (which is what the depth and breadth of its vision truly require). This is a shame! In 1995, Forrest Gump(based on a 1986 novel with a runtime of 142 minutes) won six Oscars including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and, most famously, a second consecutive Best Actor Oscar for Tom Hanks.
But it seems that in 2013, distributors do not believe that audiences will turn out for a film based on an adaptation of a 1981 novel with a runtime of 145 minutes, even though Midnight’s Children received eight Genie nominations (“the Canadian Oscars”) including Best Picture and Best Director, and won two for Salman Rushdie in the Best Adapted Screenplay category and for Seema Biswas in the Best Supporting Actress Category.
Sadly, if sprawling historical epics no longer have a place at the multiplex, then we have lost one of humanity’s greatest narrative genres.
© Jan Lisa Huttner (4/26/13) FF2 Media
Photo Credits: Dusty Mancinelli/Sony Pictures Classics.
Top Photo: Seema Biswas as “Mary.”
Middle Photo: Shahana Goswami as “Mumtaz.”
Bottom Photo: Satya Bhabha as “Saleem” returns to Bombay with his son “Aadam.”
Photo Credit: Dusty Mancinelli