Directed by Deepa Mehta. Starring Satya Bhabha and Siddharth. In English, Hindi, and Urdu with English subtitles. Rated PG. Opens Friday, November 2.
Salman Rushdie wrote his second novel, Midnight's Children, 34 years after India's independence from Britain, in 1947; it took almost as long to bring it to the screen, with engaging, if mixed, results.
Rushdie himself did the adaptation and narrates the movie, which follows the circuitous life of a fellow born the same minute as his troubled nation. To start with, Saleem Sinai (played by England's quietly charismatic Satya Bhabha) came into a wealthy Muslim family only because a local nurse (Seema Biswas), caught up in revolutionary fervour, switched him with the offspring of an impoverished musician.
The trajectory of another kid, Shiva (played by Siddharth), provides a parallel tale, and Saleem can “see”—in sequences of slightly annoying whimsicality—the other Indians born that fateful midnight. On paper, this device gave Rushdie a nifty overview of the fractious path India took when religion split it into two nations, and eventually three, with Bangladesh's war of liberation in 1971. But it's beyond problematic to fit all that into a movie, even at 146 minutes.
Veteran director Deepa Mehta adopted the right tone, of affectionate bewilderment, to bring good-humoured distance to such a massive and essentially heavy subject. And she ingeniously marshalled limited resources in a smaller location, mostly Sri Lanka, where she shot much of her Elements Trilogy, also with superb cinematographer Giles Nuttgens.
A long prologue, zeroing in on the large proboscis of Saleem's putative grandfather (Ronit Roy), has the amusing poetry that later scenes lack. (And the big-nose thing proves confusing, genetically speaking.) Some surrealistic elements, particularly involving Indira Gandhi and her downfall, aren't as memorable as simpler domestic scenes. In particular, Rahul Bose is dryly funny as a Pakistani relative who is a terrible father but an excellent general. Midnight's Children stumbles at times, but its rewards still outnumber its errors.
Watch the trailer for Midnight's Children.