Beyond the meager pecuniary possibilities, there’s really no reason why every classic novel needs to be turned into middlebrow cinematic fare. But at least in the case of Salman Rushdie’s 1981 Booker Prize-winning novel, Midnight’s Children, the volume contains enough memorable moments and historical complexity to defeat most conceivable attempts to reduce the material to bland big-screen epic. Such is certainly the case with Deepa Mehta’s film version, which manages to preserve much of the novel’s intricacy and human drama, perhaps due to Rushdie’s involvement as co-screenwriter, even if it remains singularly unremarkable from a cinematic perspective.
Like The Tin Drum and One Hundred Years of Solitude before it, Rushdie’s novel is an attempt to write national history as a magical-realist, multi-generational family epic. Beginning with the story of main character Saleem Sinai’s grandfather, the book slowly works its way to its protagonist’s birth, which coincides exactly with the independence of his native India, and then follows that character as his subsequent fate remains entwined with his country’s tumultuous modern history. Multiple wars, ethnic and religious tensions, and government repression are recounted, while in the creation of the eponymous group of youngsters, all born on the same evening as Saleem and able to communicate telepathically, Rushdie posits a potentially subversive force, promoting the possibilities of the new nation and striking out against those that would renege on its promise.
But above all, the novel is a book of episodes—wonderfully sketched, highly resonant episodes—and any attempt to film the work must do justice to such standalone moments. Luckily, Mehta frequently succeeds, nailing the subtle but unmistakable eroticism of the opening sequence in which Saleem’s grandfather, a doctor, must examine the nubile daughter of a local bigwig through a hole in a sheet, as well as the surreal humor in a later scene where a young Saleem is forced to map out the strategy for the 1958 Pakistani military coup for a group of top generals using only a dinner table’s place settings.
Similarly, the film takes on the heft of personal and collective history, touching on the complexities of national identity, sectarian strife, and the mixed blessings of patriotism, but while this admirable retention of the some of the book’s trickier thematic material adds emotional and intellectual weight to the proceedings, these concerns inevitably get passed over with a relative dearth of exploration. None of this is helped by Mehta’s rather bland direction, which makes somewhat too heavy a use of eye-popping colors and generically Indian music (apparently the default mode for presenting the subcontinent to Westerners) and never comes up with very interesting ways of presenting the film’s more magical elements (the “Children” appear as vaguely blurry, over-lit figures).
In addition, the director’s penchant for sentimentalizing the material shifts the film’s last act into both a love story and a reunion-with-a-mother-figure narrative, downplaying the gloomier specifics of the dark moment in Indian history (Indira Gandhi’s brutal repression in the mid ’70s) that precedes them. In Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, the personal is political, but too often in Meetha’s screen version, the personal is just personal.