If you’ve ever read the book Midnight’s Children by Rushdie, you know the author loves to play with magic realism and create expansive stories for his unique characters. The film, wonderfully directed by Deepa Mehta (Water), is no different, and takes on the added duty of imparting lessons on cultural conflicts embedded deep within India and Pakistan.
Saleem (Satya Bhabhais) is born “at the glorious hour of India’s independence” from Great Britain in 1947, and is suddenly taken on a different life journey due to a hospital nurse’s decision to swap the infant with another child born that same night. The nurse (Seema Biswas) ensures the poor son of a hopeless busker an opportunity he never would have otherwise. Then again, the “rich” son is now the heir to the busker’s non-fortune.
Here’s where the magic comes in. Due to Saleem’s impressive nose, he has X-Men-like powers to psychicly communicate with the other 581 kids delivered on the eve of the country’s rebirth. The telepathy feels a bit jarring to those who don’t see that hook coming, but for fans of the novel the revelation is delivered at just the right moment in the film. And of course, Saleem’s family don’t believe the boy and he is instantly shunned by the overbearing father.
What follows is a sweeping story of how Saleem navigates his move from Bombay to Karachi, facing the anti-Indian sentiments as political upheavals begin to shift the tectonic plates of Asia. We learn how Pakistan wants to crush India, and what motivates Saleem’s army uncle to take over the country with martial law. It can be confusing at times, but if you know your history, you’ll feel right at home.
Mehta’s visual storytelling is a real treat in Midnight’s Children, shooting resplendent scenes of Indians in traditional garb, but also getting gritty with a look at the slums Saleem eventually inhabits with another child of midnight. She has an uncanny gift of making the most of her frames, no matter the subject.
Midnight’s Children can make your stomach growl, it’s that long, but it’s worth the wait to find out how Saleem gets out of his crises. Since Rushdie wrote the screenplay, the dialogue is pitch-perfect with the book and it’s as grandiose as the 536-pager. A little more editing, though, could’ve made the story even tighter and more focused.