Film Review: Midnight's Children

Stirring, beautifully filmed and highly personal history of India does right by Salman Rushdie’s celebrated novel.

Salman Rushdie has adapted his 1981 Booker Prize-winning novel Midnight’s Children for the screen, and the result, as directed by Deepa Mehta, is no less than a modern history of India, as seen through the eyes of its protagonist, Saleem. Saleem was born on the stroke of midnight on the day India gained its independence from England in 1947, one of some thousand children also marking that moment as their birth date, with whom he shares a mystic, surreally palpable connection.

Rushdie has not only skillfully compressed his sprawling tome into a manageable cinematic form but also provides the sonorous and drily witty narration which contributes to the film’s considerable charm. From the very first scenes, which depict the amusing courtship of Saleem’s grandfather, Dr. Aziz (Rajat Kapoor), and the formation of a family with three very different daughters, the colorful, highly individualized characters capture your imagination, as does the witty, flavorful writing. The hugely populated film has been perfectly cast, with the disarming Darsheel Safary playing Saleem as a boy; and attractive, ingratiating Satya Bhabha taking over as an adult. Seema Biswas is very touching as the family nurse, whose fateful switch of babies—a poor infant to a rich family, and vice-versa—provides the main thrust of the story. Handsome Ahmed Sinai and Shahana Goswami are terrifically strong presences as Saleem’s parents. Kapoor and Charles Dance, as a British lion soon to be displaced but ponderously observing form, bring zesty veteran skill to their roles.

Mehta maintains admirable control over the bewilderingly manifold events of India’s tortured, violent history, and achieves a Dickensian richness with the pile-up of characters and incidents, from the end of colonialism, the strife between the newly partitioned India and Pakistan and the creation of Bangladesh, to the end of Indira Gandhi’s rule. Her film is often sublimely beautiful to look at—India and Pakistan, truly glorified—and has been blessed with a tangy, well-chosen music score. The last part of the movie is its weakest, feeling rather rushed and hectic, and Mehta is unable to effectively translate the phantom presence of all those midnight children—a fillip more effective on the page—to the screen. Their blurry, chaotic presence marks the only example of tired cliché in the film, but this is a small complaint amid all the cinematic treasures we are served here.