It is reassuring somehow at the start of this film adaptation of Midnight’s Children to recognise the speaking voice of the man behind the voiceover. For these are the business-like but cultivated tones of Salman Rushdie, the author of the book from which the film is adapted. Rushdie won the Booker prize in 1981 with Midnight’s Children, which was subsequently voted the Best of Bookers in 1983 and the Best of All Bookers in a 2008 readers' poll. The author sees the novel as his 'love letter to India.' "The thing I find fantastically satisfying is that, 18 years after its publication, people still read Midnight's Children," he declared in 1999.
Deep Mehta’s sprawling work, set over five decades, was filmed in Sri Lanka. Rushdie sold an option on the film rights to director Mehta for a dollar, over dinner in Toronto. Somewhat reluctantly, the author also agreed to write the screenplay.
Much controversy still surrounds Salman Rushdie, based largely on his later novel The Satanic Verses, the original cause of the Fatwa issued against him by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini.
As a consequence, you do tend to feel yourself in a hushed, reverential place as the film begins. Looking back on his life, Saleem Sinai (as voiced by Rushdie) recalls the curious family history that led to his own arrival in this world. In the opening scene, a young doctor, his future grandfather, is being rowed to see a patient along a lake in Kashmir. These opening sequences are highly absorbing, but are whimsical - the timbre of the film becomes palpably more urgent when Saleem is actually born.
Amidst riotous scenes of celebration and public festivities, midnight strikes on August 15, 1947, and the country proclaims independence from Great Britain. In a Bombay hospital, two new-born boys are switched by a nurse, her bizarre attempt to redress India’s gaping disparity of wealth, done as an act of love for her elusive lover Joe, who is away fighting as a radical activist. His mantra is: "Let the rich be poor and the poor be rich," she takes it literally.
Saleem, the illegitimate son of a poverty-stricken mother ends up in a an ostensibly privileged family. But his 'father' Ahmed (Ronit Roy) sees his ambitions thwarted and he becomes a whiskey-swilling, disappointed man. Shiva (played by Siddarth as a young adult ) is the son of the wealthy couple consigned to a lowly upbringing by the nurses’s fateful intervention.
As you might have guessed, both boys' lives become intertwined in real life. But firstly they meet in Saleem’s head, as he begins to hear voices of all the Indian children born on that fateful stroke of midnight. 10-year old Saleem is played by a truly gifted young actor, Darsheel Safary, while Satja Bhaba is equally impressive in the role of Saleem as a young man.
The film follows both boys through political upheaval, partition and the troublesome birth of Pakistan, the subsequent secession by East Pakistan which leads to the founding of Bangladesh. The veteran English actor Charles Dance makes quite an impression in a linen suit, selling his sumptuous mansion, now that the days of the Raj are over. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi is portrayed as a heartless dictator, a harsh-voiced, venal woman.
At times this movie tries to pack too much into its sometimes break-neck narrative (the novel is 533 pages long and first drafts of the script were 260 pages, so go figure.) But Nitin Sawhney’s score is almost a character in itself, weaving majestically through all the colour, the lush greenery, and sunlight, winding like a cobra in and out of the ghettos. Dialogue in the movie is in English, Urdu and Hindu.
This exuberant, fast-moving film should ideally be seen after you have read the original novel, which was re-published in a very fine edition last year by Vintage.