It is best not to have read Salman Rushdie’s famous 1981 novel before walking into its film adaptation, because if you’ve read and loved the book, Midnight’s Children would be an excruciating watch.
Rushdie’s screenplay, based on his own book gets some of its ‘essence’ right, but director Deepa Mehta does a mostly appalling hatchet job of realizing the power of the novel on screen. Instead of subtly transitioning the allegories of love, gloom, loss, diversity and redemption to the big screen, Mehta pummels the viewer with incongruous and dreadfully melodramatic computer graphics to heighten the mood. The magic realism of the book could have been better handled by someone who has dipped his beak in the genre before – a Tim Burton perhaps – because Mehta’s handling of the material is agonizingly mawkish and overdone. The ‘conference’ depicted in the book is clumsily directed to say the least, and the lack of artistic skill here is even more apparent post the stunning genius of Ang Lee’s recent movie about a tiger in a boat.
Voiceovers in film, unless done 110% right always reduce the quality and immersive nature of a film. The opening five minutes of Midnight’s Children are enough to make a fan of the book uneasy in his seat – because the narrative is laced with droning, almost lifeless voiceover by Rushdie himself. The story remains faithful to the source material as it chronicles Saleem Sinai’s journey from being born at the stroke of midnight of India’s independence, to switching places at the hospital bed, to inadvertently ending up in a rich family while watching the real heir grow up in poverty. While not exactly unfilmable, condensing the sprawling book into a movie was always going to be a colossal task, sadly Mehta and Rushdie rush through the material like a radio broadcast of the story, making us hear Rushdie’s story instead of letting it unfold on screen. Perhaps a BBC or HBO style miniseries would have done justice to the material and given the characters precious time to develop.
The cast, barring Rajat Kapoor is painfully mediocre – Satya Bhabha, who played one of the super ex-boyfriends in Scott Pilgrim is mostly stiff and out of place as the protagonist, while Darsheel Safary is way too reminiscent of his turn in that Aamir Khan movie. Rushdie and Mehta also do away with some crucial characters like Sinai’s cantankerous grandmother – her role is reduced to two lines of dialogue uttered with a dung-under-the-nose expression by Shabhana Azmi. Shahana Goswami is passable as Sinai’s mother, the standouts, however, are Ronit Roy as Sinai’s father, duplicating his role from Udaan, Siddharth as the grown up nemesis of Sinai and Kharbanda as snake charmer entertainer Pichchar Singh who doles out the most overemotional role since Alok Nath in Pardes. Shriya is lovely to look at but her role is diminished to a makeout scene with Buddha Bar lounge music in the background. The production needed someone who could properly analyse the heart of the book, someone with surgical precision who could carefully and completely take in the fragrance of the book, someone with a much bigger nose like Doctor Aadam Aziz.
(First published in MiD Day)