It has been 31 years since Midnight’s Children got published and despite the unparalleled popular and critical adulation, no one has, for the best part of three decades attempted a screen adaptation of the modern literary masterpiece. As Deepa Mehta and co found out, this is not without reason.
So, a review of Deepa Mehta’s latest offering will necessarily have to take into account the reasons why this project was so difficult to begin with and examine how the movie makers tackled these. Firstly, Midnight’s Children is a 600 page monster. A movie that covers every page of the novel would probably run up to 5 hours. Thus, the first challenge was to modify and edit the story to fit the canvas of a movie. Deepa Mehta, assisted by Salman Rushdie tackled this challenge particularly well and the story in isolation feels both complete and justifies the novel.
The next challenge comes from the type of novel that Midnight’s Children is. Rushdie’s Magical Realism makes a caricature of issues as important as India’s history and while this may only add to the virtues of the novel, in a movie it looks surreal and out of place. The characters of Midnight’s Children are not mere human beings; they represent events, communities, countries and the like. As a consequence, their actions, mannerisms and personalities are not intended to be consistent with nature but to serve the needs of the narrative. In a book, as steeped in allegory and metaphors as Midnight’s Children is, these anomalies are assimilated by the reader. The challenge for the movie maker is to make sure that the sublingual meaning is not lost even as the characters seem plausible. But unlike in a book he cannot explain each reaction.
The movie struggles all the way with this challenge being in places too tedious and in others too breezy. There in lies the main issue with Rushdie writing the screenplay for the movie. He has little experience of the role and the movie proceeds much like a novel and the characters seem hollow and unattached. It seems that Rushdie is too busy footing in as many of his allegories as possible while Mehta at the same time cuts them to bare bits such that each message remains under-explained.
The hollowness of the characters is the reason why such a talented cast underperforms. Of the actors only Rajat Kapoor and Rahul Bose manage to distinguish themselves.
If you have read the book then despite the flaws the movie is not to be missed. For the rest of the populace its a rather tedious affair. In the end it seems that Mehta doesn’t know whether to cater those who have already read the novel or those who haven’t.