A colourful journey through India’s rich and complex history, Deepa Mehta’s Midnight’s Children is a beautiful adaptation of Rushdie’s unfilmable novel, vibrant and beguiling.
Independence Day by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Adapted for the screen, executive produced and even narrated by the author, Salman Rushdie is well and truly the voice behind Midnight’s Children, Deepa Mehta’s vision of his unfilmable novel. And unlike the gynocentric worlds of Mehta’s Oscar nominated films Water and Fire, Midnight’s Children is very much a man’s world, traversing as it does the story of Saleem and sixty years of Indian history. Yet filmed in secrecy in Sri Lanka under the working title Winds Of Change, Midnight’s Children has garnered as much controversy as Mehta’s earlier taboo-busting films exploring lesbian love and ashram widows. And despite criticisms from both Hindu and Muslim fundamentalists and complaints at the film’s portrayal of India’s first female prime minister Indira Gandhi, Mehta’s Midnight’s Children is a kaleidoscopic vision of India from empire to independence, partition and beyond.
Narrated from the perspective of the film’s hero Saleem, Midnight’s Children makes clear from the get-go the allegory of India’s destiny running alongside the fate of our wayward hero buffeted back and forth by the winds of change. It’s with such a nod and a wink that life begins in 1917, 30 years before he was born, with his cucumber-nosed grandfather rowing across Lake Kashmir to meet a patient and future wife. And with all the wry whimsy of Rushdie’s novel, we are treated, along with the visiting physician, to a misty landscape of body parts revealed like a dance of seven veils through a circular hole cut into a sheet – the mystery of woman slowly exposed. But it’s not long before we bustle forward a generation to a time when this modern couple have daughters of their own – one wise, one sweet, one flighty – the sweetest one embroiled in pre-independence politics harbouring in their cellar a poet who witnesses the murder of an anti-Partitionist politician. The murderous cry “You can’t prevent the birth of Pakistan!” lingers over Saleem’s mother’s basement romance with Nadir, resurfacing as she resolves to forget the poet and fall in love with our hero’s father, moving to Bombay in 1947 to become another witness to history as India ushers in its ill-fitting independence.
As the days of the Raj give way to self-determination, Saleem’s family purchases Buckingham Villa, the colonial residence of fleeing Englishman William Methwold, with all its furnishings from carpets to cocktail bar. There they are visited by itinerant troubadour Wee Willie Winkie whose wife gives birth to son Shiva at exactly the same time as Saleem is born. Both enter the world on the stroke of midnight of India’s independence, and the boys’ destinies are intertwined as they cross the divide between rich and poor and navigate both sides of the Partition. The fatality of their lives is given another turn of the screw, as Mary, a nurse in the hospital filled with the levelling fervour of independence, swaps the newborns’ wristbands, sealing each fate to the life of the other. Each life, stripped of its inheritance is a clean slate. And as Midnight’s Children passes through India and Pakistan, prosperity and poverty, grace and disfavour, Saleem’s story is a cutting of ties – like the explosion of his home, a fade to white from family, wealth and nation giving way to a pluralist multi-purpose India open to everyone.
Saleem’s journey is interwoven with the novel’s magical realism, as the young boy learns to tune his nose and conjure the voices in his head into existence, convoking the 1,001 other gifted children born within the first hour of independence, including Shiva with his gift to destroy, and Parvati the witch. Along with those who can fly, change sex or time-travel, the midnight’s children are the prime threat to Indira Gandhi’s state of emergency, a constant ghostly reminder of the betrayed hopes of independence, and it’s with crushing impotence that their gifts come to nothing, unable to prevent the razing of the Jama Masjid slum or the eternal night of censorship and an unfree India – it’s a democratic election that fells the false god and brings India its light back.
With its singsong narration, Midnight’s Children is a kind of subcontinental Ulysses – a cacophony of voices building a nation. Its mirrored narrative of Shiva and Saleem rising and falling through martial law and political coups lends the film a portentous, all-encompassing claim to India’s story. But combining the personal family history of paternal expectations and maternal adulterous glasskissery with the fortuitous wheels of politics and religion, as Saleem lives both a Hindu life in Bombay and as a Muslim in Karachi, Midnight’s Children offers a fluid face to Indian identity. It’s as richly colourful as Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding and as evocative as an Indian Perfume, but even Rushdie’s pared down adaptation of his own novel can’t prevent the film from choking on its own swollen narrative. Covering over half a decade of Indian history and a vast spectrum of experience, Midnight’s Children rattles through its story like a train across the foothills of the Himalayas. It’s exciting, wondrous and breathtaking, but with its riot of story, colour and character, more than a little overwhelming.
Midnight’s Children is released on 26th December 2012 in the UK