Though a bit literal for a film that traffics in magical realism, Deepa Mehta’s “Midnight’s Children” is both dreamy and dramatic, a fascinating view of Indian history seen through the prism of a personal – and occasionally twinned – story.
Adapted by director Deepa Mehta and screenwriter Salman Rushdie (from his award-winning 1981 novel), the film tells the story of two boys who grow to manhood, both born at the stroke of midnight at the moment in 1947 when India took its independence from England. One is the son of a businessman, the other the offspring of a beggar from the same neighborhood.
The two share a mystical bond with hundreds of other children born in that first hour of India’s independence. They share another secret as well, though one neither of them is aware of: They were switched shortly after birth, by a nurse practicing a little social Darwinism on the privileged. It is her own act of rebellion, a response to the death of a close friend who has been killed in the political upheaval between Muslims and Hindus, rich and poor. What better way to show that humans are humans, no matter what their origin, than sending the child of beggar into the home of a well-to-do businessman?
So the story of Saleem Sinai (Satya Bhabha), raised as the businessman’s son, becomes a journey of self-discovery for young Saleem. He gets to know Shiva (Siddharth), for whom he was swapped, because Shiva lives in his neighborhood. Shiva also starts appearing in Saleem’s ghostly visitations by Midnight’s Children, the group connected by the supernatural bond of being born at the instant of India’s independence, whom Saleem has the power to summon.
Mehta’s film becomes a nature-nurture story, as young Saleem finds himself transplanted from India to Pakistan when an accident uncovers the fact that his blood type doesn’t match his parents. Shipped off to live with an aunt, he comes of age not really knowing exactly where he belongs. War – between India and Pakistan, then over the division of Bangladesh – further strips him of belongings but uncovers more of his identity. Eventually, Shiva rises in the military to become part of the militaristic regime of Indira Gandhi, even as Saleem winds up living among the poor in a Delhi slum.
Mehta and Rushdie casually incorporate the magical realism of his novel, without going to great lengths to make it seem magical. Mothers who can visit the dreams of their children, magicians who can make the contents of a basket invisible – these are matter-of-fact occurrences.
But their real point is the shifting nature of identity – of Saleem Sinai, whose world turns upside down with each revelation of who he really is, and of India itself, a land in which the clash between the past and the future (as well as the struggle for ruling power of any one religion or class) seems constantly in violent flux.
Some have compared the film to “Forrest Gump,” though Rushdie’s novel predated Winston Groom’s novel by five years. Rushdie’s novel – and Mehta’s film – do nothing less than offer more than 60 years of history of the subcontinent, filtered through the experience of Saleem and his forebears.
Beautifully shot, with seamlessly fabricated images that meld Sri Lankan locations with Indian and Pakistani landmarks, “Midnight’s Children” rides a pendulum between comedy and tragedy. Ultimately, it finds wisdom – if not peace – in Saleem Sinai’s sprawling and enveloping story.Print This Post