Based on the Booker Prize-winning novel from controversial author Salman Rushdie, Deepa Mehta’s Midnight’s Children (2012) makes a bold but ultimately unfulfilled attempt to bring the author’s magical realist style to the screen. Born at the stroke of midnight on 15 August, 1947 (Indian independence), protagonist Saleem Sinai’s (Satya Bhabha) story is one that crosses generations, tracing the growing pains of his country as it struggled to establish its own identity after 200 years of British rule. This so-called ‘midnight child’ is also gifted with the power to mentally connect to the other children born at the same time.
Through the central character of Saleem, the history of post-colonial India is recounted down through the generations of his family, beginning with his grandfather, demonstrating the radical shifts the country faced from the 1930s up until the 1970s. This generational structure provides time for a host of characters who experience many of the key moments in the country’s history, from the aforementioned moment of independence to the war with neighbouring Pakistan. Along the way, we hear tales of loves lost and loves found, with a pleasing touch of sporadic narration by Rushdie himself. His melodic voice intensifies the sense of whimsy, layered over the more monumental events the characters live through.
Whilst many of Midnight’s Children strands provide enjoyment, with their well-rounded characters and strong performances, the story fails to distil the essence of the novel and instead attempts to copy the page directly to screen. This failing is in part due to Rushdie being responsible for the screenplay, for although he is a tremendous author he has failed to understand the mechanics of movie-making.
Pleasure is perhaps most easily found in the way that Mehta’s adaptation brings India’s history to life through the personal, as small family stories reflect wider events. However, at a runtime of well over two hours, it feels as though this could have been achieved in a more streamlined manner. Midnight’s Children remains a valiant, yet deeply flawed attempt at filming the (arguably) unfilmable.
This review was originally published on 16 October, 2012, as part of our London Film Festival coverage.