You gotta give it to Deepa Mehta – the director has guts by the truckload.
After having incurred the ire of Hindu conservatives for her film Fire and then again almost a decade later for Water (during the filming of which she had to ditch India and instead shoot in Sri Lanka), she then had the titanium cojones to decide to take on not only a much loved, much lauded novel (which many considered unfilmable, owing to its length and sprawl), but one that was written by a man who himself knew a little something about the ruffling of ideologue feathers. Moreover, Mehta didn’t just buy the rights to Midnight’s Children, she also decided to actively involve author Salman Rushdie, enrolling him to work on the script and narrate the film. For all that alone, she should receive a medal for bravery.
With regard to the film itself, this is the first time in my life, having read the book beforehand, I actually felt at a disadvantage. Going in to the screening years after having once enjoyed Midnight’s Children during a daily 90-minute commute to and from Manhattan, and carrying the pleasure of those memories with me still, when it came time to watch the film adaptation in some two hours plus of screen time, I felt a little like If it’s Tuesday, This Must be Belgium. There’s a lot of ground to cover and only so much time.
It’s not the choices Mehta and Rushdie made as to what to keep and what to omit that I fault, it’s my own memory and awareness of the source material. In fact, the film does manage to encompass Saleem Sinai’s family saga rather comprehensively. Dilip Mehta’s production design, Dolly Ahluwalia’s costumes and Nitin Sawney’s music all work well together to give you a great sense of place and time, as we journey from Kashmir in 1915 to Bombay in the ‘70s.
And what a cast. Mehta has brought together so many big names from the Indian film industries (including those from The South – hurrah!) that in reviewing the press notes and seeing one name on the list I said “Oh, that’s right – she was in this too!”
Mehta has enlisted actors you’re used to seeing in mainstream movies and others who you’d know if you watch a lot of indie flics, and some folks who manage to swim in all rivers. Here’s a sampling: Rajat Kapoor, Anupam Kher, Seema Biswas, Shabana Azmi, Shriya Saran, Siddharth, Shahana Goswami, Rahul Bose, Samrat Chakrabarti, Darsheel Safary, Soha Ali Khan, Sarita Choudhury, Kulbushan Kharbanda, Charles Dance and Satya Bhabha.
That’s too many people to write about each, but I’ll mention a few who really stood out for me. Rahul Bose, who was supposedly slated for the role of Saleem Sinai when the film was first in the works about a decade ago, now he’s General Zulfikar, Saleem’s uncle, and looks as though he thoroughly enjoying the role. Darsheel Safary as the young Saleem (so grown up now, compared to his Taare Zameen Par days!) looks like he’s here to stay in films, and do well in them.
Local (NYC) hero, Samrat Chakrabarti is memorable and heart-breaking as Wee Willie Winkie. It was a good call, casting someone with both acting and musical chops for this role.
Another stand-out for me was Siddharth, known primarily for his Tamil & Telugu films, as the adult Shiva, unlikeable tormentor of Saleem yet bad-boy irresistible nonetheless.
And then there’s Satya Bhabha. For me, I never connected to his Saleem. He felt too contemporary for the years we see him live through and I just never managed to feel any great care or concern for Saleem, and that was disappointing, as he is the heart of the story.
Despite what didn’t work for me in the film, I’d still encourage you to see it. Deepa Mehta’s work is always memorable, so how can you not venture out to see her interpretation of such a great novel?
Midnight’s Children opened in NYC on April 26th, and on May 3rd it opens to NY cinemas beyond Manhattan (Kew Gardens Cinema, Clearview Roslyn 4 and Malverne Cinemas) and as well as to DC (Landmark Cinema) and several in the LA area (Arclight Hollywood and Laemmle’s Royal in Los Angeles, Laemmle’s Playhouse in Pasadena, Regal’s Westpark 8 in Irvine, and Laemmle’s Town center 5 in Encino).