Director: Deepa Mehta
Stars: Satya Bhabha, Shahana Goswani
2 (out of 5) Globes
Salman Rushdie’s breakthrough novel “Midnight’s Children” runs some 500 pages, with so many characters that Wikipedia has devoted a comprehensive page to all of them. A TV miniseries attempt in the mid-‘90s was thwarted amidst backfire from the “Satanic Verses” controversy that resulted in a fatwa on the author’s head. That would be the ideal format for an audio-visual adaptation of the book — provided one needed to be made at all — as attempting to cram all this into a single movie, even one that runs two-and-a-half hours, would reduce it to mostly plot.
That’s mostly what happens with this largely superfluous, if often pleasurable, adaptation, directed by Deepa Mehta and written by the author himself. Despite all the business going on, the novel’s basic throughline is in theory simple. It looks at the history of 20th century India from the vantage point of one family, the baton switching from grandfather to parents to our main character and narrator, Saleem Sinai (eventually played by Satya Bhabha and voiced, on the narration track, by Rushdie himself). Sinai is born at the exact time of India’s independence, a happenstance that seems to give him a magical connection to its many events — including two wars with Pakistan — as well as a link to those born at the same time, with whom he can magically confer.
These sequences, at once goofy and cheesy, are the only parts of the book that don’t translate swimmingly to cinema. But the rest is fine. This is one of the fastest dramas ever made, so intent on getting as much of the novel’s dense events into the running time that it’s always on the move, even if very little sticks. There is always some new event to get to, and the speed with which “Midnight’s Children” moves becomes as broad a joke as some of the actual broad jokes in Rushdie’s narrative.
The speed has the effect of quashing Mehta’s voice, which is a good thing. Best known for the controversial (in India, at least) “Elements trilogy” — “Fire” concerned homosexuality and “Water” women’s rights — she’s a heavy sensualist. That makes her the wrong person to do anything that involves pace. She defers completely to the material; even the lighting is bland and workmanlike. Rushdie fares better. What pleasures the film has are in his wry dialogue, often straight from the book and read aloud by the author himself. That makes this “Midnight’s Children” function best as a heavily abridged audio book with pictures. Luckily the full book is available at your local bookseller.