Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Midnight’s Children: Rushdie’s Novel Finally Comes to Big Screens

Today, any garden variety financial advisor will happily pitch you a BRIC fund.  However, the Indian economy was not always a magnet for foreign capital.  In fact, the years following independence were decidedly rocky.  Salman Rushdie’s 1981 Booker Prize winner served as both an indictment of the corruption and human rights abuses India had endured and a challenge to the nation to do better.  Despite the best efforts of Iran, Rushdie’s novel finally comes to the big screen, adapted and narrated by the author himself. A significant cinematic event, Deepa Mehta’s Midnight’s Children (trailer here) opens this Friday in New York.

As with any self-respecting epic, Midnight begins not with its protagonist, but with his grandparents’ generation. Saleem Sinai would certainly seem to have Dr. Aadam Aziz’s nose, but he does not have his grandfather’s blood.  A Muslim proponent of a unified India, Dr. Aziz harbors a fellow moderate political leader from separatist extremists. Unfortunately, Aziz’s allies wind up on the losing side of history, resulting in a family schism.  Saleem starts life as the son of Aziz’s daughter and an ambitious businessman, but he was actually the child of a destitute street performer, impulsively switched at birth by his nurse and future nanny, Mary Peirera.

Sinai and Shiva, the boy whose life he unknowingly usurped, were born at the stroke of midnight on Independence Day, August 15, 1947.  All “Midnight’s Children” have special powers, but Sinai serves as the glue holding them together, hosting telepathic conferences with the help of his uncanny nose.  Sinai quickly forms a bond with Parvati-the-Witch, a young girl with real magical powers. Shiva however, is openly resentful of Sinai’s privileged life and the sheepishness of his fellow Midnight Children.  Over the succeeding decades, their fates will become intertwined as they participate as bit players in the India-Pakistan Wars, the creation of Bangladesh, and Indira Gandhi’s oppressive State of Emergency.

The Iranian government did not want you to see this film.  It is not even about Iran, but anything by the author of The Satanic Verses is apparently enough to send the mad mullahs into apoplexy. Fortunately, after a 92 hour shut down precipitated by the Iranian ambassador’s protests, the Sri Lankan President decided to act civilized and allow production to continue.  The film resulting from the necessarily rushed shoot is quite a powerful work.

The very premise of the psychically linked Midnight’s Children personifying the newly independent India has deep resonance.  When Sinai acknowledges the failure of this special generation (and India by extension), it is a heavy moment.  As Rushdie’s surrogate, Sinai cuts through the propaganda, calling out India’s government and society for failing to live up to its professed democratic ideals.  Yet, the film is also inspiring, explicitly placing its hopes on the next generation to make due on the promise of the children of 1947. From the vantage point of 2013, one could argue that they have indeed.

Watching Midnight’s Children, it is clear Rushdie is not ready to forgive and forget the excesses of Indira Gandhi’s State of Emergency.  He is also highly critical of religious fundamentalism, clearly implying it is no accident of fate the relatively secular India routed the militantly Islamic Pakistan.  Indeed, the scenes in Islamabad are nearly as unsettling as those in Gandhi’s interrogation cells.

Satya Bhabha has some effective moments as the adult Sinai, but it is almost too much the allegorical everyman role for an actor to truly inhabit in a flesh and blood way.  In contrast, Siddharth (billed simply by his first name) is a genuinely malevolent presence as Shiva (named after the Hindu deity of destruction).  Likewise, Shriya Saran is wonderfully earthy and mysterious as Parvati-the-Witch. Jewel in the Crown veteran Charles Dance even lends his regal bearing as William Methwold, the dispossessed former owner of Sinai’s early family villa. Yet, it is the author’s warm, evocative voice that truly sets the tenor of the film.

For obvious reasons, Midnight’s Children will be a difficult film for many critics and commentators to get their heads around.  Yet, the magical realist trappings illuminate rather than obscure the country’s awkward Twentieth Century history.  Frankly, the Raj does not always look so bad, compared to some of what follows.  While the one hundred forty-six minute running feels just a tad long, Mehta wrangles decades of subtly fantastical material into a logical and accessible narrative.  Highly recommended, Midnight’s Children opens this Friday (4/26) in New York at the Angelika Film Center downtown and the Beekman uptown.