Deepa Mehta takes us on a sumptuous visual journey in this adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s magical realist novel. The novel follows the life of Saleem Sinai, born with magical powers on the stroke of midnight on the night of India’s independence from British Raj.
Of course, translating the verbal gymnastics of Rushdie’s prose presents a unique challenge, and surely Mehta has been aware of the enormous expectations from the film. My curiosity in seeing this film was primarily related to how the magical realism would be visualized. In Fernando Birri’s film based on the Gabriel Marquez short story, A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings, the bedraggled wings were all too real. Would this version of Midnight’s Children deliver a lush, tropical South Asian variety of magical realism? Would the leap from this Rushdian kalabaazification land on the screen with grace or an ungainly wobble?
Watching Midnight’s Children was like visiting a long-remembered favorite, with some trepidation and a heart that sings a hopeful song. The film meets, but does not exceed expectations. If we think of slick production values as a marker of success, the film has succeeded. But pinning down Rushdie’s fantastic flights of imagination to visual chronology appears as daunting as catching a moonbeam from the sky. This film proves that the human imagination transcends even the most poetic interpretation by a camera.
Many of these issues came up during my conversation with film-maker Deepa Mehta. She explained that she sees the magic not as a “Harry Potter kind of a magic, but as a metaphor for human potential.” As a political satire, the film repeatedly revisits the notion of how political upheavals can upend human plans and ambitions.
A bit about this Oscar-nominated Indo-Canadian film-maker. Deepa Mehta attended the Welhalm’s Girls school in Dehradun and subsequently, Lady Shri Ram College for Women in Delhi before moving to Canada. She is best known for her Elements Trilogy —Fire, Earth and Water. “Fire is about the politics of sexuality. Earth is about the politics of nationalism. Water is about the politics of religion.” Like Midnight’s Children, Mehta’s film Earth is also a story of lives disrupted by the Partition.
Midnight’s Children is panoramic in scope, and drops in innocuously on key moments of South Asia’s tumultuous history. The Partition and subsequent wars serve as the catastrophic backdrop for individual endeavors and aspirations. “All our wars were between friends,” Salman Rushdie narrates, underlining the irony of these historic turns of events.
Mehta’s cinematography shines in bringing to subtle life the period of history that is still in living memory. A film poster of the iconic film Mother India, for instance, takes us back decades to 1957 in an instant.
The film has not been kind to many of the historical figures. Perhaps notable is the caricature of Indira Gandhi, who looks sinister and crow-like as she and her henchman Shiva bring about “a continuous darkness that would last for years.” In her attempts to strangle the democratic impulse of the nation her father helped birth, her malevolent glance falls upon the “gang of freaks” of whom Saleem Sinai is a member.
I asked Mehta whether a strong, female world leader deserved a more sympathetic depiction. “I didn’t make this stuff up. It really happened,” she said. “The critique is not of Indira Gandhi, but of her politics.” The suspension of habeas corpus, the forced sterilizations, and the muzzling of the press cannot be denied, but the reduction of this controversial leader as “the Widow” left me wishing for more nuance. Indira, we will see another film on you yet.
And what about the guilt caused by the switched babies? The rich shall be poor, and the poor, rich. The nurse in love with an ideologue is redirecting the destinies of these innocents, rerouting privilege and deprivation in opposite directions. Oh, the regret of interfering with the accident of birth, of willfully imposing a rearrangement to please a dead man. The pain of India’s failed socialist policies bubble up to the surface.
I asked Mehta about her experience working with literary darling Salman Rushdie, who wrote the screenplay and narrated the voiceovers. “Well, we are still friends,” she assured me. And they have something else in common. While we have all heard of how Rushdie was forced into exile after The Satanic Verses invited Khomeini’s fatwa, Canadian film maker Mehta has been similarly attacked for her Fire, Earth, and Water trilogy by right wing religious groups. I wondered how it must feel to be on the receiving end of death threats. Mehta was dismissive of any effect from this harassment. Death threats do not deter her from her work.
“One really can’t be bothered by people like that,” she stated firmly.
Geetika Pathania Jain is a Bay Area resident. As a child, she was asked to shower then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi with rose petals. Three decades have slipped by since she read Midnight’s Children during a summer vacation.