Saturday, 20 October 2012

London Film Festival: Midnight's Children (d. Deepa Mehta)

Despite its exalted status in the literary canon, I'm ashamed to say I still* haven't read Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie. So I came into this film, scripted by Rushdie and directed by Deepa Mehta, with high expectations but no baggage. However, there were times during this epic when I wished I'd brought a good book...

Speaking after the screening, Salman Rushdie said that he'd taken on the adaptation - his first screenplay - because another writer mght have been too reverential to the source material. However, given the film's strange lack of dramatic whoompf, maybe a more experienced screenwriter would have been the answer.

(And the muted round of applause the film received indicated that I wasn't the only member of the audience to be underwhelmed.)

The central conceit of the book - published in 1981 and a prime example of 'magic realism' - is that the babies born around the hour of India's independence (midnight on 15th August 1947) were endowed with special abilities.

The film focuses on one in particular - Saleem Sinai (Satya Bhabha) - who has the power to summon the rest of 'Midnight's Children' to a psychic conference in his brain. However, the children and their powers are largely shunted to the side of the stage, and instead we focus on Saleem's misadventures as he drifts through the formative events of India's first 30 years of nationhood.

And the fact that he 'drifts' highlights one of the biggest problems with this film: Saleem is what the screenwriting manuals would damn as a 'passive protagonist'. Rather than taking control of his destiny, he is swept around the subcontinent by the tides of history and narrative expedience.

It even takes a while for him to appear, as the first part of the film focuses on events that took place long before he was born. Even though these are delivered with quite a bit of charm (and narrated fruitily by Rushdie himself), we still get the sense that we're drumming our fingers while we wait for the 'real' story to start.

When Saleem finally pops out, we get to what should be another defining incident: in a moment of revolutionary zeal, a nurse at the hospital (Seema Biswas) swaps him, the son of a poor itinerant musician whose mother had died in childbirth, with Shiva, the simultaneously born son of a wealthy doctor.

However, that also fails to have much effect on the story, other than pushing at the open door of showing that we're born into a lottery of inequality. The two meet up sporadically at key moments of the story, but there isn't much of an examination of the nature vs nurture issue.

Any of the three main story engines - the presence of the gifted children, the baby switch and the central love story between Saleem and Parvati "the witch" (Shriya Saran), another of the gifted children - could have driven a powerful film, especially against the backdrop of India's tumultuous history.

However, Midnight's Children remains a low-energy experience that never got me sitting forward in my seat or holding my breath. Instead I felt that, like Saleem, I was just being taken for a ride by events.

The biggest problem with the adaptation could be the fact that magic realism flourishes better in the metaphorical/poetic environment of the printed page. A more literal on-screen depiction - such as 'the darkness' that falls across India during the two-year suspension of democracy during the 1970s - sits uneasily with the inclusion of historical events and figures.

The film looks and sounds fine, if a little by-the-book in its exoticism, but the seductive design and photography can't make up for a lack of dramatic energy that becomes particularly yawning over a 149-minute running time.  

Despite the breadth of the film's vision and the provenance of Rushdie and Mehta, I still felt that I'd got a deeper and much more visceral sense of India's complexity and sectarian tensions from Slumdog Millionaire. All in all, Midnight's Children was my biggest disappointment of the festival.

* Note the skilled bullshitter's use of the word 'still', to give the impression that I might read it one day.

1 comment:

Rahul said...

The Magical Realism does not sit well within the framework in which Deepa Mehta tries to fit it into.The movie is good in parts but its sum total is half baked.Strictly for the hard core fans of Deepa and Salman!