Could there possibly be a worse time for the movie adaptation of the book “Midnight’s Children”? Directed by Deepa Metha with a screenplay by the book’s author, Salman Rushdie who also provides narration, the movie becomes like an alternative universe for inept X-Men. “Midnight’s Children” opens up in New York City on 26 April 2013 and then opens in Los Angeles on 3 May 2013 at the Laemmle Playhouse 7 in Pasadena as well as the Laemmle Royal and Town Center 5 and the Hollywood Arclight. (For more locations and opening dates go to the movie’s official website).

Rushdie’s novel won a Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 1981. These literary awards are given to English language novels written by citizens of the Commonweath of Nations, Ireland and Zimbabwe. It also won a James Tait Black Memorial Prize which is for English works of fiction and biographies that are first published in the United Kingdom 12 months prior to the submission date. Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children” tied with Paul Theroux’s “The Mosquito Coast.”

Rushdie’s novel is an example of postcolonial literature and Rushdie takes historical events and adds a liberal dose of magical realism. The movie is a British-Canadian production that was shown at the Toronto International Film Festival and the BFI London Film Festival.  In Canada, the film was given a limited release in November 2012 and is already available on DVD.

If you haven’t read the novel, you might need to check a map and the Wikipedia entry on the book. Our press notes included a map of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh as well as a family tree, a short synopsis and a long synopsis along with a list of the main characters.

Rushdie narrates as an older Saleem looking back at his life; he begins the movie by describing how Saleem’s grandfather, a European-educated doctor with a large nose, Aadam Aziz (Rajat Kapoor) came to meet Saleem’s grandmother, Naseem (Shabana Azmi) in 1917. Naseem turns out to be a woman with a strong will and she provides the doctor with three daughters: Alia, Emerald and Mumtaz.

Mumtaz becomes involved with a political fugitive who has taken refuge in the Aziz home. They marry, but are divorced. Mumtaz then marries the controlling Ahmed (Ronit Roy) who renames her Amina and takes her to Bombay. Sister Emerald (Anita Majumdar) marries Major Zulfikar (Rahul Bose).

The movie follows Amina and Ahmed to Bombay. Ahmed is buying a Victorian house–the Buckingham Villa–from a British citizen, William Methwold (Charles Dance),  who will leave India when it becomes an independent nation on 15 August 1947. William Methwold (c 1590- 1653) is the name of an historical figure who planned the city of Bombay. This Methwold is, in the novel, a direct descendant of the earlier Methwold and has two people whom he nominally supports, a street performer named Wee Willie Winkie (Samrat Chakrabarti), and Winkie’s wife, Vanita.

Vanita is also pregnant with Methwold’s child. Vanita and Amina give birth at the same time, on midnight just as the rest of the nation is celebrating independence on 15 August 1947. On a whim, the nurse for both mothers in the hospital switches the two baby boys so the rich boy becomes the poor street entertainer Shiva and the poor boy becomes the rich man’s son Saleem.

We see them as children and youths–Saleem is awkward and Shiva is angry. Both eventually grow up to be young men adrift. Shiva (as an adult played by Siddharth) will eventually rise to be rich and Saleem (played as an adult by Satya Bhabha) will meander through life into poverty. They discover that each child born in India at midnight when their nation became independent has supernatural powers and they are linked to India’s fate. The most powerful of these children were born closest to midnight–Saleem, Shiva and a girl, Pavarti (Shriya Saran).

If you’re not up on India’s history, India would fall into a civil war (the India-Pakistan Wars) and that will result in the secession of territory into first Pakistan and then Bangladesh. The movie explains this as a natural consequence of the presence of Muslims in those areas.

Saleem drifts where his parents,  history and his fate take him. He seems unworthy of such power. Shiva, bitter from having his birthright stolen from him, becomes a fighter who is both cruel and materialistic. Pavarti doesn’t seem to know how to best use her gift. She makes Saleem invisible in order to “carry” him in her basket to take him back from Pakistan into India. She casts a spell on Shiva who becomes her lover. Yet none of these Midnight’s Children are able to find greater uses for their powers. Unified action is an impossibility. They are X-Men with a cause, but without a plan.

Of course, the deconstruction of the emergence of Bangladesh and Pakistan is simplified. Some might feel that its treatment of  Indira Gandhi is harsh, but according to the press material the excesses of the declared state of emergency included “forces sterilization, the razing of slums, the incarceration of opponents, and the torture of detainees.” This movie isn’t a history course although it might appear to be one. If you believe in a meritocracy and disapprove of India’s old caste system, then you might feel uncomfortable with the fall of Saleem and the rise of Shiva.

If you’re looking for answers or an understanding of India, this movie can provide an interesting point of view, but it is one of many. Not everyone believes in fate and the hard boundaries of the caste system. A fatalistic approach isn’t going to resolve the fear, hatred and prejudice that the recent Boston Marathon bombing has inflamed. If Muslims and Hindus can’t get along, then is it possible to believe that Muslims and Christians can ever live together in this global community in peace?

Although Satya Bhabha’s Saleem is the main character, Siddharth’s Shiva attracts our eyes with his boiling resentment. One wonders about the incidents of indignation that drove Siddharth’s Shiva to such ambition, especially if one doesn’t accept caste as fate. His suffering would seem to be a more compelling , revealing story. The press material calls Saleem our hero, but he’s more of a spectator and witness to history. He’s almost a tourist in life. Seema Biswas’ guilt-ridden nurse Mary has a more interesting story as does Shriya Saran’s Parvati the witch. Is this because director Mehta wanted Bhabha’s Saleem to be just a spectator and didn’t ask for more depth?

The script has some moments of lyrical language and this movie shows the expansive beauty and desperation of what was once a conquered empire and later became three different nations. I haven’t read any of Rushdie’s books and that has nothing to do with the fatwa against him. Note that Rushdie was born in Bombay to a Muslim family but is an atheist. It might be enlightening see an interpretation of Indian or Pakistan history from the views of someone who is either Hindu or Muslim and neither hard-liner nor fair weather faithful. Such as person might not make the Booker Prize shortlist or be knighted, but would likely give us a better understanding of Islam and Muslims in a world that stereotypes them as Arab and terrorists. Such a person would be a superhero even without mutant powers of an X-Man or X-Woman.

“Midnight’s Children” opens in New York City on 26 April 2013 and then opens in Los Angeles on 3 May 2013 at the Laemmle Playhouse 7 in Pasadena as well as the Laemmle Royal and Town Center 5 and the Hollywood Arclight. (For more locations and opening dates go to the movie’s official website).

Advertisements