Movie Review: Midnight's Children
By Matthew Huntley
April 22, 2013
On paper, Midnight’s Children offers a little bit of something for everyone. It’s a mélange of every narrative genre you can think of: drama, romance, comedy, and even fantasy adventure. These are further broken down into stories of coming-of-age, historical fiction and war tragedy.
But in its quest to be so many things, Midnight’s Children unfortunately ends up not being much at all. With all of its themes, characters and plot developments going on simultaneously, and subsequently fighting for screen time, the movie fails to assign itself a central figure or message with which the audience can identify with and really get behind. Some of the best movies ever made have effortlessly kept track of multiple narrative threads while giving each of them their due weight, but that quality was missing from Midnight’s Children. This is a shame, too, because it’s easy to tell this project was a labor of love for it filmmakers, who have no doubt made it with noble and heartfelt intentions, and not necessarily the standard commercial ones.
The screenplay is by Salman Rushdie, based on his award-winning novel. It’s not without substance or intrigue and incorporates various tales that interweave light fiction with serious drama, all set against India’s long and tumultuous history. Director Deepa Mehta is able to construct the various motifs independently but there never came a point where they connect and come together meaningfully. The film is told in flashback by its hero, Saleem, who tells us, “Most of what matters in our lives takes place in our absence.” This is an excellent statement that reinforces just how much of our lives are affected by outside people and influences, reminding us that we can’t possibly control everything that happens to us, even though we’d like to think we can. It’s the movie’s goal to bring this message to life through the various adventures of the characters, but it never fully manifests or strikes us on the intellectual or emotional levels it was hoping to.
In the film, Saleem recollects his entire life history, from 1917 to 1977. Through his narration and witnessing of the past, the movie relays India’s major historical events, including its independence from Great Britain; the division of the country into India and Pakistan and the ensuing India-Pakistan Wars; the birth of Bangladesh; and the nearly two-year period known as “The Emergency,” in which Prime Minister Indira Gandhi suspended civil liberties.
Amidst these major happenings, the movie does what it can to develop its characters. The first is Saleem’s grandfather, Dr. Aziz (Rajat Kapoor), who meets his wife as she stands concealed behind a bed sheet because her father wants to protect her honor. They eventually have three daughters, the eldest being Mumtaz (Shahana Goswami), who would become Saleem’s mother. Mumtaz’s first marriage is to a secretary named Nadir (Zaib Shaikh), who dreams of a unified India between Hindus and Muslims, but their union, which seems to be the only one in the movie based on love, would be short-lived. When Nadir is captured by the Indian army, Mumtaz marries Ahmed Sinai (Roni Roy) and they move from Agra to Bombay.
On the night Mumtaz gives birth to their son, a nurse at the Bombay hospital named Mary (Seema Biswas), driven by her boyfriend’s ideals to “Let the rich be poor and the poor be rich,” switches the baby with one born of a poor woman and a street performer. The poor one is Saleem, and he falsely enters into a life of privilege. The other baby, Shiva, becomes Saleem’s lifelong nemesis and their paths will cross more than once.
One of them is when they both learn they are “Midnight’s Children,” or babies born immediately or shortly after India gained its independence. The event yields them unprecedented powers, some of the them supernatural, with Saleem’s (Satya Bhabha) considered the most powerful because he’s able to hear the thoughts of the other children through his nose. Shiva (Siddharth) and Saleem’s best friend, a girl named Parvati (Shriya Saran), are the other potent ones and their lives intertwine with India’s social and political landscape, in both magical and tragic ways.
As it goes along, the movie becomes rife with new twists and developments, but unfortunately it doesn’t know how to keep them organized and relevant. As a result, I grew weary watching it. I can’t help but think the movie wanted to mirror Forrest Gump with its ambition to place its main character in the center of major historical events, but the difference is that “Gump” gave us a character we felt we knew and deeply cared for. We don’t get that same impression with Saleem in Midnight’s Children. Perhaps the movie doesn’t give us enough one on one time with him, or allow us to see enough from his particular point of view, but he and the other characters, despite having distinct personalities, always seem at a distance. Even though the movie has a lot going on, I felt removed from it.
I’m willing to admit my negative reaction to Midnight’s Children could be the result of my lack of personal connection to the events themselves. After all, I’m not Indian. But then, I also think the movie assumes it doesn’t have to place itself in a context for non-Indian viewers, and if it’s not willing to do that, then it should have tried harder to establish a connection between us and Saleem, if only as a hero figure. The lack of both prevented me from seeing Midnight’s Children as nothing more than a beautiful-looking film with a fair amount of narrative potential - potential it’s not able to live up to.