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Monday, 25 March 2013

MIDNIGHT'S CHILDREN. FILM

Before the Satanic Verses, and the fatwa, death threats and years living under police protection, Salman Rushdie wrote his best novel, and one of the best of the twentieth century, Midnight's Children.

And now he has written the screenplay for the film of the book, and he also narrates the story. And this is the problem. There is too much Rushdie in this film. Rushdie is a novelist, he should have left the writing of the film to a professional screenwriter. This movie was crying out for a new perspective and a different eye. He should have just stayed out of it.

Not that it's a bad film. It is the story of an independent India and Pakistan. Saleem, the central character, is born to a wealthy couple in Bombay, on the stroke of midnight of the day that India gains its independence from Britain in 1947. The truth is, though, that Saleem has been switched at birth with another baby in the hospital, his real parents are two poor street entertainers. So Saleem grows up in relative affluence while Shiva, the baby who Saleem was switched with, is brought up in poverty and deprivation.

More than that, Saleem soon discovers that he has a special power, that of connecting, telepathically, all of the thousand or so children that were born in India around the midnight of Independence day. And all of these children have powers too, magic, invisibility, being able to fly, great strength. It is Saleem that allows them all to talk to each other, to realize that they are not alone with their gifts. They are the Midnight's Children of the title.

It turns out that Shiva too is one of the Children, but totally opposed to Saleem's way of viewing the world. And so the battle between Saleem and Shiva is emblematic of the forces within India itself. Saleem is for cohesion, Shiva - also the name of the Hindu god of destruction - is for conflict, and this is reflected in the history of India and Pakistan at the time, civil war, attempts at resolution and peace, communal violence. The Midnight's Children's Conference is a mirror of what is happening the country itself.

So the story itself is epic and magical and remarkable. The problem is that the film is not any of those things. It is a faithful reproduction of the content of the novel, but it does not in any way capture the wonder and depth of Rushdie's book. The film is muted, toned-down, slow at times. Rushdie himself wrote the screenplay, and it is clear that the film is desperate for a different perspective, for a new way of looking at the story. Rushdie is a novelist, and the film feels like what watching a novel would feel like. It needed someone to really commit to making it into a film, and to taking chances with the story, even if this meant that elements in the novel had to be changed, adapted or left out.

So the film is not bad, but it is lacking. Near the end, Saleem, who has come through what he has come through, and faces into an imperfect world, and an imperfect India, says "the truth has been less glorious than the dream." He is talking about an independent India, and about all the plans and potential that the Midnight's Children had, but he could have been referring to the film itself. It is a mildly enjoyable two hours, but should have been so much more.

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