Deepa Mehta is a profoundly frustrating filmmaker. She has a marvelous visual sense and occasionally conveys deeply compassionate insights into human desires. At the same time, her movies can be weighed down with unsubtle allegory and heavy-handed social agendas. I love Fire beyond all reason, but as close to my heart as that movie is, I have to acknowledge its warts. It is as self-consciously provocative as it is sensitive, which lends it a lurchy, uneven tone. Her unfortunate (and later regretted) choice to make the film in English did nothing to defuse criticism that it was exploitative pandering to Western stereotypes about Indian family life, and at the same time compromises the movie's realism. Mehta's Water suffers from unforgivable casting choices; neither Lisa Ray nor John Abraham are up to the tasks that Mehta sets for them. Only Earth is nearly flawless, a story perfectly balanced between the person and the political with actors who can bear its weight while mastering its delicacy. And Earth is an adaptation of a novel, not a Mehta original story.
Likewise Midnight's Children, adapted by Salman Rushdie for Mehta from his novel of the same name. But Midnight's Children doesn't sear and soar as Earth does; rather, it displays the same bumps and inconsistencies that plague Mehta's other films. A love letter to the nation, seasoned in equal parts by magical realism and thick political allegory, Midnight's Children is at its best enchanting, clever, and even magical. But it fails to hang together; it never quite exposes its own emotional core. The result is a movie that is, as one reviewer summed it, "watchable without ever feeling essential."
Some of the blame for Midnight's Children missteps falls squarely on Rushdie's shoulders. Perhaps it is a peculiar challenge for a novelist to adapt his own work for the screen. Rushdie probably should have elided more; he is not as ruthless to serve the constraints of the cinematic format as an experienced adapter would be. (It's hard not to imagine what kind of magic the late Ruth Prawer Jhabvala could have wrought with Rushdie's story.) The film opens with a leisurely set of sequences that reach all the way back to the meeting of the narrator Saleem's grandparents, in Kashmir. The film then recounts a first marriage of Saleem's mother, as well as her marriage to his father, before finally reaching the narrative's most salient symbolic moment, Saleem's birth at the stroke of midnight on August 14, 1947, the very instant that the indpendent Indian republic was born. These early episodes have a languid charm, and Mehta executes them superbly - the scenes in Kashmir are especially breathtaking. But they do not lay any necessary foundation for the core of the story, Saleem's relationships (both earthly and magical) with the rest of the "Midnight's Children," all of those born in the same hour of the republic's birth as Saleem. The scenes could have been cut without compromise to any of that, and this would have left more time for detail in what instead feels like a hurried and cramped main body of the film. (I say this even knowing that skipping this introductory hour would excise my beloved Shabana Azmi, as Saleem's grandmother, from the film.)
There is something funny, too, about the English delivery of most of the actors in the film. The problem may be Rushdie's dialogue, Mehta's direction, or some kind of bad interaction between the two. The characters occasionally emit a phrase or two in Hindi, for immersive effect I suppose, but this code-switching is more jarring than atmospheric, especially because the rhythm of their speech tends to sound so much more natural in Hindi.
But enough dwelling on flaws. There is more than enough beauty in Midnight's Children to make it satisfying while it's happening. The story's central symbolic idea is that the generation born into independent India are united by ties deeper than their superficial differences in religion, social status, customs, education. In telling this story, Rushdie draws on traditions of magical realism - the children born in that first hour of independence are granted paranormal abilities. But he also draws on the broad popular traditions of Hindi films - the midnight baby-switch engineered by the maternity nurse, Mary (Seema Biswas), is a fully masala touch. The boys who have switched places grow up crossing each other's paths, on opposite sides of the chasm of class, on opposite sides of the law, and even on opposite sides of the India-Pakistan border. This is the stuff of several blockbuster fillums rolled into one.
Saleem's own peregrinations reach across class and political borders as well. As a boy (played by Darsheel Safary) of a wealthy Muslim family, he travels from a lush Bombay bungalow to a lush Karachi haveli, where he plays a small part in helping his uncle, the bombastic General Zulfikar (Rahul Bose) plan a coup. Later, as young man (Satya Bhabha) he loses his memory, gets dropped (quite literally) in East Pakistan during the battle for Bangladeshi independence, finds his way to a cramped Delhi slum, and thence into prison. Saleem not only contains within his magical nose the power to draw all the diverse children of India into the same room; he contains, within his own life, a diverse sampling of the vast range of experiences that belong to the children of the subcontinent.
Deepa Mehta's contribution to this story is to populate it with talented actors and bring it to life with brilliant visual power. The casting is is largely a rounding up of the usual suspects, an art-house family reunion - Anupam Kher, Shabana Azmi, Rahul Bose, Seema Biswas, Kulbhushan Kharbanda. The latter is delightful in a smallish but important role as Picture Singh, the Rajasthani patriarch of the Delhi slum where some of the film's later episodes take place. His gruff, avuncular presence is thoroughly engaging and convincing. Seema Biswas - always one of my favorite actors - is a shining star here, giving a performance of emotional depth that spans decades of narrative. Her Mary harbors her secret - that she switched baby Saleem with the itinerant street performer's son Shiva to give the poor boy a rich life and vice versa - until the guilt nearly breaks her, and Seema Biswas is masterful at conveying that kind of internal turmoil with the lines of her tired brow and the set of her sad mouth. Siddharth is dry and filmi as the grown-up Shiva, who makes an off-screen transformation between gruff Tapori brawler and decorated military hero; Siddharth seems to channel Amitabh Bachchan and a kind of evil Vinod Khanna by turns. Other notables in the cast include Rajat Kapoor, very dashing (and incredibly tall) as Saleem's grandfather, and Soha Ali Khan, serviceable (I guess) as Saleem's sister. And one of the film's strongest performances comes from Shriya Saran, an obviously gifted actor from mostly Tamil and Telugu films who was previously unknown to me. She plays Parvati, another of Midnight's Children who, in a symbolic way, bridges the gap between Saleem and Shiva, closing the circle that binds the children of independence into a whole that can forge India's future.
It is Mehta's visuals, though, not the who's-who cast, that make the most memorable moments of Midnight's Children. At their best, the visuals are not just pretty but also rich with symbolism, such as the preoponderance of green in General Zulfikar's home that conveys the thickness of Pakistani nationalism in the air; Zufikar's wife, Saleem's aunt, is always clad in a green sari and is even named Emerald. From a breathtaking Bombay sunset to the dusty but bright colors of a Delhi slum, Mehta uses color the way Rushdie uses class and social status and political borders, to paint the diversity of Indian experiences in vivid and palpable symbolism. The movie may not hang together any more closely than the Republic does, but at its best it conveys some of the Republic's richness, strength, and beauty.