Wake up to 'Midnight's Children'

05:00 AM, May 09, 2013

Satya Bhabha, left, and Shriya Saran star in the uneven but sometimes enthralling 'Midnight's Children' Paladin/


Written By by Claudia Puig, USA TODAY

Trying to convey the full significance of India’s independence through the prism of a pair of individual histories is a hugely ambitious task.

Midnight’s Children (**½ out of four; rated PG-13; expands Friday nationwide) traces the fates of two babies switched at birth at midnight on Aug. 15, 1947, the precise moment when India declared its independence from British rule.

Based on Salman Rushdie’s Booker Prize-winning 1981 novel, and adapted for the screen by the author, the multi-generational family epic is wide-ranging and intricate. Rushdie voices the narration, which is something one wishes F. Scott Fitzgerald could have done for the new version of The Great Gatsby.

Director Deepa Mehta (the Fire, Earth and Water trilogy) employs political turmoil as the backdrop for this uneven but sometimes enthralling tale of two boys as they grow into adulthood.

Shiva (Siddharth) is born into privilege in the same Bombay hospital as Saleem (Satya Bhabha), who enters the world as the illegitimate child of a beggar. The newborns are switched at birth by maternity ward nurse Mary (Seema Biswas), who is influenced by her lover’s revolutionary philosophy: “Let the rich be poor and the poor be rich.”

With its many threads, the story grows occasionally convoluted, though there are significant moments of humor and tenderness juxtaposed with a sense of collective history. The film is beautifully shot, with vivid production design. But because of the tale’s lack of cohesion, it doesn’t carry enough emotional heft.

It sometimes feels as though Mehta can’t decide if the film’s over-arching purpose is to illuminate the complexity of India’s triumphs and failures, or to spin a multifaceted yarn of intertwined destinies, tinged with magical realism. Consequently, neither goal feels fully achieved.

Some of the characters are layered while others are closer to caricature. Still, it’s an appealing cast.

Particularly intriguing is Rushdie’s account of India’s tumultuous history, which includes the India-Pakistan War, Bangladesh’s war for independence and Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s 1975-77 state of emergency, which led to the suspension of civil liberties and mass civilian arrests.

As Rushdie says in his narration, “Most of what matters in our lives takes place in our absence.”

The film works best as an exploration of India’s rich heritage, and secondarily as a tale of fathers and sons and the vagaries of destiny.

A child and a country were born at midnight,” Rushdie wrote. “Great things were expected of us both.”

Unknowingly rescued from poverty, Saleem grows up in an elegant villa. Mary —the only one who knows about the switch — becomes his nanny. At age 10, Saleem begins to experience magical events in the form of a chorus of “midnight’s children” — who include Shiva and others born in India’s first hour of independence. These children communicate to Saleem telepathically, then eventually take vivid form.

Rushdie has called the book his love letter to India and the last lines reflect this: “The truth has been less glorious than the dream. But we have survived and made our way. And our lives have been, in spite of everything, acts of love.”