Rushdie wrote the screenplay, with help from Mehta, the director of the excellent Oscar-nominated film Water (which also dealt with Indian history). Perhaps one problem is that the film is too reverential toward its literary source, struggling to incorporate most of Rushdie’s teeming subplots.
The result is that it becomes too difficult to find a narrative focus. Rushdie himself narrates the film, which is told from the point of view of Saleem, a boy born at the very moment when India declared its independence from England in 1947. The early scenes, which may be the film’s most engaging, introduce the boy’s grandfather, Dr. Aziz (clearly intended as an homage to the protagonist of E.M. Forster’s classic novel, A Passage to India), his wife and three daughters. The doctor and his family are Muslims living in India, and the film captures some of the tensions that led to the partition of Pakistan and the later creation of a third country, Bangladesh. Yet Midnight is not conceived as a political tract. It’s designed as more of a fairy tale about babies switched at birth and a witch with magical powers.
It may be that this fanciful tale isn’t well suited to Mehta’s talents, or it could be simply too challenging to blend this kind of whimsy with dramatic reconstructions of major cataclysms in Asian history. One gets impatient trying to keep track of the vast cast of characters and all the news events treated in such quicksilver fashion.
There are moments of wit and charm, and some of the tumultuous crowd scenes have unmistakable urgency. Although most of the movie was actually shot in Sri Lanka, it boasts a vivid evocation of Agra, Bombay, Karachi, and many other cities. Cinematography and production design are first-rate, and the lovely musical score by Nitin Sawhney also enhances the film.
Some of the performances help to involve us in the fractured narrative. Rajat Kapoor as the paterfamilias, Dr. Aziz, draws us into the fate of this family at the outset. Satya Bhabha, who plays Saleem as an adult, brings the right ingenuous spirit to the role. Seema Biswas, as the hospital nurse who switches a poor and rich baby in her own effort to bring equality to India, supplies the most moving performance in the film. Veteran actor Charles Dance has a few pungent scenes as a British aristocrat with a surprising role in this family’s tangled history.
Nothing less than an epic, panoramic look at the history of India and Pakistan over a 50-year period, the film is ambitious and often sumptuous to watch but not always dramatically satisfying.