At 149 minutes, Deepa Mehta’s sprawling, hyper-saturated adaptation of the epic Salman Rushdie classic “Midnight’s Children” feels like too much to take in all at once. Suspended somewhere between fable and history without even so much as a toe on the ground, the rich-cat/poor-cat tale of two Indian boys switched at birth begins long before conception and continues well after they meet, boiling over with passion every step of the way. Love it or hate it, Mehta’s overripe adaptation ensures a whimsical evening of cultural tourism for select specialty crowds, though its effect will have worn off by morning.
Having previously adapted his own sprawling novel in several ways for various venues, including as a stage performance by the Royal Shakespeare Company, Rushdie rethinks the structure somewhat for the screen, eliminating the book’s framing device — an autobiographical monologue delivered by main character Saleem (Satya Bhabha) for the benefit of his wife-to-be — in favor of a more straightforward voiceover, read by Rushdie himself. Saleem begins by describing family history he couldn’t possibly know, including particulars of his grandfather’s sex life, and half an hour or so later, arrives at the matter of his own birth. The narration then disappears for long stretches, only to resurface late in the film whenever Mehta seems to have backed herself into a storytelling corner.
Entering this world “at the glorious hour of India’s independence” from Great Britain, enormous-nosed Saleem immediately benefits from a hospital nurse’s revolutionary impulse to swap the infant with another child born that same night. The nurse (Seema Biswas), who later becomes Saleem’s nanny, thereby ensures the poor son of a penniless busker a chance to become something important in this world.
But by virtue of the providential hour of his birth, Saleem has powers no one could possibly imagine — no one except the other 581 kids delivered on the eve of the country’s rebirth, making them a sort of Indian “X-Men” squad united by Saleem’s unique ability to telepathically connect them all. Had “Midnight’s Children” been conceived for the screen, this magical twist would surely be the focus of the story. Originating as a novel, however, it serves primarily as a device to deliver stirring political wisdom about which Mehta seems little interested.
Rather she is primarily an emotion-driven helmer, striving at every moment to make the audience feel something. While Mehta’s films are gorgeous to behold, her characters here don’t appear to possess inner lives of their own, but instead behave like puppets within their brightly painted environments, manipulated to provoke the desired response.
And so audiences follow along waiting to arrive at the point, which looms more than two long hours away, soaking in the exotic flute music, the festishistically ornate environments and the almost histrionic style of performance as if watching some kind of South Asian “Amelie.” Though Rushdie and Mehta have a history of controversy in their native India, there doesn’t appear to be much that would rile the locals in this film, despite having been shot surreptitiously under a false title in Sri Lanka.
Focusing throughout on the notion of family, Mehta’s treatment amounts to a Disney-clean metaphor for the country’s post-colonial identity crises, traveling from a traditional rural outpost to Bombay to emerging Pakistan before finally settling into an enchanted corner of the New Delhi ghetto. It’s a vibrant journey, but not a terribly illuminating one, building to a big reunion between two characters in which the inevitable response is not tears of joy, but relief for having reached the end.