With “Midnight’s Children” on their tryst with destiny

Deepa Mehta turns Salman Rushdie's schizoid tale of India and Pakistan into a metaphorical and allegorical history of the sub-continent

Mohan Guruswamy Delhi


Yesterday I snuck out of an unnecessarily belligerent meeting discussing the taking over of the management of Pakistan’s new Chinese built port of Gwadar by a Chinese port operating company to see "Midnight's Children" at the nearby PVR in Gurgaon. I never much cared for Salman Rushdie because his books were as readable as James Joyce’s Ulysses, but more so after he married the fetching Padma Lakshmi. The old goat that gets the magical princess always gets my goat. Such is the unfairness of life and we have to live with it. But some unfairness’s have good consequences. “Midnight’s Children” the movie that is, is one. It’s often that great books make lousy movie adaptations. But it is rare for a badly crafted book to turn up as a wonderful and delightful movie. No, it’s a brilliant film. To be able to retrieve a storyline out of "Midnight's Children" is an incredible achievement. Deepa Mehta turns Salman Rushdie's schizoid tale of India and Pakistan into a metaphorical and allegorical history of the sub-continent. Not all sixty-five years, but the first thirty years after chrysalis ending with the dark cloud of the Emergency rule lifting. It is a convoluted story and only a book can tell this story, but the director throws out the verbiage and extracts an understandable and imaginative swirl of fantasy to a turn up an engrossing tale leading to a well spent occupy two and something hours in a dark hall.


The main protagonist is Saleem, the bastard biological son of a departing Englishman and a Hindu street-singer who gets switched with the newborn baby of a very upper class Muslim home. Both babies were born at the midnight hour just as Jawaharlal Nehru was intoning "long years ago we made a tryst with destiny..." and the chimes of freedom rang. The switch is inspired by the revolutionary’s spiel of a soon to die revolutionary to the maternity home’s nurse that the rich should become poor and the poor should become rich uttering the only truth about the socialist paradise. That there will always be rich and poor. That to every Bo Xilai or Wen Jiabao there will be millions of poor.


So the Englishman's bastard gets the rich Muslim scions life, first in Bombay and then in Karachi, and the scion gets the life of a beggar's son in Bombay. See the allegory in this? The Indian of the story, synonymous with the India the English fashioned with English education ironically ends up in the Muslim’s promised land of Pakistan, and the Muslim son who should have been Pakistan’s pride ends up as the Indian state’s bullyboy hero. Both are there where they should not belong and both become what they would not have been. They are finally fused together when one man's son becomes the other ones, this time with full knowledge of the Englishman’s legacy. See I told you it is not an easy story for telling. And when you add the gatherings of all the other midnight children in nightly schizophrenic pantomime in Saleem’s solitude you have an impossibly convoluted and confounding tale. By the director’s and screenplay writer’s skills turn this into a narratable fable. In fact a soaring flight of fantasy with a fully throttled take-off and a perfect three point landing.


The movie is in turns sad and poignant, funny and lyrical, factual and fictional, and a huge flight of imagination with events of history and its personalities as milestones marking its journey. The cast of characters, some real people, some composites and some too good but to be fictional is brilliantly enacted by an ensemble of some of our best actors. Yet some stand out. Shahana Goswami is brilliant as the long suffering Amina who marries whose marriage to the businessman Ahmed Sinai (Ronit Roy) takes her to Pakistan with the son who was not, and a husband who was not the same as before. Saleem Sinai is played by Darsheel Daftary and Satya Bhabha and both are quite good.  Shriya Saran is Parvati, another midnights child with magical powers, lights up the screen with effervescence and innocent sensuality Shahbana Azmi, Anupam Kher, Rajat Kapoor and Kulbhushan Kharbana turn out powerful performances in their cameos. As is Soha Ali Khan as the musically inclined Jamila. Rahul Bose as the composite of Yahya Khan and Zia-ul-Haq integrates the menace and banality of the two with a cameo that would have been comical but for the implicit evil in the character of General Zulfikar who surrenders to General Aurora in Dacca. The setting of the movie is from 1947 to 1977 and every little detail that was required to make that time real - from the filmi music wafting in the background, to the way the trousers were worn navel high, and the cars and homes of the time - was there to help rekindle our own memories.


Deepa Mehta has truly arrived as a director who can take a frightfully complex and cynical story of epic proportions and stitch it into a cohesive, thought provoking and entertaining story that can be packed into a few cans of cellulose acetate. A great job and really well done. Salman Rushdie shows the promise of a new career as narrator - the sutradar- who links vast stretches of time and space with just the right inflection's of sardonic humor and gravitas. India finally has a successor to Sam Berkeley Hill, who used to narrate the newsreels that preceded our movies in the days of our innocence when we believed our leaders and before the advent of the idiot box. Go and see it. If you were born at the dawn of the new India, like me, you too will relive your life. And will finally realize what happened to us on our way to that tryst with destiny? At least for some of the way.