Even as Salman Rushdie’s voice spoke eruditely over the opening shots, there was a sense that, given the author’s proximity to his novel, there would be an element of self-indulgence that could make a tough task well nigh impossible. And the ‘sense’ slowly became a ‘conviction’ as the movie progressed, seeming a patchy imitation dress when compared to the refined and wonderful texture that made the original novel so rich and desirable.
Great books rarely convert to great movies, and take a book which is full of symbolisms and little allegories and the task becomes infinitely tougher. So sometimes, having read the novel is a bit of a curse when watching the movie. But in this case, one can scarcely imagine what the audience would grasp had the storyline not been out there already.
Rajat Kapoor plays Saleem’s, the protagonist, grandfather and the story begins long before he’s born. Rajat is very good as the idealistic and comparatively ‘western’ doctor Aziz and his early exchanges with his wife-to-be’s father, played by the versatile Anupam Kher, are intriguing. But the romance between him and Naseem, who is later played by Shabana Azmi, is a bit cut-chop.
So it is with a complete disconnect with the audience that Rushdie takes us to how Saleem’s parents came to meet. Naseem’s three daughters – Mumtaz, Alia and Emerald – are all very ably portrayed by the relatively untested Shahana Goswami, the even less experienced Shikha Talsania and the extremely pretty Anita Majumdar. While each one seems to live their characters ably, the initial lack of focus on their personalities leaves the audience very distant from what’s going on yet again.
Shabana Azmi is predictably good, as are most of the well-chosen actors, but the overlying narration that takes us through the linear tale doesn’t let the movie take off.
The story does get interesting once Mumtaz, now Ameena, gets married to Ahmed Sinai, the surprisingly good Ronit Roy, better known for his acting on the smaller screen, and our Midnight’s Children are born on the stroke of midnight on the day India is freed.
From there, in spite of some outstandingly excellent acting from the child artists, with young Saleem, played by ‘Taare Zameen Par’s’ Darsheel, the story gets steadily more and more surreal. Sadly, what shines forth in the book as a mixture of allegory and symbolisms fails to manifest on the big screen as Saleem and Shiv’s destinies are switched by a nurse in a misplaced fit of idealism. A deserved mention for Seema Biswas, the nurse Mary, who has played her role to near perfection.
From there on, the movie is a patchwork of some poignant and promising scenes, woven in with some half-sewn characters who have all acted rather well – including the likes of Rahul Bose as Pakistani General Zulfikar, the underused Soha Ali Khan as Singer Jamila, the surprisingly adequate Siddharth as a grown up Shiva and a little cameo from Samrat Chakrabarti as the Chaplin-esque Wee Willie Winkie – and all of that is stitched together on a seam by Salman Rushdie’s erudite voice which is better suited to some university lecture or documentary and lacks the subtlety and command that an actor would’ve been able to provide.
That is just one of the self-indulgent things in a movie which may have been better had the acclaimed author not been involved. In spite of his insistence that he’s discarded portions of the book, he seems to have been too reluctant to snip enough to focus on the issue and it feels more like a linear string of strange events that happened rather than the fascinating tale of twins that mirrors that of India and Pakistan pre and post independence.
A real pity, when compared to the book, is the lack of Padma in the story. Saleem, in the book, tells his narrative to the lady and her interjections and little add-ons make for a bi-temporal tale with splashes of wry humour. Without Padma, Saleem seems to be just telling the tale of his life to no one in particular, and that’s a major loss for the movie adaptation.
There are moments where the symbols do shine forth, like the portion when Indira Gandhi announces emergency, all of which is portrayed in a Delhi under continuous severe cloud-cover, lending it an eerily apt air. But the audience is left largely unsatisfied as much of it seems absurdist rather than the intended ‘symbolic’.
A final pat on the back Satya Bhaba, who plays the grown up Saleem, for a good effort may well be in order while talking about the acting. But Deepa Mehta’s ambitious project was, sadly, nothing more than an amalgamation of a cast with infinitely vast potential.
Go watch the movie only if you’re fascinatingly curious about just how Deepa Mehta and Salman Rushdie have gone about making the excellent novel into a mediocre movie.