I updated my list of Bollywood movies on Netflix with one new addition to the catalog. Midnight’s Children — based on the Salman Rushdie novel — is now available for streaming. Though just an okay film, novelty alone may be enough reason to watch it. The international, English-language production features tons of faces familiar to Bollywood fans, including: Anupam Kher, Seema Biswas, Ronit Roy, Shabana Azmi, Rajat Kapoor, Shahana Goswami, Rahul Bose, Soha Ali Khan, Siddharth, Ranvir Shorey, and Vinay Pathak.
Midnight’s Children takes the fascinating history of India since Partition and muddles it up with a bizarre personal story that’s impossible to connect with.
The events of the film — which are narrated by Salman Rushdie, who wrote the novel on which the film is based — begin well before Partition, starting with the meeting of the main character’s grandparents in Kashmir, 1917. They raise their children, including Mumtaz (Shahana Goswami), the main character’s mother. She has a brief, fruitless marriage to a man named Nadir before she marries the main character’s father, Ahmed Sinai (Ronit Roy) and changes her name to Amina. The first marriage becomes relevant later when the parentage of the main character, Salim, is called into question.
There’s good reason for this, since Salim is not the Sinais’ biological son. At the very moment the British left India and divided it into India and Pakistan — midnight, August 14, 1947 — two boys were born in the same hospital: the Sinais’ biological son, Shiva, and Salim, the son of a busker whose wife dies in childbirth. Inspired by her revolutionary boyfriend, a nurse named Mary (Seema Biswas) switches the boys, forcing the rich boy to grow up poor and making the poor boy rich.
After the boys go to their respective, incorrect homes, Mary feels guilty. Not guilty enough to confess, mind you, but Mary becomes Salim’s nanny so that she may watch over the boy. She also watches Shiva beg outside the Sinais’ mansion every day.
There are practical reasons for her to choose the path she does, but Mary’s act of penance seems cruelly inadequate. Rather than helping the boy she doomed to a life of poverty, she makes things even easier on the boy whose life was likely going to be a comparative piece of cake.
As the boys grow up, they discover that the hour of their birth gave them (and thousands of other kids born on the same night) magical powers. It’s unclear what Shiva’s powers are, but Salim can summon visions of the other “midnight’s children” by sniffing. It’s not as cool as the superpower of a girl named Parvati, who can make things disappear.
The superpowers aren’t really important to the story, until they are used as an excuse to round-up the now-adult “children” during Indira Gandhi’s rule-by-decree in the mid-1970s. Salim admits in his narration late in the film that things didn’t work out as well for “midnight’s children” as they had hoped. So, a thousand kids with freaking superpowers are no match for India’s internal conflicts and perpetual problems with Pakistan. What a depressing sentiment.
While the idea of paralleling India’s troubled progress with the lives of two of its citizens is compelling, the magical realism isn’t well-integrated into the story, and it keeps the audience at arm’s length. Also, Salim’s constant runny nose is gross. The story would’ve been more interesting without the magic.
The film boasts an impressive lineup of actors who typically perform in Indian films, but fans of traditional Bollywood fare should watch the film with caution. There’s a fair bit of sex and some nudity, plus coarse language. This is not a film for the whole family (not to mention that kids would be bored out of their mind by the movie’s plodding pace).
Another note of caution is that the performances are uneven. Seema Biswas and Shahana Goswami at terrific as always, as are Ronit Roy and Soha Ali Khan, who plays Salim’s little sister, Jamila, as an adult. But Anupam Kher and Rahul Bose are over-the-top as Salim’s great-grandfather and uncle, respectively. They’re the most obvious examples of a distracting strain of quirkiness that pervades the film.
Worst of all is British actor Satya Bhabha as adult Salim. His intense performance seems more suited to the stage than to film. With so much weirdness inherent in the story, a strong main character is needed to anchor the movie. I’m not sure if the fault lies more in Bhabha’s performance or the way Salim is written, but, either way, Salim isn’t a strong enough anchor.
- Midnight’s Children Official Website
- Midnight’s Children at Wikipedia
- Midnight’s Children at IMDb
- Details of Indira Gandhi’s State of Emergency in India