Unfocused, Mixed Magical Realism
Release Date: April 26, 2013
Audience: Older teenagers and adults
Rating: Not Rated
Runtime: 140 minutes
Distributor: Paladin Films
Director: Deepa Mehta
Executive Producer: None
Producer: David Hamilton
Writer: Salman Rushdie
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The main story focuses on a young boy and young man, named Saleem, who’s born in the first hour of India’s independence on August 15, 1947. Saleem narrates the story, but he actually begins the story by telling how his parents got together, both his adopted parents and his birth parents. In fact, the movie begins with how his adopted mother’s parents met and married in 1917.
It turns out that the Christian nurse at the hospital where Saleem was born switched two baby boys. One baby, Saleem, was born to a poor Hindu couple, while the other, Shiva, was born to a rich Muslim couple. The nurse’s boyfriend at the time was a left-wing political activist, and he convinces her that the rich should become poor and the poor should become rich.
Feeling guilty about her action, the nurse, named Mary, gets a job as the nanny for Saleem. Mary sings to him that he can be anything he wants to be in his life.
As a young boy, Saleem realizes he has telepathic powers, as do all the other children born during that first hour of India’s independence. At night, Saleem converses with the other children. He becomes friends with a girl named Parvati, who seems to have actual powers of sorcery or witchcraft. However, Saleem finds an enemy in Shiva, the rich boy whose life he stole.
The rest of the movie follows Saleem, Parvati and Shiva as turmoil grips the Indian subcontinent. Pakistan is partitioned, Bangladesh is formed, wars occur, and Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi suspends civil liberties in 1975-77. Making matters worse for Saleem, his father kicks him out of the house after learning that they’re not related. The father mistakenly thinks his wife cheated on him, and the whole thing tears the family apart.
MIDNIGHT’S CHILDREN, both the book and the movie, is an example of what is often called “magical realism,” a kind of storytelling where realistic or historical events are invaded by magical elements that can’t be explained, such as Saleem’s telepathy and Parvati’s witchcraft. It doesn’t quite work in this movie, because it isn’t until Saleem becomes a little older that he starts to experience the voices of the other children born during the first hour of India’s independence. Clearly, the movie should have started at Saleem’s birth, instead of showing how his adopted grandparents met and why his adopted mother ended up marrying his adopted father. These early scenes shift the focus away from Saleem’s own story, which doesn’t really get going until he’s a teenager. In a long novel, you might be able to get away with this, but not in a movie that ends up being 140 minutes long. Despite this problem, MIDNIGHT’S CHILDREN is an impressive production. It does have some powerful moments where the characters’ experiences truly affect the viewer.
Ultimately, however, it’s the movie’s mixed worldview that prevents it from reaching four-star quality. The worldview has no focus. At one point, the viewer experiences the tensions that exist between Islam and the modern world. At another point, we’re experiencing the tensions between the British colonialists and the Indian natives. Then, we’re with a Christian woman who makes a bad decision, then tries to correct it. Then, of course, we’re with the male protagonist as he starts telepathically experiencing the strange voices of the other children born near the same time he was born. And, so forth.
Despite this, [SPOILERS FOLLOW] in the end, Saleem rediscovers Mary, the Christian nanny who raised him. They are very happy to see each other. In a touching scene, Saleem tells his own son that Mary is his real mother, because she’s the one who really raised him. The movie ends with the last line of the book:
“A child and a country were born at midnight, once upon a time. Great things were expected of us both. The truth has been less glorious than the dream. But, we have survived and made our way. And, our lives have been, in spite of everything, acts of love.”
Thus, MIDNIGHT’S CHILDREN ends on a positive note, with talk about acts of love. However, the story’s definition of love is a little Romantic and too emotional, despite the ultimately positive character of the Christian nanny. The screenwriter, Rushdie, and his director also seem to share the Romantic view that people are born good, but that their environment and their social standing shapes the way their moral character develops. The second premise has some merit, but the first premise doesn’t. An even bigger problem, of course, is the movie’s acceptance of witchcraft. The movie doesn’t say where the power of witchcraft originates, but it’s certainly not from God.
Finally, MIDNIGHT’S CHILDREN has some foul language, violence, nudity, and sexuality. These elements would merit an extreme caution, but it’s the movie’s mixed worldview and occult elements that really undermine the positive Christian, moral content. Ultimately, all the families in the movie are dysfunctional or torn apart. This, among other things, gives MIDNIGHT’S CHILDREN a postmodern edge.
MIDNIGHT’S CHILDREN is a strange combination of characters and storylines that don’t quite hang together. The production is impressive, however, and has some powerful moments. Sadly, the worldview is mixed and unfocused, with Christian, Muslim, Hindu, occult, and other elements. Although the movie ends on a positive note, it’s too little too late. MIDNIGHT’S CHILDREN also has some brief foul language, violence, nudity, and sexual content.