So-called “magical realism” — spiking realistic narrative with flights of narrative fancy — works in books, but in movies it’s usually neither magical nor realistic.
Such is the case in Deepa Mehta’s adaptation of screenwriter Salman Rushdie’s hefty, best-selling novel “Midnight’s Children,” an often twee jumble of undeveloped ideas. Some scenes, if not spellbinding, do aspire to the poetic, but as the epic tale of a nation’s travails told from the point of view of a kooky character, this plays like a lumpy Indian version of “Forrest Gump.”
Instead of a mentally challenged Gump with a talent for appearing at key moments in history, Rushdie and Mehta offer Saleem Aziz (played as an adult by Satya Bhabha), who has the mixed fortune of being born at the exact same time — midnight on Aug. 15, 1947 — that India became an independent nation. Since that moment, he and India have shared destinies. Sort of.
That moment is a long time coming; perhaps imitating the lengthy gestation of India itself, Saleem takes almost as much time getting born as Tristram Shandy. Fortunately so, because the roughly 30 minutes covering the three decades prior to that event are the best part of the film. In that stretch, Saleem’s grandfather, Dr. Aadam Aziz (Rajat Kapoor), makes a house call to examine Naseem, the daughter of a rich landowner, who will eventually become his wife and Saleem’s grandmother. Because of the landowner’s prudishness, Aziz can only examine Naseem through a hole in a sheet, one glimpse of her body at a time. It’s an elegant and witty metaphor for their relationship to come, and Mehta, whose other, better films (her Elements Trilogy, for example) practice realism without the magic, relates Dr. Aziz’s story and that of his daughters and the men in their lives with a coherence that vanishes as more and more subplots, symbols, expendable characters, and other whimsical whatnots clutter the screen.
So by the time poor Saleem arrives, he has more than the fate of India to contend with. He inherits an overpopulated hodgepodge of storytelling as well, not to mention a huge proboscis with obscure powers. Somehow, in a slapstick version of the primal scene, that nose suddenly puts him in touch with the children of the title, the 581 survivors from among those born at the same time as he was. They, too, have extraordinary powers. Could they form an alliance and bring justice and peace to their country? Maybe in an “X-Men” sequel. Here they are just 581 more loose ends to tie up.
Saleem is only 10 years old at that point, and the story still has 25 years to go, focusing more or less on a Dickensian tale of secret origins and ironic destinies that culminates with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi — the villain of the piece, as it turns out — declaring martial law in 1972. That outcome is, to put it mildly, anticlimactic. Early on, the intermittent narrator, Rushdie himself, points out that “things — even people — have a way of leaking into each other. Like flavors when you cook.” Not with this film. It churns out a tepid porridge that even heaping measures of contrivance and sentimentality can’t make palatable.