By Jim Gilles
Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 10/18/21 – This weekend the American Cinematheque in Los Angeles is presenting a retrospective series of screenings of the films of acclaimed Indo-Canadian director Deepa Mehta, a formidable woman filmmaker born in India in 1950 and based in Toronto, Canada. On October 15, Deepa Mehta was present at the screening of her 2012 film adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s acclaimed novel Midnight’s Children (1981) and answered questions about the making of the film and her career in cinema. This year celebrates the 40th anniversary of the publication of Salman Rushdie’s second novel Midnight’s Children. Deepa Mehta in the Q&A at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica after the screening elaborated about her work with Rushdie in co-writing the screenplay and convincing Rushdie to serve as the film’s narrator. Deepa Mehta’s epic saga follows two lives that are mysteriously intertwined – Saleem Sinai, the bastard child of a beggar woman, and Shiva, the only son of a wealthy couple. Switched at birth in a Bombay hospital on the night India became independent from Great Britain in 1947, Saleem and Shiva find themselves on opposite sides of many a conflict (whether due to class, politics, romantic rivalry or shifting borders) in the decades that follow. Full of heartbreak, hope, comedy, tragedy and a considerable amount of magic, Midnight’s Children conjures characters and images as rich and unforgettable as the vast nation it celebrates.
The American Cinematheque retrospective of the films of Deepa Mehta includes her pioneering Elements Trilogy: Fire (1996), Earth (1998), Water (2005), as well as Beeba Boys (2015) and her latest Funny Boy (2020), which explores the sexual awakening of a Sri Lankan teenage boy who falls in love with a male classmate. Earth was submitted by India as its official entry for the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language film in 1997, and Water was Canada’s official entry for the same award in 2006. She co-founded Hamilton-Mehta Productions, with her husband, producer David Hamilton in 1996. Deepa Mehta was born in Amritsar, in the Punjab, though her family moved to New Delhi while she was still a child. Subsequently, Mehta attended a fancy English-style boarding school in India and later graduated from Lady Shri Ram College for Women in Delhi with a degree in philosophy. After graduating from college, Mehta began working for a film production company that made documentary and educational films for the Indian government. During the production of her first feature-length documentary focusing on the working life of a child bride, she herself married and soon found her way to living in Canada.
Deepa Mehta’s film adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s novel Midnight’s Children did not receive a kind reception from critics on the film at the time of its release. Rushdie’s work was a Booker prize-winning novel of magical realism – largely considered to be unfilmable. However, Deepa Mehta’s film was nominated for an Oscar in 2013. As a film and novel, Midnight’s Children is a huge work covering over 60 years in the turbulent history of India and Pakistan from the end of the Second World War up to Indira Gandhi’s repressive “Emergency” of the late 1970s, as they affect five generations of a well-off Muslim clan and their associates in Kashmir, Agra, Mumbai, Karachi. It brings together Dickens, Kipling and Shakespeare, Christianity, Hinduism and Islam, comedy, tragedy and farce, and has as its moral and dramatic fulcrum the year 1947 when the misjudged partition of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan was insisted upon by the Muslims and acquiesced in by the departing British.
Rushdie’s brilliant insight was to bring together the private and public lives of those involved by inventing a mystical bond between the children born around the midnight hour of 17 August 1947. The narrator and central character famously remarks: “I had been mysteriously handcuffed to history, my destinies indissolubly chained to those of my country.” He and his peers are given special powers (prophecy, magic, metamorphosis) in exchange for terrible responsibilities, and they become the embodiment of the best hope of the two nations during a period of bad faith, violence and the betrayal of democracy. At the center is a variation of Mark Twain’s tale The Prince and the Pauper: a rich boy and the son of a street musician are swapped at birth in the early seconds of 18 August by a misguided midwife, who (following the political dictates of her communist lover) believes she is exercising benign social engineering. So, the central characters have divided identities, a situation made even more complex by the concealed paternity (from a European source) of one of them.
In the first post-Partition episode of Midnight’s Children, we’re briefly shown a poster of the 1957 film Mother India, the most popular and revered of all Bollywood movies. It features the monstre sacré, Nargis, the country’s biggest postwar star, as a suffering peasant mother, a symbolic Mother Courage figure of independent India. This is a clear hint that the makers consider Midnight’s Children a sophisticated urban riposte to Mother India‘s sentimental rural story. Salman Rushdie, born in Mumbai and educated in Britain, is the subcontinent’s most visible cosmopolitan exile. Rushdie’s novel and Mehta’s film capture the sorrow and anger for what their homeland is, and hopeful anticipation of what it still might be.
The film begins with the narrator, Saleem Sinai, describing his much-anticipated birth at the moment of Indian independence. The narrative jumps back to 1917 Kashmir. Saleem’s grandfather, Dr. Aadam Aziz went to the Ghani mansion to have a look at the landlord’s sick daughter, Nasim, without realizing that she was going to be his future wife. The narrative jumps to Agra of 1942. Saleem says his grandfather had contracted an optimism disease of those times and had become an ardent supporter of Mian Abdullah. But Abdullah, while returning from a party with his secretary Nadir (Zaib Shaikh), gets assassinated by a group of his enemies. Nadir flees away to Dr. Aziz’s house where Aziz shelters him in his cellar despite opposition from his wife Nasim. Saleem introduces Aadam’s 3 daughters, Alia (Ahikha Talsania), Mumtaz (Shahana Goswami) and Emerald (Anita Maumdar). During Nadir’s stay, Mumtaz developed a bond with him which resulted in their marriage. Soon the marriage was broken when general Zulfikar (Rahul Bose) and his team learned of his presence in the cellar. Devastated by the unexpected divorce, Mumtaz finds solace in the arms of the wealthy entrepreneur Ahmed Sinai (Ronit Roy).
The two married and moved from Calcutta to Bombay, where they bought a villa from a wealthy Englishman Methwold (Charles Dance). Mumtaz (Shahana Goswami) takes up a new name, Amina Sinai. In the villa an accordionist, Wee Willie Winkie and his wife, used to come to sing and entertain and a matter of fact was this that the wife was carrying Methwold’s child with her. Amina too was carrying a child then. Both went into labor on 14th August, and gave birth at the moment India got independence. However, a nurse, Mary (Seema Biswas), driven by love for her revolutionary partner, decided to swap the name tags of the rich and the poor kids, thus altering their fates. Mary realizes the extent of her mistake and requests to make amends by deciding to become Saleem’s ayah (nanny). One boy meant for poverty, led a life of privilege, and Shiva (Purav Bhandare), the one destined for fortune led an unfortunate, impoverished life on the streets. For Saleem (Darsheel Safary), things worsen, as his family pressurizes him to be different and special, while his father becomes an alcoholic. He soon started hearing voices which he realizes could be controlled by him, soon realizing that these were the voices of the other midnight’s children born in the initial hours of the independence all of whom had special powers. The most prominent of them however were, Shiva the warlord and Parvati the witch, who was his only blind supporter, and Saleem himself with telepathic capabilities.
Wanting to make good use of his power, he formed the Midnight’s Children’s conference destined to serve the nation. But things go against him as an accident reveals that Saleem’s blood group doesn’t match with his parents revealing that he’s not his parents’ true child. In shock his parents send him away to his aunt Emerald (Anita Maumdar) who lived in Pakistan, now the wife of Major Zulfikar. In his exile Saleem learns about power, politics and struggle. Saleem (Darsheel Safary) grows much distraught by the division caused in the MCC, due to the loss of innocence and the seeping of language and class differences amongst the members, he disbands the conference. Saleem finally is recalled back to his family which had now moved to Karachi. He returns only to find that his father had still not accepted him. Mary (Seema Biswas) realizes that the only way to make amends was by disclosing the events of that night, which led to the revelation.
The Indo-Pakistani War of 1965 starts in which owing to bombings Saleem (Satya Bhabha) loses his family. Having been present at the time of the accident, he suffers a memory loss and wakes up in 1971. He is enrolled in the army for his sniffing skills and becomes part of a crew which went to fight in East Pakistan which with the help of India became Bangladesh. Still in his amnesia, he joins a large celebrating crowd including the victorious Indian soldiers, whose head was Shiva (Siddharth), now a war-hero owing to his powers, and also a few magicians from India, which included Parvati the witch (Shriya Saran). Having identified Saleem she calls him, thus breaking his spell of amnesia. Having heard his tough journey, she takes him back to India in Delhi to her ghetto of magicians. They fall in love but Saleem, ambitious to do something big, leaves Parvati giving her the excuse that he couldn’t marry her because he was impotent. Realizing the futility of his ambitions he returns to find carrying the child of Shiva. Aadam, one of the many other illicit children, a result of Shiva’s numerous liaisons, formed the next generation of magical children, was born at the moment of the declaration of emergency by the PM Indira Gandhi.
The PM, an ardent believer in horoscopes, started to believe that Midnight’s children were a threat to her supremacy, so under her declaration of a state of emergency, she began a sterilization program and started to incarcerate Midnight’s Children and drain them of their magical powers. Shiva (Siddharth), now an Indian general, leads the project and searches for Saleem in the slums of Delhi, where he finally gets hold of him. In captivity, Saleem is tortured and forced to give the information on the whereabouts of the other Midnight’s Children, who are soon incarcerated as well. The sterilization program begins with medical procedures like vasectomies and hysterectomies which drain the children of their magical powers. A snap election in India forces Indira Gandhi out of power as PM and the state of emergency is suspended. The children, drained of their powers, are suddenly freed and let out of prison. Shiva, now on a wanted list, dies soon after in a motorcycle accident. Tragically Shiva the witch died during the bulldozing of the slum in Delhi, but she managed to hide her infant son Aadama in her basket of invisibility beforehand.
A bearded and exhausted Saleem finds his way back to the ruins of the Delhi slum. There he finds his son Aadam, already a few years old. So happy by this reunion, Saleem has lunch at a restaurant only to realize an interesting similarity between the chutney he eats there and the one he used to have during his childhood which his loving ayah (nanny) Mary used to prepare for him. He gets the address of the chutney company which is in Bombay and sets out to find it. There he discovers that he was right at last. Mary and Saleem are reunited and thrilled to see each other again. The film concludes as Saleem’s son (Raat Kapoor) utters his first ever word abra kadabra. The little boy Aadam represents the next generation of India and the promise of a better future.