One of the most beguiling of the many stories all knotted up in Salman Rushdie's brilliant, baggy, exhausting 1981 novel Midnight's Children concerns a lovelorn doctor, his beautiful patient, and that timeless exemplar of old-world prudishness: a sheet with a hole in it. The patient, Naseem, not yet of marriageable age, is forbidden by her father to be looked upon by a man, even her physician. The doctor, then, is permitted only to examine one body part per visit, through that intermediary linen. First her tummy; later, her heart, and the breast that contains it; then at last, her face, long after he has fallen in love with these fragments of her.
This is marvelous writing, sexy in a storybook way, equal parts sensual poetry and a Playboy party joke. And this courtship sings onscreen, too, in Deepa Mehta's adaptation of a novel stubbornly resistant to adaptation. Still, so lavish and unwieldy is the book, Rushdie's best, that a film of it can't help feeling like a helpless reduction, like a bucket of water passed off as an ocean. Or, more to the point: Watching this too-literal movie is like peeking in on the gorgeous highlights of Midnight's Children, one at a time, through a hole in a sheet. This is no way to appreciate — or even make sense of — its complex totality.
The doctor, Aadam (Rajat Kapoor), is the grandfather of Saleem (Satya Bhabha), the novel's narrator, a man "handcuffed to history" — Saleem is born at the stroke of midnight the day India achieves its official independence from Britain, and his life, so promising yet so uncommonly troubled, doubles the experience of his homeland.
In Rushdie's novel, Saleem has many hundreds of pages to chart the twining, allusive, fable-touched history of him, his country, and the dozens of other children born on that midnight, all of whom seem to have superpowers and hold meetings in each others' dreams. In the book, that isn't absurd — it's magnificent. Also, Saleem has a magic nose and is switched at birth with another baby, a boy who is doomed to a life of poverty and resentment while Saleem is given the advantage of wealthy parents. The movie, meanwhile, has just two and a half hours to cram all this in, which makes episodes like the sheet-routine curious inclusions. Not that I believe there are any hard and fast rules for cinematic storytelling, but when you're trying to allegorize some 40 years' worth of a nation's collective existence — and the complex relations between India's Hindus and Muslims — all through the experience of a super-snooted child of destiny and his wrong-cradle doppelganger — is it essential to open with the erotic meet-cute of the protagonist's grandparents?
Still, highlights are highlights, and that's a sequence with drama and weight, which distinguishes it from much of the rest, which is too rushed and free-associative to accrue much power. Rushdie handled the script, reducing the book to a headlong outline rather than choosing to fully detail some singular thread. The writer also murmurs bits of his prose in pushy voiceover, presumably in an effort to connect all these beautiful scenes to each other, to history, and to us. ("There are certain ironies that must not pass unnoticed!" he exclaims, plainly enjoying those ironies enough for everyone.)
Rushdie is rarely successful here, but the film, while fundamentally dramatic, is never listless. Director Mehta dishes up fireworks, parades, witchcraft, comic buskers, king cobras, and a late-in-the-game go at the horrors of war. She dashes us through family conflict, international strife, and spectral meetings of Rushdie's born-at-the-right-time super-kid Breakfast Club, a squabbling bunch whose powers never feel in the film like a novelist's playful evocation of a generation's promise. Here, instead, they come across as a maddening riddle, an are-they-real-or-not? dead end along the lines of whether Kevin Spacey is truly an alien in K-Pax.
The Bollywood cast musters up lively, committed performances even at the goofiest moments, as when as young Saleem is awed by the chatter of distant voices he hears via his magic nose. In the end, Rushdie assures us that the riot of color and incident and allusion he's narrated was actually, at heart, always just about love, which will come as a relief to viewers confounded by what's come before. Even if you've read the novel and are prepared for the long running time and haphazard structure, this isn't a movie you should expect to feel or even closely follow. See it if Midnight's Children is a novel you always wanted the gist of.