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‘Midnight’s Children’ lacks the novel’s magic

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Saleem Sinai Satya

Saleem (boy) Darsheel

Mary Seema Biswas

Amina Shahana Goswami

108 Media/Paladin Films presents a film directed by Deepa Mehta. Written by Salman Rushdie, based on his novel. In English and Hindi, with English subtitles. Running time: 146 minutes. No MPAA rating. Opening Friday at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

Updated: August 6, 2013 6:02AM

Salman Rushdie tackles a gargantuan task in wrangling his massive novel “Midnight’s Children” into a screenplay. The resulting film, directed by Deepa Mehta, is never dull and always glorious to behold but nevertheless lacks the novel’s soaring, magical brand of storytelling.

“Midnight’s Children,” which won the Booker Prize in 1981 and put Rushdie on the map, is a sweeping tale of India’s turbulent political history, including the India-Pakistan War, Bangladesh’s war for independence and Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s 1975-77 state of emergency, which led to the suspension of civil rights and mass civilian arrests.

All this history, with bland voiceover narration by Rushdie, is told through the story of one boy — Saleem Sinai — born at the stroke of midnight on Aug. 15, 1947, the moment India became independent. “Forever chained to history,” he would later find out that 1,001 children were born at the same moment; all have special powers. Saleem’s power is the ability to hear all of their voices and conjure the children together for strategy meetings.

But during that night of independence, something else life-changing also has occurred. Two babies — Saleem and Shiva — are switched at birth by their nurse Mary (Seema Biswas), who is influenced by her lover’s revolutionary rants: “Let the rich be poor and the poor be rich.”

One is born into wealth, the other to poor, wandering musicians. The well-to-do family raises Saleem.

The 30-year journey through history parallels the growth of Saleem (Satya Bhabha, with Darsheel Safary as the young Saleem) and Shiva (Siddharth) on their disparate paths. The narrative wends its way through war, birth, death and poverty, all accented with attempted bits of magic realism. But Mehta seems pulled in different directions and uncomfortable with the necessary touches of magic that bring the novel to life.

There’s simply too much going on here — too many subplots, too many symbols, too many expendable characters — and certain interesting threads aren’t able to develop fully. Rushdie is just too close to the material. The film becomes an overextended hodgepodge of storytelling; an outside editor’s eye was needed.

The cast is a marvelous array of Indian actors too little seen on American screens. The photography and locales are beautifully vivid, ranging from well-appointed villas to a colorful wedding in the slums.

British actor Charles Dance plays a small role as a snide, lecherous Brit unhappy with India’s move to independence. It brings to mind one of his earlier roles in another massive story set in India — the British mini-series adaptation of Paul Scott’s “The Raj Quartet” renamed “The Jewel in the Crown” (and shown here to great acclaim on “Masterpiece Theatre” in 1984).

It’s a bit of trivia that makes one wonder if adapting Rushdie’s novel into a multi-part television series might not have been the better way to go. That path would have allowed for more room to bring all the elements of the novel together. Decades of history, moments of magic realism and the poetry of storytelling need not be disparate elements if there’s room to breathe.

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