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Rushdie’s first major movie script adorns ‘Midnight’s Children’

If Abbas Kiairostami’s “Like Someone in Love” – an Iranian director’s film made in Japan – was the most impressive surprise of all the films I saw at last September’s Toronto Film Festival, Deepa Mehta’s “Midnight’s Children” was the most disappointing one.

It’s from Salman Rushdie’s 1980 novel and its major claim to distinction is that it is Rushdie’s first major screenplay to be filmed. The movie is currently scheduled to open locally next week.

It goes without saying that novels and screenplays are vastly different disciplines, especially episodic novels full of magic realism. The most agreed-upon sentiment of those watching “Midnight’s Children” is that a two and a half-hour screenplay is an ineffective way to bring a novel to the screen that might have prospered enormously as a TV miniseries.

I also confess wondering what Ang Lee might have done with Rushdie’s script after seeing Lee’s “The Life of Pi.”

“Midnight’s Children” is about what happens at the stroke of midnight on Aug. 15, 1947. It was the exact moment that India declared independence from Great Britain.

Two children are born at that moment. And then switched at birth by a nurse for whom class and caste are too much with her.

Anyone’s who’s read “The Prince and the Pauper” or “The Corsican Brothers” or any Dickens whatsoever knows that their fates will be mysteriously intertwined. One of the two, Saleem, in fact, can telepathically commune with others of “Midnight’s Children” and assemble them into a movement.

The novel was the first novel by Rushdie to attract major worldwide attention. It much preceded the traumatic moment when “The Satanic Verses” and Rushdie’s condemnation by the ayatollah’s fatwa became the anticipatory event of the whole new world order we’ve become accustomed to – where fundamentalism vs. modern civilization is the bedrock of all our current cultural anxieties.

The eminence which Rushdie achieved almost accidentally during the reception for “The Satanic Verses” smudged, somewhat, the more modest and discrete abilities that the novelist and essayist had.

His first screenplay, though, for “Midnight’s Children” carried a great deal of expectation that the film, as watchable as it often is, can’t fulfill.

For all its whimsies – a courtship, for instance, conducted through a hole in a bedsheet – and its flourishes of magic realism, it’s hard to escape in the film the feeling that it is all being realized very clumsily.

It has its visual beauties and its appealing whimsies and fancies and some dialogue flourishes that conspicuously reveal a writer at work. (“There is nothing like war for the reinvention of lives.”)

But it’s a bit like a difficult piano concerto – by Bartok say – played by a student orchestra.

Midnight’s children

Two and a half stars (Out of four)

Starring: Charles Dance, Sata Bhabha, Rjat Kapoor, Shohana Goswami

Director: Deepa Mehta

Running time: 146 minutes

Rating: Unrated but R equivalent for nudity and mild sexual situations

The Lowdown: Two children are born at the exact moment of India’s independence from Great Britain and are switched at birth by a nurse.