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 adaptation can't help but feel 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 achieved its official independence from Britain, and his life, so promising yet so uncommonly troubled, doubles the experience of his homeland.
Rushdie handled the script, reducing the book to a headlong outline rather than choosing to fully detail some singular thread. He 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. And the Bollywood cast musters up lively, committed performances even at the goofiest moments. 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.