Film: Rushdie’s Indians, Gru’s Minions

Watching Midnight’s Children, the highly anticipated film adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s Booker Prize-winning 1980 historical novel, I kept experiencing a feeling of déjàvu. Here is a sprawling family epic keen in exploring the ways in which people from differing social backgrounds interact in a country known for its notoriously rigid class structure.

“Merchant Ivory meets Isabel Allende,” I jotted down, as I kept waiting for the British-Canadian production to honor its source material and the disparate texts it evokes. Alas, it’s a tough slog to sit through in order to get to the good stuff, even though director Deepa Mehta (Fire, Water) always kept me interested in finding out what happened next. The problem with Rushdie’s prose is that it’s quite distinctive, and judging by the underwhelming results here, a rather elusive thing to capture on celluloid. I would point the finger at the film’s screenwriter…only in this case, it’s Rushdie himself. (Mehta has a co-writing credit.)

The multi-generational yarn kicks off at the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947, the night India freed itself from centuries of British rule. “I was born in the city of Bombay, once upon a time,” intones Saleem Sinai, only it’s Rushdie’s soothing tenor you hear on the soundtrack, conveying how his protagonist was “mysteriously handcuffed to history.” Beautifully written lines, to be sure, but they ultimately prove to be more intrusive that insightful, more of a storytelling crutch than an asset.

From celebratory fireworks to mark the historic occasion, the movie then rewinds to 1917 in order to show how Saleem’s maternal grandparents, Dr. Aadam Aziz (Rajat Kapoor) and shy Naseem met in Kashmir. Their peek-a-boo courtship, courtesy of the bride-to-be’s conventional father, has the doctor with a nose of near-Cyrano proportions pay house calls to treat the young woman’s ailments…only he can only see one body part at a time, since she’s divided from her future husband by a sheet through which he can only see – and touch her – through a small opening.

“Husband or no husband, I’m not the moving type,” scolds Naseem on her wedding night when Aziz suggests she doesn’t have to remain nailed to the bed while performing her wifely duty. Fast forward a couple of decades, and the not-so-happily-married couple find themselves caught in the middle of political upheaval that eventually involves harboring Nadir (Zaib Shaikh), a fugitive wanted in connection with the death of a government official. Nadir has a thing for the family’s youngest daughter Amina (Shahana Goswami), and during their short-lived courtship, Midnight’s Children finally comes to life.

All too quickly, however, Mehta and Rushdie are on the move again story-wise. They have a lot of ground to cover. Too much, as it turns out. What’s challenging about shoehorning a 446-page novel into just over two hours of screen time, is that in attempting to integrate as much content as possible, you wind up falling prey to the whiplash effect, that disconcerting feeling you get from having to process a lot of information in a limited time interval. That’s not the only way in which Mehta bites off more than she can chew. Act 1 of Midnight’s Children plays like a flavorless telenovela, a middlebrow soap opera for the Downton Abbey crowd. This is probably not what the filmmakers intended, but Mehta, whose prior works suffers from a heavy-handed tendency to step on the sociological soapbox, lacks the tactility of James Ivory, or the assured humanism of Mira Nair. (For a more accomplished look at the Indian experience in the 20th Century, see Nair’s The Namesake.)

Midnight’s Children‘s biggest letdown, from where I was sitting, is its flat-footed, tone-deaf depiction of the novel’s foray into magical realism. Saleem, you see, is not Amina’s biological son. We return to that fateful night in which India becomes an independent country. Mary (Seema Biswas), a hospital nurse whose judgment is somewhat blinded by her devotion to an ill-fated radical, switches Saleem, who was born to a poor woman who died in childbirth, with Shiva, who was born to Amina and her entrepreneurial husband Ahmed Sinai (Ronit Roy). Saleem grows up a child of privilege, glancing from a distance at Shiva and his accordionist street performer dad as they drop by to play for the well-to-do family. Saleem’s large nose leads Ahmed to resent his wife for believing he inherited his grandfather’s schnoz. The nose turns out to play a larger role, because it appears to be the conduit through which Saleem begins hearing voices that belong to all the other Indian children born between midnight and 1 a.m. on the night he – and the new India – came into this world. Soon he’s able to see and have full discussions with the titular characters, but the way Mehta stages those sequences is so unimaginative that you start wishing she had excised the novel’s supernatural element altogether.

The director, unfortunately, is not fluent in the language of dreams, which becomes increasingly more apparent as the movie arrives at its surreal, baldly allegorical 1970s section, which involves genuine witchcraft, prisons both real and symbolic, and in a bit that got Rushdie into trouble when the book came out, a less-than-sympathetic depiction of Indira Gandhi. The demanding passages required a visionary like, say, Terry Gilliam or Emir Kusturica to convey convincingly on film. In the context of Mehta’s literal-minded epic, however, the noble attempts at tackling Rushdie’s potent commentary throws the film out of whack. Midnight’s Children does end with a poignant, tender reunion between characters who have been separated far too long – kudos to Satya Bhabha, for imbuing the adult Saleem with the requisite conviction – but these are tears the movie has not earned. I sat back and gazed at what should have been the highlight of the movie season and wondered in dismay how such captivating subject matter could be given such pedestrian treatment.

Continuing a strange, topsy-turvy summer 2013 trend in which a seemingly can’t-miss project like Midnight’s Children disappoints and what seems at first glance to be a stupid sequel turns out to exceed expectations, Despicable Me 2 hits the Fourth of July weekend ready to make a killing at the box office, and it actually merits the success it most certainly has coming its way. For reviewers like me, who thought directors Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud concocted a pleasant but rather toothless bauble with Despicable Me #1, this bright, irresistibly goofy follow-up comes as a bit of a surprise, a defiantly cartoonish comedy that finds more layers in its reformed, ex-villain Gru – voiced with relish once again by Steve Carell – than the first one uncovered in him as a bad guy.What the new film’s detractors are complaining about – that it lacks the impish glee that enlivened its predecessor – is the one element I did not miss in the slightest. Gru, you see, is trying to make a go of it as purveyor of (truly awful) jellies and jams, manufactured by those yellow receptacles of pure id, the scene-stealing Minions. Sure, he misses devising dastardly deeds now and again, but he’s got his three girls – Margo, Edith and Agnes – to look after, so if that means dressing up as a pink princess for Agnes’ birthday party, their well-being is worth enduring the occasional humiliation.

It seems, however, that Gru’s change of heart has caught the attention of the Fleming-esque Anti-Villain League, which sends out new recruit Lucy (a delightful Kristen Wiig) to talk him into helping them catch a mysterious new threat to the forces of good. Lucy’s efficient at her job, but also a bit of a klutz, which yields some funny slapstick, especially when it becomes apparent she’s quite an admirer of her reluctant new partner as they both go undercover at a local shopping mall to root out the evil mastermind. Could it possibly be jolly, roly-poly Mexican restaurateur Eduardo (Benjamin Bratt, agreeably over the top)?

Coffin and Renaud have clearly given a lot of thought to their gags, which involve some hilarious props – dig that sombrero-shaped tortilla crust lined with guacamole – and some throwaway characters like a neurotic chicken that acts as Eduardo’s security system. Best of all, they took the time to determine what makes Gru tick, especially as he embarks on that most dangerous mission of all: finding a significant other. Carp all you want about how the filmmakers use the Minions to pander to their target audience, haters – the directors’ next project happens to center on the jittery critters – but Despicable Me 2 works as well as it does because it explores the ways in which being a hero can be much more complicated, and far richer, than embodying evil.

Despicable Me 2 is currently out in wide release in both 2D and 3D. Midnight’s Children gives viewers a passage to India starting Thursday at O Cinema (o-cinema.org). It also opens Friday at the Bill Cosford Cinema (cosfordcinema.com). Happy Fourth of July, readers.

About Ruben Rosario

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