"Magical realism" is one of those descriptive terms that gets thrown around promiscuously: Its scope and characteristics shift significantly depending on who is doing the describing. Still, it's hard to imagine anyone denying that Salman Rushdie's second novel, "Midnight's Children," belongs firmly in that realm. Deepa Mehta's new film version of the book is as close to an "authorized" adaptation as possible, with Rushdie serving as screenwriter, producer and narrator.
In a manner that inevitably reminds us of Ang Lee's "Life of Pi" (and, for the few who have seen it, the criminally obscure 1989 "Queen of Hearts"), the film opens with the narrator, Saleem Sinai, telling his life story. It's a tale he insists begins about 30 years before his birth, with the comic meeting of his grandfather (Rajat Kapoor) and grandmother (Shabana Azmi) in a remote Indian town. They have three daughters. One of them, Amina (Shahana Goswami), in turn has a baby boy shortly after midnight on Aug. 14, 1947, the first day of India's independence from the British.
A few minutes earlier, right at the stroke of midnight, an impoverished girl in the same hospital gives birth to another boy, dying in the process. Maternity nurse Mary (Seema Biswas) — in a temporary socialist frenzy — decides that the class-determined destinies of poor infants and rich infants are so unfair that she must do her part by switching the babies. So it is that the poor girl's son is raised by Amina and her husband (Ronit Roy); and the rich couple's son is raised by the girl's consort, a beggar/organ grinder (Samrat Chakrabarti). Saleem, the narrator, is the poor-kid-raised-as-rich; the other child is Shiva (Siddarth), who by adolescence is embittered, angry, even dangerous.
We follow their fortunes for the next 30 years. (As he ages, Saleem is played by, respectively, Darsheel Safary and Satya Bhabha.) At the age of 10, Saleem starts to hear voices in his head; soon they materialize into visions. They are inhabited by those, like Saleem, born between midnight and 1 a.m. on Independence Day — Midnight's Children. Like the X-Men, each has one specific paranormal power. Saleem, the oldest by seconds, has the greatest power — the ability to make them all appear together. Not surprisingly, the resentful Shiva attempts a coup, but he is stopped the witch girl Parvati (Shriya Saran), whom he and Saleem will eventually fight over.
Given the hero's birth date, it doesn't take a genius to figure out that "Midnight's Children" is an allegory about India and Pakistan and the tensions, sometimes wars, that still plague South Asia. Naturally, the average Indian reader — and, to a lesser extent, the average British reader — will know far more details of regional history than Americans. Saleem and the others move back and forth from India to Pakistan to India to Bangladesh; at a certain point you lose track of which country is attacking which and how the characters metaphorically connect to the events.
This may lead to confusion for us, but that's the only drawback to this wonderfully made, fully engaging epic. Giles Nuttgens' widescreen cinematography is often breathtaking, and the performers inhabit their parts completely. There is the dreaminess of "Life of Pi" and the scope of "Slumdog Millionaire." Rushdie and Mehta also provide a load of genuine wit; the early sections are almost entirely comic, much like in "Life of Pi," but even funnier.
ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on "FilmWeek" on KPCC-FM (89.3).