The story starts in Kashmir about 30 years before India’s independence and meanders its way through various incidents to Bombay where two boys are born exactly at the time India got independence, on 15th August, 1947; one rich, coming from the clan that migrated from Kashmiri, and the other poor, the love child of a poor minstrel musician's wife and a Britisher who is leaving India.
The two newborns are swapped by a matron as a tribute to her Marxist lover, condemning the rich boy to poverty and the poor to wealth - as a metaphor of social justice - forever altering their fates. The rich child is named Salim and the poor Shiva whose paths cross several times during their lives, Salim representing the accommodative, kind India and the tough India of Indira Gandhi, Sanjay Gandhi, the state and system embodied by Shiva. Their birth coincides with the birth of India and their lives move in tandem with India’s history (till Emergency) shaping their lives – which, I felt, was a larger metaphor of how the lives of people are shaped by lives of nations.
This is a rough sketch of the story. Amidst this there are many plot devices used to bring various angles into the story, like Salim’s ability to summon, in his imagination, a bunch of children (born at mid night during India’s birth/independence) representing varied social strata of Indian society, his ability to sniff danger etc. The problem with this kind of plot (and it has come to this after lot of snipping by the screenplay writer who was also Salman Rushdie) is that it's very difficult to effectively flesh out its naunces in visual form. (Many reviews have complained about how the film has turned out to be a very emaciated version of the book, which rids the film of the richness of its literary sibling.)
And the result is often that one incident leads to another without any logical dots linking them, reducing the film to a collage of multiple frames forming, maybe, a very broad thematic narrative but without any immediate connection with each other. Characters come and go and after the movie is over you feel many characters just disappeared from the story without any conclusive end given to them.
However, Rushdie’s background narration is where the movie scores. Some of the lines are just too haunting and told in curt, British accent.
Probably Deepa Mehta got swayed by the grand pull to become the first person to recreate the book on screen. The book was staged in 2002 and, according to many critics, it didn’t work. Mehta could have learnt from the precedence. Or maybe the movie was made for people who have read the book thinking that the audience, having read the book earlier, would overlook the oversights in the movie narrative and would see the movie for the sheer joy of watching what they have read.