Last week’s movie was about events that led to the toppling of an oppressive regime. This week’s movie takes place during a less successful attempt to topple an oppressive regime.
Available on Einthusan. I have seen that this movie is 141 minutes long, and…perhaps the version that I saw has missing sequences. But it is the only version that I have found, and it is approximately 131 minutes.
Ah…some backstory. Incidentally, I saw that 2005 Aamir Khan movie about Mangal Pandey. I found it to be only okay, so don’t expect me to do a write-up on it. And…erm…I don’t who was responsible for cutting the film, but I am pretty sure that “Hindusta” is missing a letter.
I am…not entirely sure what is going on here, but it appears to be some sort of religious event. A group of men are singing and playing instruments as a soothsayer sways back and forth as if in a trance before standing up and spinning around and around. This goes on for over seven minutes and is as close as this movie gets to a dance sequence.
The soothsayer gives the signal to stop the music and he relays a message from his beloved. He tells of swimming in a sea of unholy British blood. Their 100 years in this land have come to an end and they are to be driven out. They will fly like pigeons. Then he collapses on the ground.
An Afghan Pathan had been observing this anti-British ceremony with…let’s say ambivalence. When it is over, he rides his horse over to a house owned by a British family. He stares at the English girl, who gets the creeps and calls for her mother. That gets him to ride back home.
So, the Pathan’s name is Javed Khan. Presently, he is talking with his brother-in-law, Sarfaraz…erm…Khan. Sarfaraz is bewildered by Javed’s skepticism in regards to the rebellion. Bahadur Shah has declared himself Emperor of Delhi; surely that means something. Javed says that the British will get the rebel soldiers in line and this Emperor-in-name-only will no longer be even that soon enough. Besides, Javed doesn’t even think that the Britons are worse than the Nawabs, whom he says are helping the rebellion only because the Brits had snatched away their luxuries. Then he gets up to go play with his pet pigeons. Hey, the soothsayer had mentioned pigeons. Firdaus comes over to complain to her brother about those birds, telling him that her husband has showing interest in nothing else during the past few months. Sarfaraz dismisses her sister’s grievance, saying that the country is burning. Javed’s aunt arrives and engages in conversation with Sarfaraz. Why is he engaging in this rebellion? Sarfaraz brings up Mangal Pandey, whose loyalty to the British crown was in his veins. Yet, the Britons humiliated him as well as other loyal Indian soldiers by filling cartridges with fat from cow and pig. And when they refused to use those cartridges, the British arrested them, paraded them through the streets, and executed them. If the British will debase and destroy those Indians loyal to them, what about the rest of India? Javed’s aunt interrupts him, saying that he talks well, but no one in this area will listen. Sarfaraz says that the people will join when the bonfire is lit, including Javed.
We are back at the English home. Well, sort of English. There is Mr. Labadoor, who is English. He has married a woman with an English father and a mother from Rampur. So, the mother is half-English and the daughter is three-quarters English, but English for all intents and purposes. The grandmother is talking to a servant about Sarfaraz, saying that he is planning to burn English houses. The servant claims that there is going to be a riot tomorrow, where the rebels will loot the government treasury. Mr. Labadoor tells the servant to be quiet. He then complains to his wife, Mariam, about her mother indulging in ridiculous gossip. Mariam’s mother ignores him, and says that everyone should avoid going to church tomorrow. Young Ruth asks why, but Mariam reasons that her mother has not feeling well recently anyways. Mariam’s mother claims that the type of riots that happened in Meerut and Delhi shall happen here too.
Ruth’s grandmother brings up that Pathan who was staring at her. Her father dismisses that as nothing to be bothered about; it happens all the time. Ah, the 1850s.
Ruth grandmother repeats her insistence that they all avoid going to church tomorrow. Though he can speak Hindi, Ruth’s father tells Mariam in English to tell her mother that people who have not rebelled against their masters in over 2000 years are unlikely to start tomorrow.
That night, Ruth wakes up to the sound of a horse. She goes to the window to see Javed loitering outside the property. She calls for her father, who yells at him until he leaves. And…that’s that. Well, not quite, as Ruth now envisions Javed stomping towards her as she tries to go to sleep.
Morning arrives and it looks like everyone is going to church. Everyone except for Mariam and her mother. Ruth and her father actually arrive a little late.
The service goes on and on and on until Sarfaraz and his men attack. The English soldiers try to hold them off while the other churchgoers try to escape out the back.
Sarfaraz himself slashes Ruth’s father right in front of her.
Alone and covered in blood, Ruth runs back home, only to find it up in smoke. A friend of the family named Lala Ramjimal comes and tells her to go with him, saying that her mother and grandmother are safe.
The two run through the cantonment, hiding from everyone. Eventually, they make their way to that place where Ramjimal had hidden Ruth’s mother and grandmother. Ramjimal goes to the church to find Ruth’s father. Finding him dead, Ramjimal buries his body.
That night, a group of rebels come around looking for Britons. Luckily for Ruth and her family, they don’t search particularly well. They leave just before Mariam’s mother has a coughing fit.
Ramjimal returns to give the Labadoors the bad news. He cannot say it, but it is obvious. Ramjimal takes the women to his home. His mother is not happy with this, saying that the rebels will kill all of them if they find out, but Ramjimal insists that that will not happen. The servants are reluctant to attend to these sudden guests, but Mariam’s mother insists that they will keep to themselves and not be a bother. And then Ramjimal says to not call the Labadoors English, but to call them his friends. After all, Mr. Labadoor had helped out his family in the past and that should not be dismissed now that they are in need.The rebels parade through the cantonment the next day. Ruth notices Sarfaraz at the front and points him out to Mariam. She has to lie down after they pass, seemingly suffering from a fever.Javed’s brother Qadar arrives to speak with Ramjimal. The Labadoors try to keep silent. Ramjamal’s wife goes up to them and says that Ruth needs to eat something so that her condition doesn’t worsen. Mariam’s mother starts talking about food and Mariam has to shush her.It is not entirely clear if Qadar can hear the Labadoors upstairs, but he continues his conversation with Ramjimal. They praise Sarfaraz’s effectiveness in eliminating the English from the cantonment. Everything has been peaceful since they have left, Qadar claims. Ramjimal does express some reservation about the looting and the killing, but Qadar shrugs that off; that happens sometimes. In any case, all of the English are confirmed dead except for the Labadoors. Luckily, Javed is on the lookout for them. He asks whether Ramjimal has any idea where they may be. He also mentions that Ramjimal himself may be heading towards misfortune, as he had invested money in the British and now that is gone. Ramjimal tries to change the subject to those who escaped from the church. Mr. Qadar says that they were all surrounded and killed. In a fevered state, Ruth imagines Sarfaraz on a rampage.
The next day is…a day. Ramjimal’s mother still wants the Labadoors out, but temporarily settles on ignoring them. One of the servants offers to help Mariam with her clothes. Oh, and someone outside is making an announcement about the Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar. He says that those who help and give shelter to the Britons will be punish severely.
Well, if Qadar had not figured out that Mariam’s mother had been talking the other day, then he did figure out that it was her coughing. And told his brother. So, Javed Khan comes around and accuses Ramjimal of harboring the Labadoors. Ramjimal denies this. He says that Javed does not believe him, then he can chop off his head…and THEN enter the house to check. Reluctant to do that, Javed leaves.
Mariam asks about the Pathan, but Ramjimal tells her that he was just taking a shot and Ramjimal called his bluff. Mariam asks if they can go to Agra or Ajmer, where her brothers could take them in. No. How about Rampur, where her mother is from? Ramjimal asks Mariam to have faith in him.
At lunchtime, one of the servants give spoons to Mariam and Ruth, perhaps thinking that they are not used to eating with their fingers. They are rather large spoons, almost serving spoons. Ruth finds this amusing, and runs off.
Ruth gives some food to a poor woman outside. That is…not a prudent idea, as there are a bunch of rebels from Sitapur passing through on their way to Delhi. Ramjimal’s mother restates her assertion that the Labadoors will get them all killed. Ramjimal even agrees this time, telling Mariam to prevent Ruth from doing that again. So, Mariam tells Ruth to…not do that again. Ruth pouts.
That night, a rebel sneaks into the house. Who knows what he is actually looking for, but he gets to Mariam and Mariam stabs him. At least twice. Ruth screams. Now everyone is awake. As Ruth calms down, Ramjimal drags the body elsewhere and starts digging a hole.
The next day, Mariam gives Ramjimal a box of jewelry. Perhaps he can sell them to purchase their journey to Rampur. Ramjimal tries to reject them, but Mariam insists. Besides, his fortunes have probably all gone down the drain. In any case, he concedes that Rampur will be safer than here.
So, Ramjimal tries to go sell the jewels, but they get recognized as English wares and rejected. Anyone caught with them would get into trouble, and who would pay money for trouble?
It doesn’t really matter, though. Javed Khan had waited until Ramjimal was away to storm his house and search for the Labadoors. And he finds them fairly quickly. Mariam stands up to him, forbidding him from touching either her daughter or mother. He is taken aback, but orders them to come with him.
Javed Khan and his men escort the Labadoors through the cantonment. Others start following them, gazing at the last surviving Britons.
Javed brings the Labadoors to his home. And he had apparently not consulted his wife about this. Firdaus accuses Javed of trying to make Mariam his co-wife after killing her husband. She is not exactly sympathetic to their plight, though, not wanting them there in any capacity.
After Javed leaves to take care of something, Mariam begs Firdaus to not be annoyed with her family being here, as they were forced to come. Firdaus expresses surprise that Mariam speaks Hindi. Mariam explains that her mother is from Rampur’s Nawab family. That calms down Firdaus a little.
Ramjimal confronts Javed outside, saying that he had no right to barge into his home. He also says that he would have sacrificed himself had he been present. Javed explains that that is why he went when Ramjimal was elsewhere. Ramjimal asks to speak to the Labadoors and Javed lets him inside. He then tells Mr. Qadar that the Labadoors are with him.
Ramjimal gives the box of jewelry back to Mariam. He assures her that Javed is hospitable and that they will not face hardships here, even though he is unsure what Javed has planned. He also says that he is moving to Bareilly, where he hopes to get in contact with Mariam’s brother. He bids her goodbye and she grabs his hands.
Firdaus witnesses Mariam’s emotional vulnerability and sees only the indecent act of physical contact. She relays this back to Javed that night, but he reacts only with annoyance at her, and leaves when she tries to be intimate. Instead of being with his wife, he goes to glare at the shameless foreigners. Great. Firdaus cannot get rid of them. Javed wants them to stay. They are not safe outside. So, here they are for who knows how long.
This movie was an adaptation of the novella A Flight of Pigeons by Ruskin Bond. I don’t know much about the book or the author, but he is an Anglo-Indian who was 13-years-old when India gained independence from the British Empire and went through Partition. I cannot say whether that was on his mind when he wrote the novella 30 years later, but maybe. I do know that there is one major change at the end of the story, and I can maybe see why it was done.
So…a tiny bit of history. The East India Company was an English/British joint stock company that was formed in 1600 and eventually became huge, even having its own armed forces. 1757 marked the beginning of Company Rule in India. That lasted until the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. The movie brings up the animal fat used in the cartridges as the last straw. Wikipedia presents the use of Cow and Pig fat as an unconfirmed rumor, but the inability of the Britons to effectively dispel the rumors made it worsen regardless, and Mangal Pandey’s attack provided the catalyst that kickstarted the mutiny. The uprising lasted for about a year and a half. The British ultimately prevailed and started Direct rule or Crown rule under the British Raj. The titular Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar was exiled to Rangoon in British-controlled Burma for his involvement in the rebellion and died in 1862.
This movie would have already been amazing to me regardless of everything else simply for its treatment of the subject matter. No, not telling the story of a romantic kidnapping (that is a dime a dozen), but depicting one of the most tragic events in the British rule of India primarily from the perspective of Anglo-Indians. This, of course, is perhaps due to the author of the original novella being an Anglo-Indian who writes about Anglo-Indians. But…would a story with that perspective even be made these days? I mean, I don’t know, but I have doubts. This would not be the only movie that was an adaptation of a Ruskin Bond story, but the one that I had featured on WTF ASIA, 7 Khoon Maaf, was a very different story with a very different depiction of an Anglo-Indian. Of course, this movie is much more acclaimed. Quality aside, I find it fascinating as someone who is a little more familiar with newer Indian films than older ones. Were audiences knowledgeable enough with the events that they were okay with a different perspective as opposed to what they already knew? Could it be that Indian movies at the time were better able to depict such a story in this fashion? Is my view of recent Indian movies colored by my own experiences and not actually fair? I don’t know. Perhaps I should, but I don’t.
I have watched many more recent Indian movies about the struggle against British Imperialism. Some are great, some are less so. But most of them seem to focus on the British oppressing the Indians through everyday injustices and cruel acts of brutal violence. Here…not so much. For sure, there is a lot of TALK regarding British repression and mass murder. And there are depictions of violence in warfare, as chaotic and difficult to follow as those may be. The movie here, however, focuses on the massacre in the church and the fallout from that. Most of the tension in the film, at least initially, comes from the Anglo-Indian characters trying to survive within a community that wants them dead. The viewer knows that the uprising is doomed. The question is what will happen to these three characters before then; whether they will survive long enough for the British forces to rescue them.
Most of the Indian movies that I have seen about British rule over India show the British as being wicked overlords and when there is an individual Briton who is depicted positively, it is because they are either sympathetic to the cause or at least nice to the Indian protagonists. The aforementioned Mangal Pandey: The Rising from 2005 is perhaps the most egregious example of this, though Rang De Basanti from 2006 kind of does a somewhat similar thing. What the heck, Aamir Khan? That doesn’t really happen in this movie with Mariam. While she does not particularly defend or deny the British atrocities, she maintains her loyalty to the British Crown wholeheartedly and never compromises that in her negotiations with Javed or in her interactions other Indians. And she is still treated with respect and sympathy by the movie its, if not necessarily by the Indian characters in it. There are bad Britons on screen, of course. But few of them get much screentime, and most of that is in the few battle sequences. Otherwise, the worst that we see from other Britons or their sympathizers is Ruth’s father being rather condescending and patronizing. That is pretty much it on screen. The movie is not saying that the Brits are the good guys and the rebels are the bad guys, but it injects a large level of ambiguity both on a macro level and within individual characters.
Aside from Mariam’s mother, there are few Indian allies to the Britons and the Anglo-Indians. Ramjimal, the only Hindu character of much importance, is there, but then he flees, never to be seen again. The soldiers for the crown don’t have a lot of screentime.
The rest of the Indians are, at best ambivalent towards the presence of the Labadoors. I think that Javed’s aunt and her daughter are friendly enough, but mostly because they appear rather apathetic towards the political upheaval and the rebellion, or at least apathetic towards its chances. Everyone else ranges from barely tolerant to hostile. I will start with Sarfaraz. Sarfaraz is a force of nature. Decades later, the legendary Naseeruddin Shah (who has been in several WTF ASIA movies) would express regret that he played the character so…loudly. But that barely-tempered volume gives the movie the extreme of the rebellion. His passion, his righteous rage, and his drive make him the personification of the uprising. I hesitate to call him a villain, as that would be too reductive. He is, however a figure of terror and violence. After all, it was not a random follower of his who killed Mr. Labadoor; it was him himself. He would probably have gladly killed the rest of the family had Javed not taken them from Ramjimal. The forces that he fights against also apply terror and violence, but they remain largely hidden. I would probably call him a tragic figure. His cause may be just, but it has made him merciless and it is ultimately doomed, as is he. He may symbolize the more unsavory aspects of the fight for freedom. But…maybe the movie is simply refusing to shy away from that dark reality of freedom movements. Perhaps it is inevitable that people like him will become empowered and it is up to individuals to determine how okay they are with tolerating that.
Anyone who has seen the movie Lone Survivor will know a little about the Pashtun customs regarding hospitality. Basically, the idea is that anyone who arrives in a Pashtun’s community is considered a guest to be tended to and protected. That is a huge generalization, but…yeah. Now, Lone Survivor seemed to treat that footnote as heartwarming and admirable. This movie shows it with much more ambivalence. Javed and his family are Pashtuns, or Pathans. They practice this custom and, once Javed brings the Anglo-Indians to his home, the custom applies. They cannot kick her out like Ramjimal’s mother tried to do. Javed’s reasons for protecting the Labadoors may be less noble or kind than Ramjimals, but it doesn’t matter; as he has custom backing up his claim while Ramjimal did not. The Labadoors are protected inside in a way that they are not outside of the house, so no one can move against them while they are under Javed care. Even if he allows them to leave, they are unlikely to do so as long as the world out there is dangerous for them. And he seems unwilling to let them leave anyways. But that does not mean that anyone has to like their presence.
Firdaus doesn’t. Most of this is due to romantic resentment on top of the anger that she already has been feeling towards Javed. She has no power or say in her own home, and now she sees herself potentially being sidelined by a representation of the enemy. She knows that her brother had killed Mr. Labadoor and recognizes that that would not probably wish to be anywhere but here, though that is probably a means of sidestepping her wish that they were anywhere but here. Regardless, there is nothing that she can do about it. Because of Javed. So no matter how mean she may act towards the Labadoors, it is difficult to not feel some sympathy for her. Her needs are deeply basic and fundamentally simple, but they are viciously dismissed and callously neglected. She just wants her husband to be her husband. And he won’t.
Javed is an intriguing figure whose decisions drive the story. He is about as passionate as Sarfaraz is, but he displays it like a torch to Sarfaraz’s forest fire. Like his aunt, he displays little optimism in regards to the uprising’s chances of succeeding, so he is reluctant to join, to his brother-in-law’s annoyance. He has also been neglecting his wife, to her annoyance. So, he tends to his pigeons. I am…not entirely sure if there is supposed to be deeper significance to their being pigeons. I guess that they are meant to be a symbol of peace, which is a rather laughable sentiment in the moment. Additionally, they could theoretically have been trained to send messages back and forth between the rebel groups like in the olden days, but Javed just…feeds them and berates his wife for not feeding them when he is away.
The title of the film means Obsession, and could have theoretically referred to Sarfaraz’s fanaticism that gets him to commit the most heinous of acts. But, no. The title instead refers to Javed’s desire for Ruth. To possess her. This goes against everything going on. Her family hates it. His family hates it. Ramjimal hates it. The community hates it. The rebellion hates it. The British would probably hate it if they were to find out. But he doesn’t care. He is not, however, fully selfish. He could have…theoretically, taken only Ruth and forced her into a marriage immediately. Yet, he takes all three women and gives them all sanctuary. He could have theoretically overruled all of Mariam’s objections, but he, instead, frequently allows himself to be humiliated by making requests to her for her daughter’s hand. He is a complicated character and, despite being the primary “Indian” character, he is not really meant to be liked, understood, or sympathized with. He is just meant to be felt. It helps that he is portrayed by 33-year superstar veteran Shashi Kapoor.
I heard that this movie was intended to be just a small film, a piece of Parallel Cinema. You can sort of see the smaller origins, but there is a theatrical grandeur given to it. And that is mostly due to Kapoor coming on as producer. So, of course, he would take the role as Javed and make a such a unsympathetic character so magnetic and larger than life. He did not merely bring money and his own star power to the project. He also cast his children in small roles, as well as casting his wife as…MARIAM?? I…wow, that must have been an interesting conversation.
Yep, that’s right. Ruth’s mother was played by Jennifer Kendal, an English woman who had married Shashi Kapoor in 1958. Twenty fricking years. People may often complain about foreigners acting in Asian movies, but there is nothing foreign about her acting. She holds her own both in English and Hindi. Kendal was born in England, but spent much of her life in India. She was also the child of…Shakespearean performers, which served her well in this theatrical movie. It is a shame that she did not have many film roles to her name before her untimely death from cancer in 1984.
Ruth was Nafisa Ali’s first role, having been mostly a swimming champion and beauty pageant winner. Born in West Bengal and of partly Anglo-Indian heritage, Ali was…less fluent in Hindi than Jennifer Kendal was at the time. I gather that her lack of fluency was actually a reason for her casting, allowing for the alienation to seem more real. I gather that reactions to her acting were…mixed. To be fair, it is a bit of a difficult role. We can see her naivete, we can see her sadness, we can see her trauma, we can see her terror, we can see her desperation to grasp at any moment of joy that she can. But we cannot really see deep into what she is thinking or whether her thought process changes throughout the movie. We can see that she eventually recognizes that Javed will not “harm” her, but what does that really mean? It is hard to say. Ali would soon marry after the film and raise a family, so she would not act in movies again until the 1990s and her filmography is not long, as she is also involved in politics and NGOs. I do think that critics look upon her acting more fondly these days and have reevaluated her performance in Junoon…but don’t quote me on that.
Period piece, theatrical epic, classic. This movie is great.
WTF ASIA 240: A Family (Japan: 2021, approx. 136 minutes)
WTF ASIA 241: Bodyguards and Assassins (Hong Kong: 2009, approx. 139 minutes)