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Blood in the canal

Nargis as the Christlike Mother India (1957, Mehboob Productions).

Nargis as the Christlike Mother India (1957, Mehboob Productions).

Mother India is a monumental and deeply disturbing film. (Spoilers ahead!) Released in 1957, ten years after the Partition of India and independence, the film features Bombay leading lady Nargis as Radha, the mother of a family and an archetype of Indian motherhood. When the film opens, it is the present day (the mid-fifties), and a canal has just been completed. Radha, the oldest resident of the village nearby, is given the honor of pulling a rope to release water into the canal at the dedication ceremony.

As Radha is grasping the rope and just about to pull it, the narrative shifts back to when Radha was a young woman and a newly-married bride. Most of the rest of the movie takes place in this flashback. Radha’s adult life is a series of calamities: her husband loses his arms in a farming accident and abandons the family to die alone, the village is washed away in a flood, and Radha’s baby is killed. Then when Radha’s two surviving sons grow up, Birju, the ever-rebellious younger son, terrorizes the villagers and turns to a life of banditry. Birju murders the village landlord, and in the end Radha herself wields a rifle to shoot her wicked son and end his reign of terror once and for all.

After Birju dies in his mother’s arms, the flashback ends, and Radha is back at the dedication of the canal. She pulls the rope, and water rolls through canal’s gate—red at first, then clear. And thus the film ends.

Why is the water in the canal red? Because the scene takes place immediately after the son’s death, it is clear that the red water is a symbol of Birju’s blood, shed for the good of the village. To me, the red water in the canal has a broader significance as well, and it is this—more the kin-murder—that makes the film so disturbing.

I read Mother India as a metaphor of socialist nation-building. Birju’s murdering the landlord represents land reform. In turn, Radha’s killing Birju refers to the rooting out of dissident anti-national elements to create a homogeneous socialist society. This happened on a large scale in China and the Soviet Union, and on a smaller scale in India. As in the large communist countries, the Indian government suppressed certain indigenous and other non-mainstream communities in the interest of national unity.1 India’s socialist development also dispossessed untold millions of villagers as land was cleared for infrastructural projects such as the canal that Radha dedicates. These people’s blood is also in Mother India’s canal.

  1. To be fair, capitalism could be just as destructive of non-mainstream communities. Consider the systematic destruction of Native American communities during westward expansion in the United States. []

Good action and bad stereotypes on the Northwest Frontier

I recently watched the 1959 British movie North West Frontier, which was released in the United States under the title Flame over India. The movie is about a team of colonialists (including one American, played by Lauren Bacall) who, along with a couple of trusted Indians, spirit a rajkumar (prince) out of harm’s way when a native state is overwhelmed by rebels in early twentieth-century India. Most of the action takes place in and around a train, powered by a shunting locomotive, which is used to bring the prince to safety. I must say that I enjoyed the film for the most part. With one very notable exception, the movie holds up well after all of these years. The plot is interesting and the pacing is particularly good. There are also some impressive location shots.

The plucky locomotive that saves the day in North West Frontier.

The plucky locomotive that saves the day in North West Frontier.

My favorite part of the movie is the first ten minutes, during which the rebels attack and kill the raja, while the rajkumar and his caretakers narrowly escape. Hundreds of refugees swarm into the British fortress before the doors are forced shut, leaving hundreds more stranded outside. The scene is dramatically shot, with a huge cast of extras. Except for opening narration, the first ten minutes have no dialogue. The action carries the story forward.

The rebels attack.

The rebels attack.

Even though the story is set somewhere in the North-West Frontier Province, now part of Pakistan, the opening scene was shot around Jaipur, in the Indian state of Rajasthan. It is very identifiable for those familiar with the area. The raja’s palace is Jal Mahal, an iconic lake palace visible from the road to the old capital of Amber. In the 1950s, the lake was low and Jal Mahal stood on dry ground, allowing the stuntmen rebels’ horses to gallop right up to it. Since then, the dam has been refurbished and the palace once again appears to float in the lake.

Jal Mahal.

Jal Mahal.

Jal Mahal Sagar, missing much of its water.

Jal Mahal Sagar, missing much of its water.

Jal Mahal after the restoration of the reservoir.

Jal Mahal after the restoration of the reservoir.

The British fortress is none other than Amber Fort, one of India’s most famous castles. It was built over the course of a more than a century, starting in the 1590s. In 2013, UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site.

Approach to Amber Fort.

Approach to Amber Fort.

Refugees on the path to Amber Fort.

Refugees on the path to Amber Fort.

The courtyard of Amber Fort.

The courtyard of Amber Fort.

Also in Amber, there are views Jagat Shiromaniji Temple (built 1599-1608), Charan Mandir, and a lake behind Jaigarh fort.

The heroes at Charan Mandir.

The heroes at Charan Mandir.

A rebel gunman scenically located in front of Jagat Shiromaniji Temple.

A rebel gunman scenically located in front of Jagat Shiromaniji Temple.

A lake behind Jaigarh and Amber Forts.

A lake behind Jaigarh and Amber Forts.

The heroes’ approach to the British fort gets a little distracting for those familiar with Amber, because they take a route that doesn’t make sense. They head north through a valley on the back side of the fort, then cross the ridgeline south of the fort, and yet somehow manage to arrive at the front gate on the east side.

Most of the train scenes were actually shot in Spain, although the Spanish landscape is enough like Rajasthan to be believable. The train spends plenty of time passing through a valley that made me think of taking Amtrak through the California Central Valley, with the high Sierra in the background.

The one respect in which the film is really dated is its religious stereotyping. The rajkumar, Prince Kishan, is Hindu; the rebels who storm his kingdom and slaughter his father are Muslims. The rebels intercept the train at various points in the story, sometimes galloping up on horseback like Comanches in a western movie. There is also a Muslim character on the train, who turns out to be the story’s chief antagonist, apart from the faceless rebels. Mr. Van Leyden is a journalist who insinuates himself into the train’s crew. After he refuses whiskey, another character asks him if he is Muslim, and he admits that he is. He claims that he is of mixed Indonesian-Dutch heritage – hence his name. The story leaves it unclear whether this is actually the case, because later Van Leyden claims to be half-Indian and fighting for the freedom of his nation, an all-Muslim nation. In his makeup for the role, Herbert Lom, the Czech-born actor who plays Van Leyden, looks credibly half-Indonesian. He does not look half-Indian.

Herbert Lom as the menacing Mr. Van Leyden.

Herbert Lom as the menacing Mr. Van Leyden.

From his position in the train’s crew, Mr. Van Leyden tries to assassinate Prince Kishan. He fails and is defeated in the film’s climax. If Mr. Van Leyden really is half-Indian, the stereotyping of Indian Muslims all as rebels is bad enough. But if he is half-Indonesian, then this is most problematic because it suggests that all Muslims are like him and have a similarly violent nationalist or pan-nationalist agenda.

Mr. Van Leyden is the one postcolonial voice in the cast. When the British leader of the expedition, the daring Captain Scott (Kenneth More), dismisses the rebels as children, a standard colonial trope, Van Leyden retorts that they are grown men – uneducated, yes, but men nonetheless. Van Leyden represents the educated, privileged elite of colonized nations, who were proud of their nation but had also absorbed colonial critiques of it. The character has several good lines in the movie, but unfortunately his ideas are all discredited by his revelation as the villain.

No Muslim characters are portrayed positively in the movie. That this movie isn’t just a colonial fantasy becomes clear in one scene. At the beginning of the movie, the last regular train makes it out of the besieged city; later, the special train carrying Prince Kishan comes across the first train stopped at a station. Its passengers have been killed to a man. Lauren Bacall’s character walks through the three train cars, full of corpses with flies buzzing about them, as vultures flock overhead. The scene is dramatic, and part of what makes it so chilling is how real it is. The film was made only twelve years after Partition, when exactly this happened. In the movie, Muslims kill a trainload of Hindus. In real life, adherents of both religions killed members of the other religion in huge numbers. In the movie, Hindus are portrayed as totally nonviolent – or in the case of the soldiers on the train, acting only in self-defense. As history would show, Hindus could be just as violent as Muslims.

Partition-esque train.

Partition-esque train.

It is this bad portrayal of Muslims that has kept North-West Frontier from becoming a classic, and rightly so, because in America and India (and definitely other parts of the world), the last thing we need is more negative portrayals of Muslims. It’s a shame too, because the film is good otherwise.

The Great Indian Serial

Prior to the liberalization of the Indian economy in the 1990s, the only television channel in the country was the state-run Doordarshan. When the airwaves opened to private investment, the number of television stations broadcasting in India exploded. In addition, the introduction of satellite television at around the same time brought television to remote and hilly areas that would have been difficult to serve by conventional transmitters.

Today, the amount of material produced for Indian television is staggering. I tend not to be particularly interested in television (I prefer the narrative framework of movies), but I can’t help being intrigued by a genre of show that has no direct analog on American TV: the Indian serial. Like American soap operas, Indian serials broadcast new episodes each day of the week. Unlike soap operas, though, many Indian serials enjoy mainstream popularity; the most popular are broadcast at prime-time. Furthermore, the serial format in India does not constrain shows to a particular genre. Serials may be sitcoms, historical dramas, or even retellings of the Hindu myths.

Last summer, when I was studying Hindi in Jaipur, the family that I stayed with had a TV in their dining room, which they enjoyed watching at mealtimes. The grandmother’s favorite show was Devon ke Dev…Mahadev (Lord of Lords…Mahadev), which featured effects-heavy reenactments of the exploits of Shiva, as recorded in the Shiv Purana. For the other members of the family, the clear favorite was Taarak Mehta ka Ooltah Chashma (Taarak Mehta’s Upside-down Glasses), about a group of diverse, if stereotyped, Indians living in a planned housing development in Mumbai. The episodes follow the antics and escapades of a large ensemble cast, including the title character Taarak Mehta, modeled after a real-life Gujarati journalist whose newspaper column inspired the show’s name. Several storylines run in parallel during an episode, sometimes merging at the end of an episode or block of episodes. The show began in 2008 and will air its 1500th episode this month.

A characteristic of Taarak Mehta and the other serials I have seen is the dilation of time. (This is also the case with American soap operas.) Nothing happens fast on the shows. A storyline about a single evening may fill up two weeks’ worth of episodes. The runtime of each episode is always liberally padded. Each episode begins with a recap of the previous episode, and ends with a preview of the episode airing tomorrow. Each commercial break is also preceded by a preview of the best one-liners coming up brek ke bad (after the break). Within the episode, footage from the show’s ever-growing corpus of past episodes appears as flashbacks. Much of the running time of an episode is also taken up by reaction shots. If a scene has ten characters in it, and one of them says something shocking, the reactions of the other nine characters are shown in close-up, oftentimes accompanied with a sound effect such as a bell or a trumpet. This is part of the distinctive style of serials, and it conveniently allows the producers to save on writing and set-up costs.

This episode, which aired last week, gets off to a quick start with reaction shots and sound effects when some of the cast’s children try to apply for a Rs. 50,000 loan:

Given the diffuse nature of the storytelling of Taarak Mehta and other serials, it is tempting to compare these shows with the ancient Indian epics such as the Mahabharata, which had sprawling narratives that featured stories within stories. Such a comparison may not be out of place. But I also want to point out that the Indian serial is a wholly modern form of storytelling as well. Although it may draw on a millenia-old Indian storytelling tradition, it also depends on modern technologies for its creation and dissemination—video cameras, satellite television, and even YouTube.

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