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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.

Forgetting the Mutiny

The Mutiny Memorial, North Ridge, Delhi.

The Mutiny Memorial, North Ridge, Delhi.

The Red Line of the Delhi Metro runs on an elevated trackway north of Shahjahanabad, or Old Delhi. Two stops west of Kashmere Gate, at Pul Banshgah, the view from the station platform takes in a forested hill that rises above the city. Close to the top of the hill, a Gothic spire rises incongruously out of the trees. From the metro station, it is just possible to make out a cross at the top of the spire. It looks like a steeple that has been separated from its church.

The structure is actually a purpose-built memorial. It was built by the British to commemorate the greatest armed revolt against their rule in India, the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857-58.

In 1857, the British-owned East India Company (EIC) ruled India as company property, in cooperation with local kings. Although the EIC had a trade monopoly granted to it by the British Crown, the company’s leaders were not under the authority of anyone but themselves. The EIC functioned as India’s government, because it had the authority to levy taxes, develop infrastructure, and raise an army. The company army consisted mainly of native troops known as sepoys (from the Hindustani word sipahi, soldier) serving under British officers.

The Sepoy Mutiny broke out after the EIC army introduced new gun cartridges that were more efficient to use because the soldiers tore them open with their teeth, leaving one hand free for holding their guns. A rumor circulated among the troops that the cartridges were greased with cow and pig fat, thus making them ritually unclean for both Hindu and Muslim soldiers. When the EIC officers refused to recall the new cartridges, sepoys across north India revolted. Rallying behind Bahadur Shah, the Mughal Emperor in Delhi, the sepoys managed to gain the upper hand temporarily. Ultimately, though, the EIC, with the help of local kings who had remained loyal, managed to defeat the rebellious sepoys. Bahadur Shah was deposed and sent to Burma to spend the rest of his life in exile. Since the EIC had done a poor job managing India, the British Crown stepped in to rule India directly. This was the beginning of the British Raj, which lasted until Indian independence in 1947.

The Sepoy Mutiny was a bloody conflict, and both sides committed atrocities. The Mutiny Memorial commemorates the British soldiers and loyal native troops who died defending Delhi against the rebels in 1857. In contemporary Indian memory of the Mutiny, the rebels were the heroes while the British troops were the villains. Indian history textbooks portray the Mutiny as the “First War of Indian Independence,” with the implication that Gandhi’s movement against British rule was the second. This portrayal is based on a selective reading of historical evidence, since large portions of India remained loyal to the EIC throughout the Mutiny.

Modern India has an ambivalent relationship with its memory of the colonial past. On the one hand, Indians are still proud that the British are gone and they are their own masters. But it has proven difficult to forget that during the colonial period, most Indians collaborated with the British most of the time. In some instances, statues of British monarchs and other embarrassing reminders of colonial rule have been moved to museums or sold to other Commonwealth countries such as Canada. Other colonial relics, like the colossal architecture of New Delhi, are too big to move, and therefore these relics have been adopted as symbols of independent India’s government.

The Mutiny Memorial in Delhi falls somewhere in between these extremes. In most cases, Indians after independence have not cared to tear down colonial monuments out of spite. This benign neglect has saved the Mutiny Memorial from destruction, and as of 2015 the monument still rises above the modern city of Delhi. But just because it still stands does not mean it is accessible or interpreted. When I visited in February of this year, it took me a while to locate the monument in the ridge park, as there were no signs pointing to it. When I reached it, I was disappointed (albeit not really surprised) to find that the gate at the base of the monument was locked and thorn-forest had grown up around it. Although it would be too extreme a measure to actually tear down the Mutiny Memorial, the British casualties on the side of the conflict have no meaning for modern Indians, so why bother making the monument accessible?

The Mutiny Memorial, North Ridge, Delhi.

The Mutiny Memorial, North Ridge, Delhi.

Panoramic view from the Chandigarh Secretariat.

Report on the City Beautiful

The Legislative Assembly in Chandigarh, designed by Le Corbusier.

The Legislative Assembly in Chandigarh, designed by Le Corbusier.

I remember the first time I heard about Chandigarh, the planned capital of the Indian states of Punjab and Haryana. It was during my first sojourn in India, after I had already spent several months exploring the country. It was a long and boring Saturday afternoon, and I was looking at the Rough Guide to India. I came across the city map of Chandigarh, which has perfectly rectangular, uniformly-sized blocks. I thought: Huh? I was used to seeing Indian cities that had been laid out haphazardly, so how did Chandigarh get to be built on a grid?

As I learned later, Chandigarh was built after Partition to replace Lahore, the traditional capital of Punjab, which was now in Pakistan. (At this time, Punjab and Haryana were a single state.) Prime Minister Nehru was in favor of building a totally modern capital for Punjab, to represent India’s arrival on the world stage as a modern nation. The individual who gets most of the credit for designing Chandigarh was the Swiss-born architect and prophet of modernism Le Corbusier. In reality, Le Corbusier was not the sole creator of Chandigarh, as he modified a town plan worked out earlier by the American architect Albert Mayer. The first phase of Le Corbusier’s plan, which ended up getting built with some further modifications, called for twenty-nine numbered sectors separated by huge landscaped boulevards. The state government buildings are in the Capitol Complex in Sector 1, and the main commercial district is Sector 17. Northeast of the city, in Sector 6, is a large city park centered around Sukhna Lake, an artificial lake impounded by a long embankment.

The town plan of Chandigarh, as portrayed in the city museum.

The town plan of Chandigarh, as portrayed in the city museum.

Paddleboats on Sukhna Lake.

Paddleboats on Sukhna Lake.

Chandigarh has gained a certain notoriety for its unusual town plan. The scale of the city makes it impossible to get anywhere by walking. The population density is too low to support a metro, and the city buses run infrequently. More than anywhere else in India, the people of Chandigarh have to rely on private automobiles to get around their city. In fact, Chandigarh is the only place in India that has more registered motor vehicles than people. (This includes scooters and motorbikes as well as cars.) The shopping center at Sector 17 is so large and sparse that it is never crowded and bustling like the commercial districts of other Indian cities. James C. Scott devoted a couple of pages to Chandigarh in his seminal critique of authoritarian high-modernism, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (1998). He included a black-and-white photo of Sector 17, which looks like a massive concrete wasteland with a few tiny human figures standing in it.

My attempt at recreating the photograph of Sector 17 in Scott's Seeing Like a State.

My attempt at recreating the photograph of Sector 17 in Scott’s Seeing Like a State.

Five years after first learning about Chandigarh, I have finally gotten a chance to visit the city. I could not draw any definitive conclusions about Chandigarh from a few short days there, but I did see enough to conclude that dire reports of the city’s poor planning and un-Indianness are exaggerated. While I do agree that it was foolish to make the city as big and spread-out as it is, it is still unmistakably an Indian city. Although private cars and motorbikes dominate the roads, there are also plenty of cycle rickshaws, autorickshaws, bicycles, and even horse carts. Sector 17 is a little bigger than it needs to be, but I feel that the austere photograph in Scott’s book misrepresents the place. It was likely taken early in the city’s life, before the place had had a chance to mature. In 2015, the shops around Sector 17 have brightly printed signs above them, like shops everywhere else in India. Far from being a concrete wasteland, the plaza in the middle of Sector 17 now has pipal trees and park benches in it.

A pipal tree in Sector 17, Chandigarh.

A pipal tree in Sector 17, Chandigarh.

Chandigarh is certainly unusual, but it is not exceptional in India. Planned towns in the Indian subcontinent date back to antiquity. Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro, two archaeological sites in present-day Pakistan, are the remains of two nearly identical cities built more than three thousand years ago. Although we know nothing about Harappan society, it is clear that they had a strong and centralized government that was able to enforce the town plan. Texts from later Indian antiquity describe the ideal city as a large square subdivided into square blocks, with the king’s palace in the central block. It is not clear whether such a city was actually constructed in antiquity, although the builders of Jaipur did follow the ancient guidelines when they laid out their city in the early eighteenth century.

The arrival of British colonists brought European-style town planning to India. Some Indian towns still have cantonment areas laid out in perfect grids for the British who once occupied them. Since independence, extensions of many existing Indian cities have been built on lines similar to Chandigarh. For example, Dwarka Sub-City in Delhi National Capital Territory was laid out by the Delhi Development Authority. (Other cities have similar agencies overseeing their expansions.) Dwarka is not built on a perfect grid, but it is built sector-by-sector with large streets separating the sectors. It does not seem to be a very efficient use of space. The Delhi Metro runs through Dwarka, but much of the sub-city is not convenient to the metro. The housing societies are built for people who own their own cars.

Apart from the scale, the most significant difference between Chandigarh and Dwarka is the underlying motive for construction. From start to finish, Chandigarh is infused with modernist ideology; it declares that India has arrived as a modern nation. Dwarka, on the other hand, is just a place for middle-class people to live.

Chandigarh's Open Hand Monument, designed by Le Corbusier but not constructed until 1985.

Chandigarh’s Open Hand Monument, designed by Le Corbusier but not constructed until 1985.

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