Technology, History, and Travel

Tag: orientalism

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.

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.

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.

The British fortress is none other than Amber Fort, one of India’s most famous castles. It was built over the course of a little more than a century, starting in about 1600. In 2013, UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site.

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

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.

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.

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 copyright of North-West Frontier has lapsed in the United States, and it is available on YouTube, albeit in a version that for some reason doesn’t have an opening title.

Citizen of the cold-war galaxy

Warning! This post contains plot spoilers for Robert A. Heinlein’s novel Citizen of the Galaxy (1957).

I recently read the classic science fiction novel Citizen of the Galaxy, by Robert Heinlein. The book is an engaging space-opera tale of a young man who is a slave turned fugitive turned trader turned military recruit turned industrialist. The book is a good read, and it provided a welcome diversion from teaching and dissertation work.

As a child and teenager, I would read science fiction to learn about the future. Of course I knew that the future portrayed was imaginary, but I liked partaking of the author’s imaginings of what the future had to bring. Heinlein in Citizen of the Galaxy has plenty to say about the future, as his characters cross the galaxy on faster-than-light starships. Nowadays, though, when I read a sci-fi book, I am more interested in what it can tell me about the past. And that is why I found Citizen of the Galaxy particularly interesting.

Heinlein wrote the book in the early years of the Cold War. Even though he imagined the future, his book belongs to the period in which he wrote it, the 1950s. Here are three ways that the book reflects and responds to the world in which Heinlein was writing:

1. Planet Jubbul

The story begins on planet Jubbul, where the main character Thorby is purchased at a slave auction by Baslim the Cripple, an undercover abolitionist. To portray Jubbul, Heinlein drew on western perceptions of the East, which could either represent the Soviet bloc or nonaligned nations such as Egypt and India. The ruler of the planet is known as the Sargon, a name that Heinlein adopted from an ancient Mesopotamian emperor. The capital city of Jubbul is Jubbulpore; “-pore” is an old-fashioned transliteration of the Sanskrit suffix –pur, which means town or city (as in Jaipur, the city of Jai Singh II).1 The inhabitants of Jubbulpore practice real-life traditions that Heinlein’s American readers would have found exotic. One of these is a purdah, the seclusion of (mainly upper-class) women. (Parda is a Persian word meaning “curtain,” as women in purdah would stay behind curtains when in the presence of men who were not members of their family.)

2. Area studies in space

The next phase of Thorby’s journey is as a member of the free traders, who trade from one end of the galaxy to the other but are not subject to any government. The free traders, like the inhabitants of Jubbul, also have strange customs, but rather than letting them remain mysterious and exotic, Heinlein explains them. Most of the explaining is done by a character who is an anthropologist studying free trader culture on Thorby’s ship. The fictional anthropologist represents the factual period of area studies. After World War II, the United States began to pursue a global foreign policy, and a component of this policy was studying foreign cultures and societies so that Americans could interact with them appropriately. Funding for anthropological research spiked in the early Cold War. The anthropologist’s studying the free trader culture is a logical extension of US government-funded area studies of Asia and Africa from the early Cold War.

3. Galactic capitalism

The last act of Citizen of the Galaxy takes place on Earth, where Thorby struggles to regain the fortune that is his rightful inheritance. It turns out that Thorby’s family controls one of the galaxy’s major starship manufacturers. The industrial operation is capitalistic, and Heinlein uses the fictional company to comment on capitalism in America. The Cold War was a period of a great ideological dispute between capitalism and socialism. The United States promoted capitalism; Heinlein the narrator, true to his nation’s ideology, accepts capitalism. He does not accept it wholesale, though; he highlights its potential pitfalls. As the book ends, Thorby has just regained control of his fortune and is beginning to investigate the family business’s complicity in supplying ships to the slavers. To Heinlein, American capitalism is not value-free, either in the distant future or the 1950s. Capitalists must be held responsible for their actions, both domestically and abroad.

  1. Jubbulpore is the name of an actual city in central India, although it is now spelled Jabalpur. []

Batman Goes to India

About midway through last year’s summer blockbuster The Dark Knight Rises, Batman (the superhero alter-ego of Bruce Wayne) confronts Bane, a demagogue supervillian who has begun to terrorize the populace of Gotham (New York City by another name). Bane and his thugs defeat Batman, strip him of his superhero costume and send him to imprisonment in a far-away land.

Up to this point, the storyline and production design of The Dark Knight Rises have been grittily realistic (ignoring, for the moment, some questionable physics). Many of the exterior scenes in the film were shot on location in New York and other American cities. But during the sequence of Batman’s imprisonment, the tone of the movie changes considerably. Bruce Wayne and a band of sullen fellow-inmates are imprisoned in the bottom of a pit. Although the dialogue gives no geographical specifics, the prison seems to be in an exotic and mysterious land. The prisoners’ clothing appears to be coarse homespun cotton or wool, and they attempt to escape from the pit with the help of a thick hemp rope. The prison, wherever it is, seems to be in a place bypassed by the technological changes of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

I don’t think I will be giving away much of the plot by revealing that Bruce Wayne does not spend the rest of the movie trapped, Joseph-style, in the bottom of a pit. Instead, he heroically ascends the wall of the pit, makes a leap of faith, and climbs out to daylight and freedom. Upon emerging from the pit, he walks in front of a hilltop castle that identifies exactly where he has been imprisoned. The castle, Meherangarh Fort, is built in the unmistakable Rajput style, which is native to the state of Rajasthan in western India.

In their heyday, the Rajputs were a military aristocracy that ruled many small rival states in what is now Rajasthan. The political structure of Rajput country was similar to western Europe in the Middle Ages. The Rajputs built innumerable forts on hilltops and plains in Rajasthan; the fort that Bruce Wayne was imprisoned nearby is one of them. Hallmarks of the Rajput architectural style include scalloped arches, domes, domelets known as chattris, wide and curved roofs, and rich ornamentation in some cases. Although the Rajput style used some of the same motifs as Mughal architecture, Rajput plans tended to be more complex and less regimentedly logical than their Mughal counterparts.1

There may still be places in the world, like Bruce Wayne’s prison, that are untouched by the modern age—places with no synthetic fibers, electricity, concrete, motorable roads, motor vehicles, and Coca-Cola. But Rajasthan is definitely not such a place. I couldn’t help but think of the contrast between the movie Rajasthan and the real place while watching The Dark Knight Rises. To be precise, I was watching Batman Teen (Batman Three), the Hindi dubbed version; I was watching it in an air-conditioned, digital projection theater in Jaipur, 180 miles away from Jodhpur and Batman’s prison.

  1. Philip Davies, The Penguin Guide to the Monuments of India: Islamic, Rajput, European (London: Penguin Books, 1989), 323. []

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