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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.

The Great Meghalaya Floods of 2014

Over the past two weeks, I have read with bewilderment as news has unfolded about a spate of catastrophic floods that struck the Garo Hills in Meghalaya state of northeast India. The Garo Hills have a special significance to me, because I spent nine months teaching at a school there, five years ago. I knew the Garo Hills mainly as a quiet place of farms and jungles, and friendly but reserved people. It is hard for me to imagine it as the site of a major natural disaster, and harder still for me to read about the destruction thousands of miles away without being able to do anything about it.

In the predawn hours of September 22, catastrophic floods struck parts of the Garo Hills, particularly the outskirts where the hills meet the plains of the Brahmaputra River Valley. According to the local and regional news, the floods are the worst in the hills’ recorded history. The rivers that flow down from the hills swelled from late monsoon rain and found new channels. The floods washed away almost everything in their paths, destroying huts, toppling trees, wrecking crops, and even demolishing some brick structures. More than a thousand villages were submerged, and fifty-six people lost their lives.

The floods disrupted the transportation and communication infrastructure of the Garo Hills. Landslides blocked NH-51, which is the main road to Tura, the Garo Hills’ largest town. The population of Tura depends on regular shipments of goods coming up on trucks from the plains below. At one point, the Shillong Times reported that Tura had stocks of rice for seven days and sugar for only four. Indian Air Force helicopters airlifted medical supplies into Tura, but since the town has no airport for fixed-wing aircraft, a full-scaled resupply airlift was not possible. Fortunately, relief crews were able to reopen the road before supplies in Tura reached critical levels.

Also affected was the Meghalaya electric power grid. The state’s grid runs entirely on hydroelectricity. Barapani Reservoir, near Shillong on the eastern side of the state, feeds water into the five-stage Umiam-Umtru Hydroelectric Project. In other circumstances, the heavy rainfall could have been a boon, as it filled Barapani to capacity. For the first time in several years, the Meghalaya Electric Corporation Ltd. was forced to open the spillway of the dam to prevent the reservoir from overflowing. At the same time, though, the floods damaged the state’s transmission infrastructure, leaving many areas incapable of taking advantage of the electricity. Some of the damage has proven difficult to repair. In Bajengdoba (where I lived and taught), the substation was flooded and powerlines washed away. Local boys and young men have volunteered to help the state authorities erect new powerlines, but according to the latest reports I have read, electricity has yet to return to Bajengdoba.

Although the immediate danger of the floods is past, the hazard of epidemics, particularly malaria, remains. Even after the monsoon ends, the hills dry out, and the mosquitoes die off for the winter, recovering from the floods’ destruction will be a continuing project. I have no doubt that the people of the Garo Hills will dig out and rebuild, but it may take years. In this work, I wish them all the best.

A Bajengdoba sunset in happier times (July 2012).

A Bajengdoba sunset in happier times (July 2012).

(For more about the Garo Hills, please see my post series that begins with “A Short History of Garo-Land.” Also, please see my posts about the Umiam-Umtru Hydroelectric Project, part one and part two.)

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How many Qutb Minars is this?

The tallest pre-modern structure in India is Qutb Minar, a 238-ft (72 m) tower in southern Delhi. Qutb-ud-Din Aybak, the first sultan of Delhi, started building the tower in 1199. Several succeeding generations of rulers added to and modified the tower; it only reached its full height after Qutb-ud-Din’s death. Even the British tried to add their own cupola on the apex of the tower, but it did not match the aesthetic of the rest of the tower, so it came down in 1848. The British cupola now sits by itself on the landscaped lawns of the Qutb Minar complex. Qutb Minar and the surrounding area was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993.

Qutb Minar towers over surrounding ruins in south Delhi.

Qutb Minar towers over surrounding ruins in south Delhi.

Publications about Indian construction projects in the early-independence period often compared the new projects with pre-modern Indian monuments; Qutb Minar was a particularly popular item of comparison. Towers or tower-like structures invited comparisons most readily. The ventilation stack of Tarapur Atomic Power Station, India’s first nuclear powerplant, was 366 feet (112 meters) tall—much taller than the Qutb Minar,” as several publications noted.1 Qutb Minar was also used as a standard measuring stick for height for any structure. According to an article in Assam Information, “the height between the bottom of foundation and the top of the piers” of the Saraighat Bridge, the first permanent crossing of the Brahmaputra River, “it almost as much as the height of the Qutb Minar.”2 The winner in any early-independence period height competition was Bhakra Dam. Indian Recorder and Digest stated that the height of the dam, “which is the highest structure in Asia, is about three times that of the Qutab Minar.”3

This rhetoric established continuity with the pre-colonial past, but also attempted to transcend it. The colonial period had been a difficult time for India’s educated elites. Although they believed in their own country’s historic greatness, they also absorbed the western critiques of India as backward, underdeveloped, and imprisoned by tradition.4 Building dams, bridges, and nuclear powerplants was a way to recreate India’s past greatness, which had been lost during centuries of colonial domination. The new India’s greatness, though, would not be based on Indian tradition, but on western ideas and technology. The structures of independent India were bigger, and by implication better, than anything the Sultans of Delhi or the Mughals had been able to make. In the sources that I have read, nobody seemed to care that a concrete ventilation stack was not aesthetically comparable to an intricately-wrought red sandstone and white marble tower.

  1. “Tarapur: Gateway to the Nuclear Age,” Economic Studies 10 (1968), 421. []
  2. “Saraighat Bridge: A Boon to Assam,” Assam Information, November 1963, 20. []
  3. “Dedication of Bhakra Dam,” Indian Recorder and Digest, November 1963, 6. []
  4. Ashis Nandy explained the internalization of western ideas by Indian elites in a lecture I attended in Delhi on June 11, 2012. []

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