Bright Lights Film Journal

Book Review: From Rajahs and Yogis to Gandhi and Beyond: Images of India in International Films of the 20th Century, by Vijaya Mulay

Like the majority of people who have never been to India, most of my knowledge of the country has come from some books but mostly from films. When I was young, my perception of India was formed by British and American movies, before I had seen any films made by Indians themselves. The plots of these films almost invariably took an imperial stance. As Vijaya Mulay writes: “The films projected a certain vision of the Empire in relation to its subjects, since Britain and Hollywood shared a common viewpoint and acceptance of certain ideological concerns. Both visions of India emphasized the unique imperial status, cultural and racial superiority and patriotic pride not only of the British but also the entire White Western world throughout the whole colonial period.’

However, Mulay is not content just to repeat an anti-imperialist line, but goes deeply into the background, context and motivations behind these Empire films, as well as analysing the plethora of other movies made by Westerners about India. Nobody is better placed to write this exhaustive examination of films set in India as seen through Western eyes. Now in her eighties, a pioneer of the film society in India, a filmmaker, film historian and film critic, Mulay lived under the British Raj, took part in the movement for the liberation of her country, was a follower of Gandhi, and became a close friend of Satyajit Ray and other Indian directors and intellectuals.

At the same time as being imbued with Indian culture, Mulay is cosmopolitan, having lived in Canada and Europe at various times, so she has an understanding of, if not sympathy with, Western values. While the book is principally about films, Mulay provides a parallel history of India in the 20th century. But what separates it from many such books is Mulay’s first-person narrative, exploring her relationship with the films, where and how she saw them, and the people she met and spoke to while researching it for over ten years. This makes Mulay a wonderful companion on what she calls her “pather panchali” (song of the road).

From Rajahs and Yogis to Gandhi and Beyond covers a vast amount of ground. I hadn’t realised how many films were made about India by “outsiders” from Georges Meliès onwards. In the chapter on the British and American so-called Empire films, Mulay is particularly scathing about the anti-Indian bias of John Ford’s The Black Watch (1929), Richard Boleslawski’s Clive of India (1935) and Zoltan Korda’s The Drum (1937, above left). The latter, in fact, was the subject of protests in India. “The White people in the film are civilized, brave and noble . . . Indians by contrast are evil and perfidious, except those who have had the benefit of a Western education . . . A large part of colonial discourse comprised the conviction that Indians needed to be taught the higher values of civilization.”

Henry King’s 1953 CinemaScope remake, King of the Khyber Pass, is slightly more sympathetic to the “Other,” in that the British soldier hero (Tyrone Power) is of mixed blood. But the attitudes and battles against the “natives” fighting against British occupation of Afghanistan eerily echo the present colonial war. I have to admit to have unashamedly enjoyed some blatantly imperialist adventures such as Henry Hathaway’s Lives of the Bengal Lancer (1935) and George Stevens’ Gunga Din (1939), in which patriotic British soldiers Gary Cooper and Cary Grant, respectively, saved India from itself.

The post-colonial films such as George Cukor’s Bhowani Junction (1956) and J. Lee Thompson’s North-West Frontier (1959) are rather more complex, though the patriarchal figure remains the White hero. According to Mulay, “it was only from Gandhi (1982) that films on India made by non-Indians cast Indian men and women as main characters.”

One of the most fascinating parts of the book are the author’s assessments of the work of Jean Renoir (The River, 1950), Roberto Rossellini (India Matri Bhumi, 1959) and Louis Malle (Phantom India, 1969) , three auteurs who went to India at low periods in their careers, and were revivified. Over a dozen of Malle’s illuminating and affectionate letters to Mulay are an important element in the book, through which we see his frustration and transformation.

About The River (left), of which Satyajit Ray rather disapproved, Renoir stated: “I had to see India through the eyes of a Westerner if I didn’t want to make some horrible mistakes . . . it would have been difficult to do anything else during my first contact with India.” Whatever its deficiencies in structure and attitude, The River was one of the first Western films to bring back images of the country that were not simply an exotic background to Kiplingesque colonial adventures. In fact, Renoir had a problem getting the film financed because the studios felt that a film about India must have a tiger hunt and elephants.

Among the other “Insider-Outsiders,” filmmakers who collaborated with Indians and whose visions of India were influenced by this close contact, were less well-known directors such as the Swede Arne Sucksdorff , the unknown (to me) German documentary filmmaker Paul Zils, and James Ivory.

The chapter on gender roles highlights how strong a taboo was miscegenation in Western societies. For example, in order to justify the relationship between an Indian woman (Debra Paget) and her German lover in Fritz Lang’s The Indian Tomb (1959), she was found to have some white blood, and in Clarence Brown’s The Rains Came (1939) and the remake, Jean Negulesco’s The Rains of Ranchipur (1955), the white woman who falls for the Indian doctor (played by Tyrone Power and Richard Burton, respectively, in swarthy makeup) has to die in the end to avoid breaking the taboo.

I was surprised to see no condemnation of the fact that in Western movies, Indians were so often played by non-Indians. The one that makes me cringe most (leaving aside Sam Jaffe’s Yiddish Gunga Din), was the Professor Godbole of Alec Guinness in David Lean’s A Passage to India (1982), though Mulay finds the film wanting for other reasons. Wanting an ending more in line with E. M. Forster’s novel for a start.

Mulay realizes that India is one of the most difficult countries to grasp, as Malle recognized in his subjective documentary, whose title, Phantom India (left), acknowledges this problem. He understood that although “what he was presenting was true enough, the reality may be something quite different.” Mulay illustrates this with the famous Indian folktale about six blind men and an elephant. “Each one described what an elephant looked like by feeling only one part of its body and yet argued that what he had felt was the whole elephant. While what each one described was true enough, all of them were quite wrong in thinking that their partial experience was the total reality.”

My few qualms about the book are that some of the film plots are more lengthily retold than necessary, and that the rather quirkily selective index has titles beginning with the indefinite and definite articles filed under “A” and “T.” (Try looking up A Passage to India under “P.”) I was also puzzled that given the large net cast by Mulay, one of my favourite “Indian” films, Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus (1947), is only given a passing reference. Nevertheless, the author has managed to describe almost the whole elephant so that I’m tempted to use the overused and misused word “definitive” (like “ultimate’) in referring to this impressive book.