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).
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.
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.
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.