Movies about significant historical figures – particularly ones who are revered – can sometimes get caught up in their own mythologising. Mark Fraser revisits a little seen biographical film in which the predominantly stoic protagonist is humble enough to acknowledge his shortcomings.
WARNING: This review contains spoilers.
When Richard Attenborough directed his multiple Oscar winning epic biopic Gandhi back in the early 1980s, he treated his subject with unashamed hero worship.
From Attenborough’s and screenwriter John Briley’s perspective, Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi (as played by Ben Kingsley) could do or say no wrong as he led India to independence from English rule in 1947.
While Quaid-i-Azam Mohammed Ali Jinnah – the founder of neighbouring Pakistan – isn’t treated with the same degree of idolisation by Jamil Dehlavi in his 1998 movie Jinnah, there is still a strong reverence for the story’s titular character (portrayed at different stages of his life by Christopher Lee and Richard Lintern), who stood up to both Gandhi and the British Empire by insisting Indian Muslims be given their own country to avoid Hindu and Sikh persecution.
Although this pair of films deal with the same historical events somewhat differently, they’re worth watching in tandem given their particular points-of-view.
Unlike Attenborough’s romanticised Gandhi, who never seems to doubt his convictions as he watches sectarian violence escalate around him, Dehlavi’s (and co-screen writer Akbar Ahmed’s) pragmatic Jinnah is a man who comes to the end of his life plagued with some deep, albeit necessary, regrets.
Gandhi, which came out in 1983, also views the Muslims’ plight as second fiddle, deeming instead that the most important achievement of the 1947 secessions was the formation of an independent India. As a result, the establishment of Pakistan under Attenborough’s incarnation of Jinnah (in this instance played by Alyque Padamsee) is dismissed as something of a hindrance rather than a bold act of political necessity.
The biggest difference between these two movies, however, lies in their respective narrative structures.
Although both are biopics whereby the men’s lives are revisited via flashback, Gandhi is a straight-forward big budget Hollywood-esque spectacle in the David Lean mould – complete with an international all-star cast and numerous stunning vistas of various Indian landscapes captured by widescreen Panavision lenses – whilst Jinnah is a much more modest and intimate production, in which massive outside crowd scenes are replaced with less spectacular squabbles and some splendidly-lit interiors (by British cinematographer Nic Knowland).
Furthermore, the Ahmed/Dehlavi work incorporates a good dose of the supernatural in its delivery, using a story-telling gimmick akin to the one employed by Mickail Kalatozov in his 1971 adventure saga The Red Tent, when a group of ghosts from a botched Arctic exploration expedition get together to conduct a post mortem on their ill-fated trip.
As he lies dying, the 61-year old Jinnah (Lee) is greeted by a good-humoured heavenly Narrator (Shashi Kapoor), who has the responsibility of deciding whether Pakistan’s founding father should be sent to Heaven or Hell. It’s at this point the historical events begin to unravel as the fading statesman is reminded of the painful decisions he has had to make throughout his life while tackling grave political and social uncertainties.
The use of this celestial ploy, while not entirely satisfying, does effectively help the film achieve what it sets out to do – namely highlight the difficult consequences of leadership and how the path to greatness is fraught with sacrifice and a good deal of personal angst.
By adopting this approach, Dehlavi and Ahmed are able to explore a few interesting historical avenues that Attenborough and Briley chose to ignore.
In Jinnah, for instance, much is made of the affair between Lady Edwina Mountbatten (Maria Aitken) and Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru (Robert Ashby), the man who would become India’s first prime minister, while in Gandhi this detail is skipped over. Given the potential impact this moral conflict of interest could have had on Gandhi’s campaign, it is a strange omission to make.
Gandhi, in fact, pretty much completely dismisses the role Lord Louis Mountbatten (played in the Attenborough film by Peter Harlowe) had in the whole process of Indian independence, focusing instead on the Mahatma’s heroic stance against the British administration.
This is definitely not the case in Dehlavi’s version of events, whereby Mountbatten (James Fox) emerges as one of the key players in the saga. Furthermore, his eventual betrayal of a sibling Pakistan irks Jinnah so much that he puts the Englishman under cross examination during a hallucinatory court hearing conducted towards the end of the film.
Another interesting difference between the two works is in the way they deal with their subject’s personal lives.
While everyone around Attenborough’s Gandhi – including his wife Kasturba (Rohini Hattangadi) – willingly acquiesce to his every whim, Jinnah’s domestic situation is nowhere near as tranquil.
After his affection for his younger (and second) wife Maryam (Indira Varma) starts running thin, she turns to alcohol and later dies of cancer. Jinnah then starts an extended feud with his adult daughter Dina (Vaneeza Ahmad) when she announces her plans to marry a Parsee man (his objections come despite the fact Maryam was also one when they married). In the end the only person who stands steadfastly beside him is his younger sister Fatima (Shireen Shah), who selflessly sacrifices her own ambitions to support her brother and his cause.
In Gandhi, however, family dysfunction doesn’t seem to exist – in this case the patriarch is never wrong.
Perhaps more importantly, crossing the line between dreams and reality opens a door to more introspection and self-criticism, something that Kingsley’s thoughtful (and undeniably impressive) characterisation of Gandhi lacks.
As played by both Lee and Lintern, Jinnah is not the complete stoic – although he remains resolute in his convictions, he’s also enough of a realist to recognise their far-reaching consequences. As a result Dehlavi’s Jinnah seems far more aware of his flaws than Attenborough’s Gandhi ever is of his.
Unsurprisingly, the use of ghosts in what is effectively a time jumping narrative does have its pitfalls.
One example is when the younger Jinnah meets his older self while taking a solitary stroll through his garden, during which the dying man effectively breaks the space-time continuum by telling himself to put aside his uneasiness about Gandhi – a ploy which allows Delhavi and Ahmed to articulate one of the key philosophical rifts between the two historical figures.
“Mr Gandhi is an extraordinary man who believes in his own mission,” young Jinnah starts, “but … the clothes, this imitation of the Hindu peasant, the spinning wheels, the fasts, the bits and pieces of Sanskrit philosophy.
“When you talk of spirit, you release darker forces, powers that can’t be questioned, illogical urges and anger. If they succeed in kicking out the British because they have usurped power in India, will their attention then turn to the Muslims?”
Meanwhile, in another just-as-clumsy moment, the Narrator also breaks the time-space continuum by interfering in a flashback, saving the protagonist from being struck down by an angry shovel-yielding Muslim fundamentalist* during a 1947 Muslim League meeting as the dying Jinnah looks on.
Although this is almost played for laughs, and is possibly a statement regarding the existence of divine intervention, it really is an unnecessary touch which reeks of dramatic laziness.
Interestingly, this annoying narrative misdemeanor also leads to another of the movie’s best lines when Jinnah confronts the fundamentalist after he has been restrained by the police.
“Islam doesn’t need fanatics like you – Islam needs men of vision who will build the country,” he lectures. “Now grow up and serve Pakistan!”
Even though Jinnah ends on a conveniently pragmatic and somewhat obvious note, the film ultimately has enough polemical meat on its celluloid bones to stand alone as a legitimate interpretation of historical events, thus worthy of the same kind of kudos bestowed upon Gandhi when it was first released just over 35 years ago.
Despite the transcendental elements at work within its narrative, the film doesn’t conclude on an entirely happy note, instead settling on some middle ground.
Aside from the fact Jinnah’s life work is far from complete when he falls off the perch (with Pakistan still going through some major teething problems), it is never made clear if he gets sent to Heaven or Hell. Thus, in what is an interesting touch, Dehlavi and Ahmed ultimately leave it up to the audience to decide the lead character’s fate.
Moreover, while they are obviously sympathetic towards Jinnah – a man who confesses on his deathbed that he would do it all again “but I would want others to act differently” – the pair avoid the apologist preachiness perpetrated by Attenborough and Briley in their big budget version of events.
In this regard, it’s worth noting some of the comments made by the late Christopher Hitchens in The Atlantic during mid 2011 in response to the release of Joseph Lelyveld’s book Great Soul: Gandhi and his Struggle with India.
The Mahatma, Hitchens pointed out, was not entirely Mr Cleanskin given he wasn’t “above making sectarian deals with (and against) India’s Muslims”.
And while he was considered a visionary, Gandhi also saw modernity as India’s main foe, “arguing until well into the 1940s that the new nation should abhor industry and technology and relocate its core identity and practice in the ancient rhythms of village life and the spinning wheel”.
In addition “Gandhism”, Hitchens argued, advocated “a highly dubious” view on the mind-body distinction.
“For him, the material and physical world was gross and polluting and selfish, while all that pertained to the ‘soul’ was axiomatically ideal and altruistic,” he wrote.
Taking all this on board, it’s arguable that despite its gimmicky narrative and inexcusable breaking of the space-time continuum, Jinnah’s take on the sub continent’s 1947 political revolution presents a more balanced picture of what actually happened than the folklore-infused version as pushed by Gandhi.
Whatever the case, Dehlavi also proves beyond any doubt that portrayals of significant historical events do not necessitate scenes of excessive grandiosity or a cast of thousands.
For this director, a few lush interiors and a couple of hundred extras were enough.
*It is too difficult to tell from the cast list who this actor is.
Words by Mark Fraser
Top 10 Films reviewed Jinnah on Blu-ray courtesy of Eureka Entertainment. Jinnah was released on Dual Format (Blu-ray & DVD) on November 28 2016 and is available to purchase here http://po.st/PiCyCk
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