Just a single film from the Treasures of Cinema DARE section – films that are in-your-face, up-front and arresting: films that take you out of your comfort zone.
Billed as a re-mastered version of a well-known and highly respected film from India, made in 1979 by Shyam Benegal and produced by Shashi Kapoor, this film lived for many years in the garage of the house, after the Bengal Studios closed. Re-mastered from negative and sound tape by Shashi Kapoor’s son, it is probably the best film about the Indian mutiny of 1857 to come out of India, or indeed anywhere.
Using members of the Indian acting community as well as dragooning members of his own family, Shashi Kapoor (who plays Javed Khan) brings a vivid reality to this terrifying moment in the history of Indian independence from Britain.
Muslim Soldiers in the British Army mutinied against the use of the cartridges which were wrapped in oiled paper, which had to be ripped open with their teeth because the fat used to oil the paper was either from cows or pigs – both of which are haram (forbidden). This was followed by a mass rising, engineered over all of Indian by passing secret messages in chapattis (flat breads into the pockets of which messages could be inserted).
A brave Muslim, Lalal Ramjimal played by Kulbushan Kharbanda, hides three female members of a British family (Jennifer Kendal, Ismat Chughtai and Nafisa Ali) in his house, but an influential Pathan, Javed Khan has become obsessed by Ruth, the daughter (Nafisa Ali) and insists on moving them to his house.
The book from which this film is made is called The Flight of the Pigeons by Ruskin Bond, but this could easily also be called a cat among the pigeons, placing these three English women in his household causes endless conflict among the women already there. And eventually he submits to the advice of his ‘aunt’ to take them away to her estate.
The scenes indoors where much of the action is shown through layers of screens (made from rush and lowered to keep the house cool, and to shield the women of the household from any visiting males) adds another texture to the layers of relationships, the sadness and jealousy (understandable) of Javed’s beautiful wife, the sharp tongues of his sister and sister-in-law (also in the house because their husbands are fighting) and finally the more placating tones of his aunt.
Javed is determined to marry Ruth as his second wife, which as a Muslim is permitted, but Ruth’s mother and indeed the girl herself, still traumatised by the events of the early scenes which include a massacre in a church where the father is killed, are completely against the idea. The tension between these two, Ruth and Javed, a fascination and a repulsion which dominates all the action of the film is palpable and brilliantly played. Javed’s frustration at his bewitchment creates a coil of anguish within him which occasionally overwhelms him, and this is brilliantly portrayed.
The battle scenes, which are many and furious, during which two opposing sets of horsemen charge towards each other, bearing lances, guns and swords, followed by much fierce sword fighting on horseback, must have taken some skill to film quite apart from anything else, there was such a melee of horses hooves that filming soldiers falling off as they were ‘killed’ must have presented quite a challenge in terms of ‘health and safety’.
For the Caucasian English viewer this was an interesting film because, of course, all the ‘English’ characters were in fact played by Indians, except Jennifer Kendal who was Shashi Kapoor’s wife (and the sister of Felicity).