Reaching Out to Film in India

  • Taj Magazine
  • B.D.Garga
  • 3898 Words

What do Robert Flaherty, Jean Renoir, Roberto Rossellini, Herman Hesse, Steven Spielberg, Paul Scott, M.M.Kaye, E.M.Foster, David Lean and Richard Attenborough have in common? India. Which provides not only the best locations anywhere in the world but also ‘the fundamental note which now seems lost in the general cacophony’.

Robert Flaherty filming The Elephant Boy (1935)

Kipling’s India - vast, varied, exotic and mysterious - beckoned Robert Flaherty, the Irish-American film-maker. Leaving behind the London fog, Flaherty, accompanied by his wife, arrived in Bombay- ‘a blazing beauty of a city’ to quote Rudyard’s father John Kipling - in mid-March 1935. Flaherty was on commission from Alexander Korda, the British film tycoon, to direct a large-scale production based on Kipling’s famous story ‘Toomai of the Elephants’. Korda’s publicity boys had blazed the trail. Flaherty dined with the viceroy, Lord Willingdon, who was most cordial and even suggested that he might play Petersen Sabib, the British hunter. Sir Mirza Ismail, the diwan of Mysore, placed at his disposal the animals of the royal zoo, and as living quarters, the Chttaranjan Mahal. Moved by the Indian hospitality, Mrs. Flaherty wrote to her youngest daughter in the U.S: ‘I wish you could see us here… it is so different that we hardly know what do about it - so many people about, doing for us all the things we usually have to do ourselves.’

Kipling’s story had all the exhilaration and high drama of a night-time elephant hunt. One night, when an old elephant Kala Nag broke his pickets and set out for the jungle, little Toomai, the mahout’s son, begged to be taken along. Thus the wandering boy witnessed that which all elephant hunters spoke of but none had ever seen- the dance of the elephants. When they returned, and he told the men his tale, he was saluted and given the title ‘Toomai of the Elephants’. This was true Flaherty stuff, this relationship between the beast and the boy, this oneness of created life. But, India was a new continent and Flaherty had to master the twin worlds of elephants in the jungle and the stables. On 28 September 1935, Flaherty wrote to Korda in delight, announcing the discovery of a natural actor in Sabu, the elephant stable boy of the maharaja of Mysore, adding that, ‘we have been shooting continuously, with perfect weather and good results’. When Sabu arrived in London, the studio went wild about him. His prowess with the elephant amazed them. They insured him for 50,000 pounds and set their best writers to work on another story for him.

Nearly a decade and a half later, Jean Renoir, the French master, arrived in Calcutta to film The River. Based on a novel by Rumer Godden, the film tells the story of a soldier, Captain John, wounded in war, who rediscovers himself, considerably aided by India and the people he meets, in particular three children, one of them Harriet. Life is seen through the memories an sensibilities of Harriet, who is journeying through girlhood and who has a lively but still naïve mind.

The River (1951)

Earlier, Renoir was contemplating making the film in Hollywood with simulated Indian décor. But when he found a producer who would allow him to shoot in India, Renoir promptly dropped the Hollywood idea. ‘What the geographic and human realism add, however, is not a social dimension, but a religious and mystical meaning,’ says Andre Bazin, the celebrated French critic. ‘India figures not only as a setting, but more as a moral than a geographical setting. Its silent presence, to which the protagonists pay only half-conscious attention, acts on their minds as a magnetic field influences the needle of a compass.’ Bazin called The River a pure masterpiece. Incidentally, it was during the filming of The River that Satyajit Ray met Renoir and observed his shooting which was to provide him the necessary technical know-how and inspiration to make his masterpiece Pather Panchali,. Renoir himself was greatly moved by his Indian experience: ‘I felt within me a desire to reach out and touch my fellow creatures throughout the world.’
With the independence of India, well-known documentary film-makers like the Russian Roman Karmen and the Swedish Arne Sucksdorff were drawn to witness not only an ancient civilization but also the exciting drama of a young nation on the move. While Karmen preferred to film the emergence of industrial India, Sucksdorff went off to live with the adivasis in Madhya Pradesh, to observe and film the lifestyle of a people unchanged for thousands of years. What emerged were two extraordinary films - Indian Village and The Wind and the River (1951), stunningly beautiful, keenly observed and warmly humane.

Similar concerns attracted Roberto Rossellini, who had startled the world with the neo-realistic masterpieces, Open City, Paisan, and Europa ’51. He was well informed on Indian history and civilization. Rossellini was also deeply moved by Vinoba Bhave’s Bhoodan movement. He travelled around India for several months, taking in the Indian scene. The result was India ’57, an episodic film which showed the indelible impact India had left on its maker, as she had on another of his compatriots - Marco Polo - some five centuries earlier.

Fritz Lang, the celebrated German-American film-maker, came to India soon after to film Der Tiger von Eschnapur. He was probably the first European film-maker to discover the enchantment of the desert kingdom. Its sunsets particularly captivated him, and he filmed mostly during the twilight hour, which according to him ‘gives most of the action a golden glow’. With a large budget, Lang shot extensively inside the forts and palaces and around the lakes,which lent his film an aura of splendor at once real and fable-like.

The Germans have always had a lively interest in India. Herman Hesse, who won the Nobel Prize in 1946, had written Siddhartha in 1922. It was ignored at the time. Almost forty years later, it became a best-seller. It appealed to the younger generation who were disillusioned with the values they had inherited, and were looking for solutions to the ultimate problems of existence much as Siddhartha, the Brahmin’s son, wants to work out his destiny for himself. Hesse had written the novel after a visit to India. Conrad Rooks, a young American film-maker whom the novel had deeply affected, eventually filmed it in the mid-1970s in various parts of India with a totally Indian cast. Sven Nykvist, Ingmar Bergman’s celebrated cameraman, shot the film with India as the protagonist and captured so much of it and with such sensitivity that to quote a critic, ‘one can fairly well smell the animal and incense odours of the cobbled streets’. The love scenes were reminiscent of the sculptures of Khajuraho particularly the scene in which Siddharta kneels in awe before the courtesan, her head held back and breasts bare.

When India did not form the backdrop for an entire film, well-known film-makers came here to shoot relevant sequences. Perhaps the most famous is Steven Spielberg, whose earlier film Jaws (1975) had set new box office records, and who came to India to shoot scenes for Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). The film’s story, written by Spielberg himself, begins with Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss), an electrician, who witnesses unidentified flying objects in the sky near his home. This encounter triggers a startling chain of dramatic events. Neary tries desperately understand the unusual phenomenon. This suspenseful , cosmis detective work moves from the plains of Indiana across the world to the remote hillsides of India.

Around Bombay, Spielberg directed stirring scenes in which the noted French film-maker Truffaut (who plays the role of a scientist), searching for a solution to the mystery of the skies, observes the awesome spectacle of thousands of men praying and chanting in response to the celestial manifestation. Spielberg’s contemporary, Paul Mazursky visited Benaras to film a sequence for Willie and Phil (1980), a tribute to Truffaut’s Jules et Jim (1962). Willie travels to India on a voyage of self-discovery. The Indian sequence formed an integral part of Mazursky’s film.

On a somewhat similar search, the Polish director Zanussi’s hero travels to India in The Constant Factor (1980). Earlier, much of the film had been shot in Poland against snow. The India sequence stands out with its lush tropical landscape and the unhurried pace of its people, which brings him a sense of release.

Gregory Peck on the sets of The Sea Wolves (1980)

More recently, a film entirely set in India was the British production, The Sea Wolves (1980) with a cast that included Gregory Peck, Roger Moore, David Niven, Trevor Howard and Babara Kellermann. The film, directed by Andrew W.McLagien the based on The Boarding Party, a true story by James Leasor - concerned a band of ageing civilians belonging to a part-time territorial unit- The Calcutta Light Horse- who formed themselves into a daring boarding party whose mission was to destroy a German ship in the neutral port of Goa. Most of the film was shot in picturesque Goa over a three-month schedule, with some shooting in Calcutta and New Delhi. To ensure absolute authenticity, the producer Euan Lloyd persuaded Maj General Louis Pugh to be on hand during the filming to give expert technical advice. He was one of the survivors who, in 1943, had led the memorable commando-like mission.

While this highly charged drama was being enacted on the beaches of goa, another British film unit was busy shooting Paul Scott’s novel Staying On against the magnificent snow-capped mountains of Simla. Scott’s novel centres around Col Tusker Smalley and his wife Lucy who are living in Pankot (one of Scott’s imaginary hill stations) twenty-nine years after the British have left India. Taking up the option that British pensioners had of staying on in India, both Tusker and his Memsahib are happy enacting their earlier roles in a world which has been subtly changing. Starring two of Britain’s finest artists, Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard, the film won enough acclaim to be successfully sold to top television networks worldwide. Shot in Mashobra, Simla “without a hitch” to quote its producer, it was a small budget film which rolled in big profits. Big enough for its producer-director Christopher Morahan to embark on a fourteen hour serial for Granada, to be called The Jewel in the Crown (1984), based on Paul Scott’s well-known set of novels The Raj Quartet. Budgeted at a cost of pounds five and a half million with an enormous cast and crew of Britons shooting in Mysore, Udaiput, Simla and Srinagar, this is probably the most ambitious and expensive TV serial ever filmed on a foreign location.

The Jewel in the Crown has a distinguished cast of British stage and screen stars, notably Dame Peggy Ashcroft, Rachel Kempson (Vanessa Redgraves’s mother), Indian actor Saeed Jaffrey and Tim Piggot-Smith. Piggot-smith said in an interview, 'Getting Merrick’s part was an absolute coincidence for me. Back in the 70s when the novel first appeared, a friend called me up to say that he had read a book with a perfect part for me. When I read it myself I was convinced that I should one day play Merrick. And now it turns out, that I actually am, years after I had fantasized about it. Of course being in the biggest TV production to be put on in England is an awful responsibility. But I’ve loved minute of the close on three months’ filming in India.’

Heat and Dust (1983)

The Indo-American team of Merchant-Ivory have won international acclaim with several films shot in India, including Shakespearewallah (1965) and The Guru (1969). Hullaballoo over George and Bonnie’s Pictures (1978), the latest of these, was a light-hearted romp through royal India, shot entirely in Jodhpur’s Umaid Bhavan Palace. Recently, they returned to film Heat and Dust (1983) based on Ruth Prawar Jhabvala’sl Booker Prize-winning novel. Hyderabad with its invincible forts, splendid palaces, and old world charm was just the right setting for the film. Julie Christie, the star of Heat and Dust said, “I love India so much, I have never had this reaction to a place before, and at the moment I can’t put my feelings into words.”

This affinity may have stemmed from her childhood, for Julie was born in Assam where her father had been a tea planter. In the film, she plays Anne, a young Englishwoman who comes to India drawn by the story of her step-grandmother Olivia who, as a young bride in 1920 fell in love with a raffish Nawab with whom she eloped, causing a scandal among the British community. Parallel with this flashback in time, runs Anne’s story about a love affair with an Indian clerk in whose house she lodges ‘Anne is so like a type of English person,’ averred Julie, ‘she is eager and enthusiastic to learn, but has a lot of Western conditioning that has closed off parts of her mind. She is unfulfilled professionally and emotionally, but in India she ceases to be lonely. She does not do this by finding a person, but by finding a way of thinking.’

Perhaps it is a way of thinking Julie Christie herself has been striving for ever since her glamorous roles in Darling, Dr.Zhivago and Shampoo. She had been in India less than a week, but she had the feeling that she had been there indefinitely. She surprised everyone by wandering around barefoot, and living on yoghurt and vegetarian food.

Launched on a modest budget of one million pounds, Heat and Dust was shot in two parts - the period piece of the British Raj and the Indian princes, and the contemporary India to which Anne comes. To recreate the princely life, the film unit took over a former residence of one of the rulers of Hyderabad. Known as Purani Haveli, this is a sprawling old building with a breathtaking view of Golconda fort in the background.

According to its producer Ismail Merchant, ‘On seeing the opulence of the Nawab’s palace, Jim (the director of the film) got very Cecil B.DeMille ideas, but I could not oblige him on my budget.’ Despite its modest budget, thanks to careful planning, local help and hospitality, the MIP unit shot a sumptuous banquet scene in the film which would have done DeMille proud. Here is John Pym (Sight and Sound) recalling it:

Thirty-six Indian gentlemen and British ladies and gentlemen, sit down as the Nawab’s guests…At the Viceroy’s palace in a dark and rather cramped upper room is a dining table which seats 101: one doubts however, that it ever saw the like of MIP’s feast which is capped by a contingent of Indian bagpipers stomping in with God Save the King and the Nawab’s anthem.. the ‘pankahawallahs’ stir the air, the guests become animated, a master shot is taken.

Any man who can pursue a passion, or keep alive an obsession for eighteen long years, is an uncommon man. Sir Richard Attenborough, the veteran actor- director of scores of English movies, is such a man. Eighteen years ago, Motilal Kothari, an official at the Indian High commission, London, invited Sir Richard to lunch and gave him a copy of Louis Fischer’s biography of Gandhi in the hope that someday he would make a film on the Mahatma. “It changed my life. I was bowled over", said Attenborough, "since that day I haven’t thought of anything else… everything I have done since, from directing movies, to rejecting acting roles, and making nearly forty trips to India, has been to be able to make this one picture." The years of persistence climaxed in a triumph of faith over experience.

Attenborough surveying the funeral scene for Gandhi

With a budget of well over twenty-two million pounds Gandhi (1982) is the most mammoth production ever shot in India by an indigenous or foreign film company. It called for the services of a permanent film crew of two-hundred: some of the best Indo-British technicians working away for twenty-four weeks without interruption on sets built around Delhi and other places. It required the importing and handling of enormous Victorian and Edwardian wardrobes (650 western style men’s suits, 200 pairs of ladies gloves and handbags, 250 pairs of period footwear,100s of military and police uniforms of the British/Indian army). An Air India 707 was chartered to bring in 20,000 kilos of cargo that included cameras, lights, sound equipment, wardrobes etc. 90 vehicles were permanently kept for the unit and fifty for the cast.

On 27 November 1980, after the cameras, script and the whole project had been blessed by a Brahmin priest, on a location outside Delhi, Attenborough shouted, ‘Action’. With a thunder of hooves, swords flashing in the sun, the South African mounted police charged at a crowd of passive resisters led by the young barrister Gandhi. The filming of Gandhi had begun. For Gandhi’s funeral scene, the call sheet for the day read. “200 mourners, 40 men with linked arms, 24 airmen pall bearers, 40 soldiers ditto, 40 sailors ditto, 686 mixed police and army, 24 household lancers, huge “free crowds”". At its peak it was estimated that there were more than 200,000 people in this historic re-enactment, probably the biggest crowd scene in film history.

Attenborough and Kingsley

In spite of the scenes of Imperial might and splendor, the cricket clubs, the ladies with gloves, and men in striped jackets, it is a film about Gandhi, the London qualified barrister who while living in South Africa becomes aware of the colonial question, and the racial arrogance of the whites. To combat it, he formulates a doctrine of passive resistance - an ad-mix of the Bhagvad Gita, the Koran, the Gospels and Tolstoy.

One of the most stunning sequences in the film is the 1919 massacre at Jallianwalla Bagh, when the British General Dyer ordered his troops to open fire on 15,000 peaceful demonstrators in an immense square, leaving 379 dead and thousands wounded. Attenborough neglects nothing. The film covers the violence, the arson, the agitations, the Dandi march to the sea to defy the salt law, the tragedy of Partition and the Mahatma’s final assassination at the hands of an extremist Hindu.

Along with Candice Bergen, Martin Sheen, John Gielgud and Trevor Howard is Ben Kingsley, who plays Gandhi. Kingsley, a Royal Shakespeare Company player who made his mark with Hamlet and in the title role of Brecht’s Baal, was playing in Nicholas Nickleby when Sir Richard offered him the role. Kingsley is of Indian descent. His grandfather came from Gujarat, not far from where Gandhi was born. His father had married an Englishwoman and practiced as a doctor in Manchester. Kingsley had never visited India before. ‘When I arrived in India, I was concerned there might not be rapport between myself and the country... I felt so ill equipped… but.. there are all sorts of resonance to help me, doing things where Gandhi did them, walking the steps where he walked and standing where he stood.’

Kingsley as Gandhi invests the role with a rare depth and dignity. He was a superb and lucky choice, as he has the same bone structure as the Mahatma, the same curved nose, the eyes, the height, and after losing 17 pounds on a vegetarian diet, he even weighed the same. Kingsley will never be the same man again, as he says, ‘the movie has changed the course of my life both professionally and personally.’ There were others, like the Hollywood actor Martin Sheen, who were no less affected. Sheen declared that he will never again appear in a war film like Apocvalypse Now, or one that extols violence.

Matching the multi-million dollar budget of Gandhi, was Roger (Bond) Moore, once again on Her Majesty’s Secret Service, for the latest Bond thriller Octopussy (1983) shot in and around Udaipur’s Lake Palace Hotel. India really does accommodate extremes. Presently, M.M.Kaye’s best-selling novel, The Far Pavillions is being shot in Jaipur with a star cast of Omar Sharif, Christopher Lee, Ben Cross, and Amy Irving.

Over the years, film makers of every persuasion have evinced a keen interest in a passage to India, and now David Lean is actually embarking on a project based on E.M.Forster’s modern classic. Forster had come to India in 1919, as private secretary to the maharaja of Dewas, a state which he described as ‘the oddest corner of the world outside Alice in Wonderland’. A Passage to India was conceived and partly written there.

There are plans too for the filming of Kipling’s Kim.

What attracts them to India? Jacques Rivette, the French writer and film maker perhaps provides the best answer: ‘the voyage to India has now replaced the traditional voyage to Greece. But it is not toward an exotic land that Renoir or a Rossellini embarks, but rather towards the cradle of all the Indo-European civilizations. They ask India to give them back the fundamental note which now seems lost in the general cacophony.’


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