‘Bhowani Junction’

Aishwarya’s crossover plan is running on IST: old-time starlet Ava Gardner, who’s currently being impersonated in The Aviator, crossed over way back in the ’50s. Gardner starred in Bhowani Junction, a 1956 film about an Anglo-Indian struggling with identity in post-Partition India.

I haven’t seen it, so I’ve got no idea whether it was more respectful than Gunga Din and its ilk. The character does try ‘going native,’ and she does wear brownface, though it seems subtle. Money quote: ’I thought I could overcome my guilt by becoming a Sikh!’ Reel Movie Critic has the plot summary:

Ava Gardner delivers a stellar performance of a ravishing nurse in the English army in India in 1947… She initially is romantically involved with another “chi-chi” (half-breed)… She is the victim of an attempted rape by her brutal co-worker, Lt. McDaniel (Lionel Jeffries), which sends her into the safe and strict arms of a traditional Indian, Ranjit [Singh] Kasel (Francis Mathews).  Draped in a sari, she makes bold political/racial statements by showing up at various military events dressed in traditional Indian attire. But she seems to appear to her British colleagues to be trying too hard to claim her new ethnic identity… Ultimately she has a romance with a stoic, brave Anglo-Saxon British Officer… she realistically declines to return with him as his wife to live in England, certain she will be treated like a half-breed outsider in that society.

Chowk fills in the backstory:

… it is quite similar in theme to Deepa Mehta’s ‘Earth 1947′ which also deals with Partition through the eyes of a Parsi girl, another outsider to Indian society… Fifty years on, people still talk about when Ava Gardner came to Lahore to film this movie. I think every man of the previous generation fell in love with her then… it says a lot about an actor or actress who is willing to take on a complex role in a different culture – like Christopher Lee who took on Jinnah back in 1997.

One of the cinephile sites observes that there have been two big waves of Western commercial films about India, one set off by 1947 and the other by Gandhi envy.

A Ph.D. student with Anglo-Indian roots complains the film doesn’t get enough respect for being one of the few films from that perspective (so Merle Oberon, Freddie Mercury, The Impressionist and Jimi Mistry don’t suffice?):

… few of the novels concerning the Raj invoke, or even acknowledge, the unique role and perspective of the Anglo-Indian Community, an ethnically and culturally hybrid people of mixed European and Indian ancestry known also, at various times, as “Eurasians,” “half-castes,” “half-breeds,” “blacky-whites,” “eight-annas” and “chee-chees.” Anglo-Indians today remain a numerically small minority both diasporically and within India… they are socially marginal to the British, and both socially and culturally marginal to the major Indian communities…

She credits Anglo-Indians with running large swaths of colonial bureaucracy:

… working on the railways was not only the quintessential Anglo-Indian occupation but also one of the few sources of unabashed Anglo-Indian pride… many of the accomplishments cited by the British as evidence of their innate “superiority” as “whites” were in fact undertaken by men and women who were “not quite white.”

10 thoughts on “‘Bhowani Junction’

  1. I read this book back in grad school — it’s actually kind of a page-turner! John Masters was a pretty good writer.

    But I’ve never seen the film, and I can’t say that I’m all that optimistic about how this one will be.

  2. I’ve seen the movie – it’s horrible. It’s turgid, and ghatly, and overly emotional – it’s like a desi movie made by white people, only using white folks in brown face.

    Now I know where Bollywood gets its sensibility…

  3. The book actually has a rather nuanced ending. If I remember correctly, in the novel the British officer she falls in love with is rejected, because he cannot satisfy her and understand her, and in the end she finds live with another Anglo-Indian man, she can only find understanding and peace with one as marginalised as herself, can only be understood by one who is as mixed as her.

    In the movie though, the British stud saves her from the horrible Indians who (damn it!) were actually agitating for independence and freedom from the British occupation of India (how dare they!)

    In short the movie version is riddled with every pallid ‘white mans burden’ imperialistic inflection going. Only whitey can save the native who is cruelly marginalised by the neanderthal Indians! Its politics and reasoning operate on a Gunga Din level. As such, it is worth watching to get a sense of the stupidity of the white mans version of history.

  4. Didn’t you know that John Masters, the author, was actually Anglo Indian himself? So it’s not exactly the ‘white man’s version’!

  5. hey dot… i know that masters is anglo indian, but he didnt make the movie… hollywood did… i kinda agree with punjabi boy here… it does reek of the “white man’s burden” kinda crap… i did like the book though.. a lot… id wid the characters i suppose, to an extent..

  6. I am 16 years old and descended of an Indian, a bengali to be exact. My parents are from the u.k but I was born and grew up in the u.s. Until about a year ago I went through 15 years of thinking I was a white briton. Until my family decided to reseatch our family. My father was adopted and it turns out his birth mother was a half Indian women from Calcutta! We were able to research further discovered her mother a 16-year-old english girl living in Calcutta with her family during the occupation {this was 1926.} Her own servent was my grandmother’s father! He was bengali and only about 17 when Geetali, my grandmother was born. I couldn’t believe this! Not only that I was 1/8 indian, but that a 16 year-old british girl at the time would take such a risk and get that close to an Indian. Considering how the times were. The hosue is still there in Calcutta and We were able to recover her diary explaining everything about her and this bengali boy. Thia changed the way I saw myself and now a lot of things make sense. Despite what society may have said I think my great-grandmother had great courage and I am proud of my new found Indian blood. I saw bhowani junction and then the jewel in the crown. I must say they both touched me.

  7. John Masters was 1/32 Indian. That is such an infinitesmally small fraction of Indian blood that he could hardly be called “Anglo-Indian” and it simply could not have affected his appearance.

    Most Anglo-Indians had a far greater portion of Indian blood, to the extent that it was noticeable in their faces (otherwise they could easily have assimilated (“passed”) into the British community). Masters looked completely European and could not ever have been taken as an Anglo-Indian.

    A good example of this diffusion at a much greater level than 1/32 is the English actress Kate Beckinsale, who is 1/8 Burmese—but it is absolutely impossible to detect it in her face. However, when the proportion gets up to 1/4, it is at that point invariably very noticeable (for example: Keanu Reeves [Chinese]).

  8. Its a long while since I’ve seen Bhowani Junction, but I remember that it was very good. I am surprised that a comment like “white man’s version of history” (by Punjabi Boy above) is allowed on this site – surely this borders on racist? The movie makes a very reasonable attempt to represent the difficult situation of certain “chee chees”. Ava Gardner (who was herself mixed-race, being part native American) presents Victoria’s dilemma very well – her attempts to find love with three men of very different background and personality is representative of her struggle for identity. In the end, although she falls in love with the English colonel, yet she makes clear that she will not go with him to England. If he really wants to be with her, then it must be in India. The movie had to be made in Pakistan, because the Indian government at the time would not tolerate the reference to Indians trying to kill Ghandi and Nehru. Unfortunately, the reality is that EVERY nation contains many dissenters and many points of view – better to face up to the truth. This was a brave movie to make in 1956 – it offended many in America, England and India. Yet now we can look back on it and admire it for its attempt to grapple with a very complex question.