Indian actor Sabu Dastagir (1924-1963). Image: via Mubi.com

1930s imperial propaganda: How star-studded western films justified British colonialism

A series of Hollywood and British films were made between 1929-39 with India as their central theme and many were giant box office successes in US and Britain. But Indian audiences were not always appreciative.

By Nandini Rathi

A series of Hollywood and British films were made between 1929-39 with India as their central theme. Historical or current affairs accuracy was not their main concern. Racial stereotypes and stock characters of Indians as a generally ‘inferior’, silly and mutually divided people were all too common in their backdrop. A look into them suggest that back in time, we Indians may have had stronger reasons than vagrant thin-skinnedness to be mad at some of the movies.

Here are three films that performed splendidly at the box office in the US and Britain and had a well known star cast of the time. They all had a strong subtext of the Indian socio-political situation, and different, distorted interpretations of it. And they elicited the strongest reactions in India – – which even then had a devoted mass of cinema goers. Examine their plots below and understand why they would have riled up Indian audiences.

The Drum (1938)

the drums, myrna loy, british empire cinema, indian history The Drums (1938). Courtesy IMDB

The Drum had been one of the most successful British empire films in terms of box office collections in 1938. However, within a week of its release in Bombay in September 1938, it spurred a wide-scale agitation among Indians which resulted in a law and order problem in the city. It took the police a week long effort and the film’s removal from exhibition to bring the situation under control.

The story, featuring Sabu, Raymond Massey, Roger Livesey and Valerie Robson, openly claimed to be set in 1938 India. It showed its hero — a British official — Captain Carruthers (Livesey) offer a ‘treaty of peace and friendship’ to the Emperor of Tokot, a fictional Kingdom located in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) near the Afghan border, to make it into a British subsidiary in return of a generous subsidy. The ruler accepts it, stating “If England is our friend, we shall have peace” and his subjects are seen as happy and jubilant at the prospect of being rendered safe from the ‘enemies’. He is however murdered by his brother, Gul Khan (Massey), who usurps the throne. The rightful heir to the throne, Prince Azim (Sabu), escapes being killed narrowly with the help of Carruthers and his wife (Robson). Gul plots to kill the Carruthers and his men at the Muharram feast but Azim saves his British friends by beating the warning drum he has learnt from his Scottish drumboy friend. Gul is murdered and the throne is restored to the young, British loyalist Azim.

Ideology and politics:

The film was deemed severely objectionable in India for maligning the character of Pathans, portraying them as barbaric brutes through savage dialogues and for its unabashed propaganda of the British Frontier policy, which was in reality severely criticised in and outside India. Conversely, it is also showed that the ‘good’ Pathans like Azim and his father were friends of the British, when in fact the Pathans had been by and large vociferously anti-British.

the drum 1938, british empire cinema, banned films india, independence day india Captain Carruthers and Gul Khan (first two from left) in The Drum. Courtesy IMDB.

In 1937, the British had been alarmed and confounded by the Hindu-Muslim unity of Abdul Ghaffar Khan’s Khudai Khidmatgar and the Congress in the NWFP. The ideology of The Drums was overtly degrading to the fabric of communal harmony. The movie also implied that British were the bulwark preventing a Muslim takeover of India. The way archvillain Gul Khan is depicted was highly reminiscent of a Muslim conqueror who voices that he intends to kill (non-Muslims) en masse and oversee the rise of mosques all over India. These were precisely the fears being stoked by communal Hindu organisations like Hindu Mahasabha and Sanatan Dharm Sabha, who had also been active in the NWFP.

Gunga Din (1939)

Gunga Din poster. Courtesy IMDB

At a time when British empire in India was facing serious challenges from the raging anti-colonial struggle, Gunga Din (intended to be pronounced “Ganga Deen”) “gave a clarion call of ‘All’s well’ … for the benefit of the white audience,” writes historian Prem Chowdhry, the author of Colonial India and the Making of Empire Cinema.

Starring Cary Grant, Victor McLagan and Douglas Fairbanks and directed by George Stevens, Gunga Din (1939) was based on a popular short poem by Rudyard Kipling with the same name, in which a low-caste bhishti (water carrier) loses his life in the course of fulfilling his duty while quenching the thirst of wounded soldiers of the British Indian army.

Gunga Din tells the adventure tale of three adventure-loving British sergeants — Ballantine, Cutter and MacChesney — in the British Indian army who are sent to investigate an outstation in North Western Frontier Province attacked by ‘thuggee’, an ancient murderous cult and worshippers of Kali. In process of the plot, the sergeants have violent confrontations with the thugs and eventually discover their hideout in a Kali temple.

While the three officers alone easily overpower and outwit the hordes of thugs on all occasions, towards the climax they are wounded and captured. The bhishti Gunga Din’s bravery in alerting the regiment at the cost of his life saves the officers’ lives and prevents the regiment of the British Indian army coming for their rescue from walking into a deadly ambush. The sergeants are rescued and the uprising is stamped out by the British India army. Gunga Din is recognised as a hero and suitably rewarded: he is posthumously made a corporal in the British Indian army.

Ideology and politics:

Gunga Din glorified the Raj at the expense of the Indians. Noting its effect, an Indian film journal hit out: “All the British characters are honest, jolly souls while all the ‘natives’ are scheming, treacherous, unscrupulous devils. All but one, the solitary exception is Gunga Din … He is always cringing before them … That is how all loyal ‘natives’ must behave in presence of their rulers.”

Sam Jaffe as Gunga Din (left) and Victor McLagen as Sergeant MacChesney (right). Screenshot.

The late 1930s had been a period of consolidation of communal forces in India, clamoring for the ‘two nation’ idea. During the 1937 provincial elections, after passing of the 1935 Government of India Act, the Muslim League failed to win many seats in the NWFP despite it being a Muslim majority area, which mainly went to Congress under Abdul Ghaffar Khan’s leadership. Therefore, in those days, it had been actively propagating that the nationalists in the Congress, being Hindus, were hell bent on creating a ‘Ram Raj’ which no true Muslim could align with.

Gunga Din too in its plot associated Thuggee with Hindus (Muslims were selectively excluded) and the Hindus with the nationalists. In a reversal from The Drum, the film showed a horde of killing thuggees overrunning the Frontier region, which in reality was a Muslim majority region. Thus reinforcing the idea of the danger of Hindu domination, which was in line with the British propaganda to communalise the nationalist movement. The Thuggees’ proclamation to take over all of India was projected to be as much against the Muslims as against the British.

gunga din, british empire india, 70th independence day Eduardo Ciannelli (third from left) as the Thug Master in the mould of Gandhi in Gunga Din. Courtesy: lengendarycarygrant.com

Moreover, the portrayal of the Thug master, inciting the masses “to kill!” quite literally, is unmistakably cast in the mould of Mahatma Gandhi. Through this thinly veiled gag, the film caricatured Gandhi (a Vaishnavite and follower of Bhakti), by showing him as a worshipper of Kali and a believer in the cult of murder and violence to pursue his furtive agenda.

Another fault line that the film exploited was caste divides. The British had long projected themselves as the protector of downtrodden untouchables of India from the high caste Hindus of Congress. The film turns Gunga Din, a bhishti within Kipling’s poem, into a ‘loyal humble servant of the empire’ — whose yearning desire is to be a soldier in service of the Queen.

Released in the USA in February 1939, Gunga Din was one of the most popular and highly rated adventure films which broke box office records in the USA and Britain. Needless to say, however, the ‘heroism’ and ‘loyalty’ of Gunga Din, which resulted in the death of thousands of Indians, was a bitter pill for the Indian audience to swallow, who would have seen him as little more than a traitor. Gunga Din was banned in Bengal (citing potential disturbance to intercommunal harmony) and in Bombay, followed by other provinces as soon as moves were made to release it.

The Rains Came (1939)

The rains came, british empire, indian history The Rains Came (1939) even won an Oscar for its special effects. Courtesy IMDB

By May 1939, Gunga Din and The Drum were publically affirmed by the British officials in India as causing ‘disturbances to Indian opinion’. “The successive banning of these two films was the proverbial last straw for many studios in the USA, where similar projects were abandoned,” writes Chowdhry. Gears were shifted in tune with the contemporary situation, the adventure plots were abandoned and a new sophisticated film came about: It was a grand narrative of progress and development in India under British colonial domination and also a romance. It was released in India in 1940.

The Rains Came, starring Hollywood actors Myrna Loy, George Brent and Tyrone Power, projected a new image of the British Empire in relation to the colonised: as one of a development partnership led by the Indian monarchs moral patronage and paternalism. It portrays princely India as the ‘real India,’ slowly coming out of backwardness, poverty and stagnation with the moral and material support of the British.

Rains tells the tale of Major Rama Safti (played by Power, a major Hollywood star in the 30s), a young Western educated Indian doctor in the Indian kingdom of ‘Ranchipur’, who is also the chosen heir of the Maharaja and the Maharani. He is friends with the British people living in Ranchipur, which is clearly a subordinate of the Raj. A married and wealthy English woman named Edwina (Loy) falls in love with Safti but soon earthquake and flood destroy the city and plague falls upon its residents. The Maharaja dies from it. Under the Maharani’s leadership, Safti’s tireless medical service and Britain’s unrestrained help, Ranchipur slowly begins to cope with its woes. Edwina, as a medical volunteer dies of the plague, but leaves her money for the cause of rebuilding Ranchipur. The able Rama Safti is crowned Ranchipur’s new King, with the blessings of the British.

Ideology and politics:

Marking a departure from the previous films, Rains avoids crude racial stereotyping of Indians to a large extent. The calibre of the monarchs and educated Indians is shown in a favourable, modern light. Britain is, of course, ever present – – to protect them and to assist them in uplifting their people. Imperialism is reimagined and recast in a softer, nurturing light — abandoning its aggressive presence for a maternal avatar here. Instead of a exploitative and degrading role, the colonisers are shown as helpful, modernising agents to the Indian society. In reality, one knows that British indifference was responsible for the Bengal famine of 1943.

The British position in India at the end of 1930s had been made shaky by the ability shown by the Indians post 1935 in tackling democracy. As demands of Indian nationalists for Purna Swaraj were growing louder, The Rains Came “tried to assert that the ‘injection of democracy’ was not required and that the traditional Indian rulers were capable of governing their people well, that is, with the patronage of the British,” writes Chowdhry. As a film that tried to propose an alternative for India within the British empire in 1940, The Rains Came failed to impress Indians, who had long written off princes and rulers as indolent and conspirators with the British — and with good reason. The new India would not look back to its Princely past.

Cinema’s early development coincided with the high noon of the British empire and it quickly emerged as the most influential propaganda vehicle of imperialists. Empire films The Drum, Gunga Din and The Rains Came attempted to respond to the anti-colonial developments by denying them. At the same time, they were a testament to the fact that Britain could no longer ignore the rise and ambition of nationalism of Indians.

Published by The Indian Express

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