Sunday, 11 December 2016

JINNAH (1998)

          Directed by Jamil Dehlavi
           Christopher Lee
           James Fox 
          Maria Aitken
          Shashi Kapoor
          Richard Lintern
          Shireen Shah
          Robert Ashby
          Indira Varma
         Sam Dastor 

The original decision to cast the internationally respected British actor Christopher Lee in the role of Pakistan’s founding father Dr Mohammad Ali Jinnah, in this 1998 Pakistani production, co-written produced and directed by Jamil Dehlavi, was, on the face of it, a baffling one: its backers conceived the movie as an event picture, to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the country’s formation, so presumably its target audience would not have been expecting so see Pakistan’s national hero and first Governor-General, whose birthday is a national holiday, portrayed by a white western man wearing tan-coloured makeup. For a good many reasons, production on the movie was mired in controversy, not least because of the assertion by some commentators that casting an actor better known for having once played Count Dracula as Pakistan’s greatest and most beloved leader was deeply insensitive and inappropriate. Even so, after many delays to filming Jinnah eventually opened to great acclaim in Pakistan, and proved to be very popular there. Lee went to his grave insisting that he gave his best screen performance in this role, and the film’s success seems to indicate that he managed to persuade Pakistani audiences at least, of the integrity and honesty of his portrayal, which genuinely seems to have been inspired by Lee’s belief in the essential decency and humanity behind Jinnah’s determination to defend the rights of India’s minority Muslim population, even when the cost was to split the country in two.  
Controversy inevitably surrounds Jinnah the man and his political stance, in this region of the world, since it was under his leadership that the Indian Muslim League split with The National Congress over its support for Gandhi’s use of satyagraha, which was part of the revered leader’s program of non-cooperation and civil disobedience designed to provide opposition to the British authorities’ presence in the country. Jinnah believed Gandhi’s emphasis on religious traditionalism only encouraged sectarian divides to further develop between India’s Hindu, Muslim and Sikh populations, which were already prone to conflict. He believed that change should be affected through constitutional means and that an Independent India should be a modern secular state. Neither the socialist Indian leader Jawaharlal Nehru (who was to become India’s first Prime Minister after independence) nor Jinnah welcomed the bouts of inter-faith slaughter that regularly flared up under British rule, since they provided a convenient rationale for the British to argue that their continued presence was needed in order to keep the peace. It is Jinnah’s awkward fate though, mainly because of his support for partition and for the creation of a new nation state for the Muslims of India, rather than a united India with all the faiths living together as Nehru and Gandhi preferred, to be associated and sometimes blamed for the sectarian bloodshed, the many massacres and the regular flare ups of inter-faith hostility which accompanied Pakistan’s birth after partition in 1947. Dehlavi’s film sets out in part to rescue Jinnah’s reputation from just such accusations, while striving to maintain a tactful, diplomatic tone that indicates a desire to remain respectful and level-headed in its treatment of all the historical personages involved in Jinnah’s story -- such as Gandhi, Nehru and Britain’s Lord Mountbatten – all of whom played such vital roles in the event that is central to Jinnah’s place in history.

The movie’s general tonal approach is of a type that will be familiar to all from popular western prestige cinema, evoking the likes of the period films produced during the 1980s by Merchant Ivory. It aims to capture something of their exotic mixture of escapist travelogue, colonial-era splendour and some degree of melodrama. It clearly wants to be thought every bit the equal of such well-regarded examples of the genre as the TV mini-series based on Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet, The Jewel in the Crown; or David Lean’s 1984 film adaptation of E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India; or, indeed, Richard Attenborough’s great historical epic Gandhi. The film was, then, clearly made with the hope of finding an audience in the west as well as in Pakistan. If the casting of a well-known and distinguished western actor in the main role helps the film focus a spotlight on the importance of Jinnah’s background as a Muslim who was at least partly educated In the West, and was influenced as much by the principles of liberal law that he encountered during his time at Lincoln’s Inn as by the traditions of the religion he was born into, then the selection of writer-director (and co-producer) Jamil Dehlavi to helm the project can also be assumed to have been made with similar concerns in mind: as the son of a Pakistani diplomat and with a mother who was French, Dehlavi’s childhood was divided between Pakistan and Europe and he has lived for most of his career in London, where he has worked for the BBC and Channel 4. His other cinematic projects have often explored clashes of eastern and western cultures and values. Dehlavi’s appointment on this film became another flash-point of controversy since he was forced to leave Pakistan under a cloud in 1983 after the shooting of his film The Blood of Hussain, which was about a fictional military dictatorship overthrowing the Government. Unfortunately, its release happened to coincide with a real-life military coup which took place in Pakistan under General Ziaul Haq -- who imposed martial law and immediately banned and attempted to confiscate Dehlavi’s film, forcing the director to flee the regime; the actual negative was narrowly saved from destruction after being flown on to London ahead of the director himself.

When asked about his involvement with Jinnah by an English language newspaper in Pakistan, Dehlavi said that the producers and financers wanted him to present an ‘idolised’ version of the Quaid-i-Azam (the Great Leader), but as co-writer and director Dehlavi was able to have his way in the end and present a version of Jinnah’s life that emphasised the more human aspects that lie behind the national myth. With Jinnah being such an important feature in the construction of the official image Pakistan projects of its nationhood, it is also inevitable that the various Islamic movements which make up political and cultural life in the country, be they secular or more traditional, Have often sought to claim his legacy for their own ends. This film interpretation of Jinnah’s life story hits upon an ingenious narrative device that essentially allows it to portray the man as opposing opposites simultaneously: as being both larger-than-life -- semi-mythic, even – while also being seen as intensely humble and down to earth. In effect, Dehlavi and his co-writer Akbar Ahmed, situate the historical details of Jinnah’s life within a framework of fantasy that is informed by references to several classics of western literature and film, namely Charles Dickens’ much-filmed A Christmas Carol, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, and Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death  -- in which the dying Jinnah in spirit form finds himself required to travel back through time, revisiting various incidents from his public and personal life in the company of a sort of angelic inventory keeper for the afterlife, played by Bollywood legend Shashi Kapoor, who informs him that: "you’ve stopped by here so we may decide where to send you." Christopher Lee’s calm, commanding, dignified portrait of Jinnah the historical personage is thus presented in a context of fantasy cinema; of imaginative fiction defined by wild flights of fantasy and myth in which Lee’s understated biographical portrait of Jinnah is surrounded by the genre’s inventive whimsicality and flashes of humorous surrealism. For instance the Heavenly assessment area Jinnah first encounters when he arrives in the afterlife looks like an oak-panelled library or cloister in some august western place of learning such as Oxford or Cambridge University, where Shasha Kapoor is seen fretting over the recent delivery of some new “computers from the future” that are in the process of being unpacked to be set up as the replacements for the leather-bound paper ledgers previously used to store the records of each Earth-departing subject sent for assessment. The comedic image presented here, of Heaven as a place of administrative failing, of incompetence and bureaucratic bumbling, provides the narrative impetus for Jinnah’s personalised re-assessment after it is discovered that all of his paper records have been wiped, but that the computer system is also still down and Jinnah’s files have become corrupted. Kapoor therefore has to assess him “manually” and accompany him on a step-by-step tour through his life in order to answer the charges which have been brought against him.  Viewers in 2016 will of course also be amused by the antiquity of these “wretched new-fangled computers” which cause Kapoor so much trouble because: “no-one here really knows how to use them!”

With this framework in place, the film becomes a kind of interrogation of Jinnah’s personal record and historical legacy. Various charges that have been levelled against Jinnah in assessing his actions during his lifetime, and after his death from tuberculosis in 1948 – that he was “arrogant”, “ambitious”, “humourless”, and “stubborn” -- are presented, but the key debate posed is over the question of whether Jinnah was right to have insisted on the creation of Pakistan in the face of opposition from Nehru and Gandhi, given the enormity of the consequences ... millions dying as the result of the division of one country into two, and disputes over the exact placement of ‘the Radcliffe Line’ which brought about divided communities and mass migration leading to vicious bouts of ethnic cleansing. Lee’s naturally borderline haughtiness and his aristocratic, even slightly pompous demeanour off-screen, turns out to be just perfect for capturing many aspects of the persona of the real-life Jinnah that might not have appealed to some of his critics, and make him look inflexible and, perhaps, intransigent alongside his more informal, relaxed rivals such as Gandhi, Nehru and Mountbatten. Also, the affair between Nehru and Lord Mountbatten’s wife Edwina, who are played by Robert Ashby and Maria Aitken, is presented here surprisingly sympathetically as ‘a spiritual union’ between two people who love India, although Mountbatten’s knowledge of their relationship is downplayed and his own infidelities not mentioned (perhaps the sheer ‘spiciness’ of the Mountbattens’ private lives was not considered appropriate subject matter for this type of movie). But the issue also provides evidence of Jinnah’s personal integrity when he is shown refusing to allow his party to use stolen love letters, belonging to Edwina and sent by her to Nehru, to be used as propaganda tools during his negotiations over the formation of Pakistan with the British as the discussions are being led by Lord Mountbatten, India's latest Viceroy, appointed by Clement Attlee. As Jinnah re-visits moments from the past, he also gets to see what other people have said about him; but he turns away from one tender meeting between Nehru and Edwina, seen early on, because of it is “private nature” (the conversation takes place in Edwina’s bedchambers). We witness many formative events from Jinnah’s life as a dynamic young man, where he is played by Richard Linter, during which he becomes fully westernised in dress and in attitudes as a consequence of the time he spends working as a Lawyer in London (he later practiced as a barrister in Bombay); he also goes against convention to marry the daughter of an elite Parsi family.

 Jinnah’s belief in western-derived constitutional norms, which Jinnah wants to see adopted by an independent India, also puts him at odds with the ideas being pursued by Gandhi. The film puts great emphasis on Jinnah’s uneasiness with using religious feelings to stir up support against British rule, which is what he believes Gandhi to be doing by insisting on wearing traditional Hindu clothing and encouraging a vision of an independent India that rejects modernity and industrialisation completely. Jinnah thought this would only lead to sectarianism. In the film he worries that such ideas release “darker forces – powers that cannot be quelled; illogical urges and great anger." While always portraying Gandhi (played by Sam Dastor ) in a sympathetic light, the film, in the end, favours an angle on events that assumes it is the combination of irrational forces set loose by Gandhi’s traditionalism and the dirty dealings of Lord Mountbatten (who is again given a largely sympathetic and likable portrayal by Edward Fox despite being indicted in the screenplay for causing most of the bloodshed) over the details of the positioning of the divide between India and the newly formed Pakistan -- which the film contends was part of an attempt by the British to make sure the country became a failed state very quickly. The irony, that it is his realisation that the Muslim minority population would suffer the most under Gandhi’s system but that Gandhi’s leadership and support in the matter was unassailable, which leads Jinnah to become more and more concentrated on religious matters himself, even starting to adopt elements of Islamic dress in later years as he becomes more strident and hard-line a spokesperson for the Muslim community, is  somewhat muted by the film’s efforts to portray Jinnah as a moderate -- with a secular vision of Islam in which women are treated as equals and the rights of Christians and Hindus are respected equally alongside those of Muslims (when a traditionalist attempts to chastise him for ‘allowing’ his sister to campaign alongside him, Jinnah cites the fact that the women of the Prophet’s family were politically active after his death as justification for his progressive vision of Islam). However, the film does gently imply a hardening in Jinnah’s position as he ages, which results in his refusal to accept his daughter Dina’s marriage into a Parsi family (even though he had also done the same thing as a young man) because it goes against religious custom, and her decision to remain in Bombay with her family instead of joining him in the state of Pakistan after partition.

Such issues are only given a limited amount of time in an overstuffed screenplay which, inevitably, given the Christmas Carol-style narrative device employed, can only provide a snapshot of a life, and so inevitably comes to look like the sort of account that cherry picks its events from a complex set of circumstances in order to arrive at a pre-determined conclusion. There are some inventive scenes, such as the older Jinnah (played by Lee) advising his younger self on the path he should now take after losing support for his ideas to Gandhi (an effective way of signifying an internal change in outlook that leads Jinnah to abandon the fight for a unified independent India and to push for the formation of a new Muslim state instead); but there are also too many instances when the film devolves into flavourless dialogue scenes between the main players where they sit around explaining and justifying their positions to each other on key events, causing the film to play, during such moments, like more of a panegyric to Jinnah's greatness.The whole rather pails when set alongside the recent work of Peter Morgan, for instance, who, particularly in his new Netflix series The Crown, has been granted the space to devote large amounts of time to exploring the complex emotional underpinnings of relationships as they develop between people caught up in events that feel like a great meshing of gears is driving historical forces beyond any individual’s control. The score, by Nigel Clarke and Michael Csányi-Wills, is prone to sweeping romantic blandness, and even the riots and massacres are filmed in an oddly detached, formal way -- as though they were merely generic battle scenes in an action movie. But Christopher Lee is given enough moments of emotional catharsis towards the end to allow him to stand out, especially in two scenes in particular: one in which Jinnah discovers that the train carrying Muslim refugees he has come to greet as it arrives in the new country has been attacked, and that everyone on-board except for a single newborn baby has had his or her throat slit; and another in which Jinnah personally supervises the relief effort as the post-partition chaos unfolds, but breaks down to beg forgiveness from a man who has lost his wife in the melee and the accompanying slaughter.

The film concludes oddly -- with Jinnah, Gandhi and Nehru meeting again in the afterlife, and watching in dismay a series of BBC news reports from a TV studio control room displaying images from the conflict between India and Kashmir, which give them cause to reflect upon the horrors of religious extremism (Gandhi was assassinated by a Hindu extremist, angry at his willingness to recognise the legitimacy of Pakistan as a state), before the film concludes with a heavenly trial of Edward Fox’s Mountbatten, with Jinnah acting as the prosecutor, indicting the British for their role in bringing about the troubles that have afflicted the region in the years after partition. In the end, one can see why Lee was drawn to the role, and how the range of responses he gets to deliver over the course of the film might have assigned it a special place for him in his lengthy filmography; but in of itself the picture as a whole is far from being one of his greatest. This new dual-format release from Eureka Entertainment provides an acceptable rendering of a fairly soft focus film lensed by Nicholas D. Knowland, who has since gone on to work with Peter Strickland on Berberian Sound Studio and The Duke of Burgundy, but it contains no extras at all, which is a shame as there is a making-of documentary and Christopher Lee has previously recorded a commentary for the film, both of which have appeared on a previous DVD release. Nevertheless, Christopher Lee fans will be happy to have this film made available once more, if they do not already own it -- a valuable addition to their collections.               

Released in Dual-Format Edition by Eureka Entertainment