The pre-1947 Indo-British interaction generally was, to say the least, highly uneven, much more so in the sphere of filmography. Quite unsurprisingly, before independence, the imperial shadow was overarching and Hollywood, on which British cinema has always been over-dependent for access to wider audiences, skewed it further by ruling out any portrayal of or participation by any non-white character in a participatory or even a distantly romantic role. The examples of Merle Oberon, the half-or-part Indian-British actress, and Sabu the fully Indian elephant boy and man are just two memorable stars caught in Anglo-American ‘miscegenation’ racial taboos of the times. Merle had to hide her identity while Sabu could get no other part than being a stereotype Indian. Yet there were others like
Niranjan Pal, Himansu Rai and Devika Rani who got their due without hiding their identity or getting hemmed in restricted roles, making big strides on return to India.
For the best part it has been a saga of unequal music of cinematic variety captured in a film produced by Lalit Mohan Joshi, director of South Asia Cinema Foundation & Editor, South Asian Cinema and a book edited jointly by Lalit and his wife Kusum Pant Joshi, with generous help from Professor Jeffrey Richards of Lancaster University.
Mumbai-born Merle, by all accounts, was a stunner whose beauteous looks caught the eye of Hungarian-British director and producer Alexander Korda who virtually launched her in the role of Anne Boleyn in The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933). She moved to Hollywood where she had a string of successes appearing with stars like Charles Laughton, David Fairbanks Senior, David Niven, Marlon Brando and Laurence Olivier. Her performance opposite Olivier in Emile Bronte’s Wuthering Heights is considered a classic. She acted in over 50 films but always concealed her part-Indianidentity as it would have jeopardised her film career. She called herself a Tasmanian !
Another career launched by Alexander Korda was that of young Sabu who was picked up by Korda’s associates from the elephant stables of the Maharajah of Mysore.
Original name Selah Shaikh, he was christened Sabu by Korda after his hit film Elephant Boy (1937) based on Rudyard Kipling’s story ‘Toomai of the Elephants.’ The award winning film was a joint effort of Korda and Robert Flaherty, the documentary maker, whose cameraman Osmond Borradaile had first spotted the Mysore boy. After English language teaching and training under the tutelage of Korda, Sabu became the star of a string of his films like The Drum (1938), The Thief of Baghdad (1940) and most memorable of all, as magical Mowgli in The Jungle Book (1942) based on Kipling’s original.
Sabu went on to Hollywood, married an American, became an American and enlisted in the American army during the Second World War. But was always restricted to ethnic roles in film world.
Happily for some others, things were more open. Among them, there arose a three-some combination of talents of Niranjan Pal, Himansu Rai and Devika Rani who worked together at various times and got fair recognition in Britain and at home in India. Coincidentally there were two others, perhaps unknown to each other – Dewan Sharar and Sheikh Iftekhar Rasool –from the Punjab city of Multan, now in Pakistan.
Rasool, a dancer, actor and cabaret artist performing in Vienna, Paris and London, found his big break in the English film Scheherezade after which he came to be known as the Valentino (Rudolf Valentino) of the East. Oddly enough, as the book by Lalit and Kusum Joshi informs, he resented the compliment. Rasool who set up his own film outfits under the banner of Elephanta Film Corporation and Sphinx Films, had an ambitious project of which little seems to have survived. He was making the film Lalla Rookh on the daughter of Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb about which he himself gushed: “I have produced a picture superb in photography…” A pity, nothing of such high promise has survived!
The other man from Multan, Dewan Sharar, was a graduate of the elite Government College, Lahore. An Urdu poet, storywriter and playwright, he had several plays, including one called Victoria Cross about the 1914-18 war, already in his bag before he came to Britain in 1930s. One of his first assignments in London was as an adviser for an Indo-British talking film Karma (1933) by a fellow Indian Himansu Rai. Karma’s story had also been written by Sharar. The film, shot initially in India was completed in England under the direction of J.L.Freer Hunt. One of Sharar’s novels The Gong of Shiva was published by George Harrap & Co in London. Some of his radio plays like the Rajput Pledge (1934) and In the Shadow of the Taj were adapted and broadcast by the BBC. He joined Gaumont-British films as Eastern Adviser for some of their productions including East Meets West. Back in India he worked with famous Indian film director V. Shantaram and wrote dialogues for his film Shakuntala based on the
ancient classic of the same name by Kalidasa.
The London of the 1930s beckoned a host of budding talents like Niranjan Pal, Himansu Rai and Devika Rani whose firstencounters as strangers were to flower into lasting relations and foundation work for theatre and cinema back in India.
Playwright, silent and talking filmmaker Niranjan Pal had his first big hit in London’s West End with The Goddess in London’s West End, followed by two silent films – a documentary on Indian soldiers in the First World War and a feature film Faith of a Child (1915) based on one of his own stories. His next big project was The Light of Asia on the life of Buddha which was turned into a film with German collaboration in 1925. Three years later, he came out with Shiraz (1928) on the love story behind the Taj Mahal followed by a more ambitious film A Throw of Dice (1929) on the story from the Indian epic, Mahabharata. Two years later, he saw his own English novel Your Honour the Judge, turn into a murder mystery film: A Gentleman of Paris (1931) with the help of his friend Sinclair Hill. The film
credits fully acknowledged Pal (in large bold letters), as the writer of the story.
Meanwhile Himansu Rai, who had played the lead role in Pal’s West End hit The Goddess, had returned to India and set up Bombay Talkies.
Himansu, fired by the success of The Goddess and his own role in it, took the play on a tour of the country with a cast gathered under the banner ‘The Indian Players.’ He was also persuaded Indian financiers to collaborate with a German group in the production of Pal’s The Light of Asia. The film thus was a joint product of Lahore’s great Eastern Films Corporation and Emelka Konzern of Germany. While in England, Himansu met another budding artist, Devika Rani Choudhuri, whom he offered a job as costumes and sets consultant for his film A Throw of Dice and later married.
Devika Rani, a relative of poet Rabindranath Tagore, came to London as a child and went to RADA (the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art). She became an instant celebrity with her first film Karma (Fate) in 1933 when it opened in London and Birmingham to rapturous applause. Rave reviews in newspapers and BBC interviews and broadcasts to listeners in India followed. On return to India with her husband Himansu, they jointly founded Bombay Talkies which was to become the launch pad of stars like Ashok Kumar, Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapur, Dev Anand and Meena Kumari.
Doubtless the Indo-British film interaction has been rich and rewarding and had many more actors and promoters as revealed by the long line of players listed in the deceptively small dictionary researched by Kusum Pant Joshi. The book is a mine of information which can launch many more explorations into this bilateral story. The accompanying film certainly needs to be expanded to two or three times its current length to give a fuller idea of the rich cultural heritage of the Indo-British saga and its potential for today and tomorrow. A Biographical Dictionary of Indo-British Cinema(1930-1951). Published by South Asian Cinema Foundation, London. Pages 139. Price GBP10..
Subhash Chopra is a freelance journalist and
author of India and Britannia—An Abiding
Affair and other writings.