ANGLO INDIAN CINEMA
The term, ‘Eurasians’, was coined sometime in the nineteenth century to originally mean citizen living in India whose parentage was of British father and an Indian mother. The people to whom it applied weren’t quite pleased with it, so they changed it to ‘Anglo Indian’.
In the century that followed, non-domiciled Britishers, such as the Nobel laurate, Rudyard Kipling, and George Orwell, who were born in India and chose to make India their home preferred to identify themselves by this. In the 1911 census, this term was further modified/broadened to mean anyone “descended from European fathers and Indian mothers”. The last definition is the one that is presently enshrined in Article 366(2) of the Indian Constitution.
With the interracial inter-mingling for over 400 years between the people of Britain and those of various parts of India, it was inevitable that a race called the Anglo Indian would emerge. It did. And within this new racial order, emerged many pigdin dilects, one of them being a mix of Hindi, Urdu and English words and syntax.
For the better part of centuries, the English and the non-English in India, preferred to stay apart in public affairs and entertainment. The English acknowledged the major role played by Indians in the final victory of the Allied Forces over Germany and its associates. But this acknowledgement did not permeate to the Arts. England was compelled to finally cede Independence to India for various reasons.
Art may not as yet, have mingled but cinema now permitted the appearance of Indians in the cast of films made in India for international audiences, and in films made in England.
Indian cinema in the silent era, did not seem to have dwelled much on Anglo Indian relations. Some film companies from Italy did make films here. They created films on Indian themes, but did not show Indo-English social relations. With the arrival of sound, the door opened for the use of language/dialogue, and English writers used their Indian experience to adapt Indian folklore and historical episodes for screen reproduction. But before that, Imperial India needed to pay tribute to its empire builders. In 1935, an American production ‘Clive of India’ featuring Ronald Colman and Loretta Young, did the theatre rounds. It was compulsory viewing within the Anglo Indian community and was screened, in particular, in Railway Institutes, gymkhanas, and cantonment cinemas.
In the same year The ‘Lives of a Bengal Lancer’, featuring Gary Cooper, was released. The film was first planned in 1931 and a unit came to India to film the outdoors. Their arrival was mistimed as they arrived in the mid of Summers. The film material got exposed and was mostly destroyed by the heat. However, what little remained was still used. This film was a biopic of a British army officer who had served in the North West Province of India.
Ex Lt. Col. John Masters who wrote 64 novels, was the first Anglo Indian off the block to see his novels on India and Indians, being turned into feature films. In 1938, ‘The Drum’ was made. It highlighted the role of the British army in the North West Frontier. The same area was revisited in ‘King of The Khyber Rifles’,(1953), starring Tyrone Power and Terry Moore.
Rudyard Kipling’s works too found screen adaptations. In 1939 a major star cast film ‘Gunga Din’ was released. It hoped to cash in on the new Indian interest growing internationally. Sadly, the film ran into rough weather with the nationalist Indians who sought its outright ban because it denigrated Indian culture and customs. Directed by George Steven, the film retold the story of a native bhistee (water carrier), called Gunga Din, who befriends three Britishers in their misadventures in trying to bring to book members of the Thugee criminal tribes. The ban remained a reality for Indian audiences, though the film circulated in other English-speaking parts of the world. A second attempt in 1950 proved successful when another Kipling work “Kim” was adapted for the screen. Kim was an adventure film of a young boy who helps a lot of people and eventually gains recognition. Shot in Lucknow and Jaipur for its outdoor scenes, the film became staple screening in English medium schools in India, and the original novel was also introduced for studies in English literature.
Once the fear of public protest was over, British and American film crews began cautious landings on the shores of India to film Anglo Indian themes. The works of Rudyard Kipling proved to be a goldmine. I think he holds the world record for the most number of adaptations of a single novel, namely, ‘Jungle Book’. Indeed this children’s book has seen nine versions by as many film directors, and in every case, the film made both friends and money.
The first version was in 1942 when the Korda brothers fearing German prosecution migrated from Hungary to England and then to USA, and decided that their first film in USA would be the Kipling novel.
Alexander Korda came to India in early 1935 scouting for an Indian to play the hero. He discovered a boy in a village in Karnataka whom he adopted and took to Hollywood. There, he trained him to play the main lead in his new project. This boy was Selar Sabu (better known for his screen name, Sabu (Dastagir), whose own brief life was remarkable enough to be made into a film. Korda made Elephant Boy with Sabu in 1937. The film was received with much acclaim. Sabu also became the first Asian actor to feature in a lead role. It encouraged Korda to take on a new Asian subject. He selected Rudyard Kipling’s novel ‘Jungle Book’ and made Sabu, the main hero.
The film was a super box office hit in the USA, when released in 1942. It was a successful film in the UK, where it released in 1950. And it received a warm welcome in India in 1952. In its latest incarnation, made in 2016, the film, by Walt Disney Productions, was released in India in English, and dubbed in Hindi, Tamil and Telugu. The film is now embedded in Indian film history as the first foreign film to gross the highest revenue, beating even the local competition. According to the last information available, the Indian earnings from Jungle Book had crossed Rs. 248 crores. But its boy hero, Neel Sethi, still remained unknown.
The commercial success of ‘Jungle Book’ in India also led to an overall review of Hollywood films. As a result, these days, Indian audiences get to see some of the major American studio films simultaneously as their counterparts in North America; occasionally, even earlier!
Kipling’s charmed existence on screen once again found itself in 1975 in the John Huston India- adventure film, ‘The Man Who Would be a King’. The film starred Saeed Jaffery in a bit role, with the main leads taken over by Sean Connery and Michael Caine, whose wife is Indian
Kipling died before he could make his millions from film royalties. At least nine of the novels written by him were turned into successful films.
We visualize Anglo Indian cinema in India essentially through the presence of actresses who ‘looked’ European. In isolation, there were some ladies who did enter Indian cinema and came to India under various circumstances. Helen Ann Robinson (Helen for all of us), entered India from Burma as a refugee in 1943. A few more were luckier. Nadia was a circus artist from Australia. Ermaline came from Hungary. Then, there were the Baghdadi Jewish ladies-their parents were long settled in India who were sought by Indian producers for their daring urban style and ‘Anglo’ looks. Ruby Myers alias Sulochana from Pune, remained the queen of the silent era for more than a decade and survived through the late 70s of Indian cinema, as a poverty-affected artist. In between, ladies like Florence Ezekiel Nadira (Nadira), Rose Musleah (Rose), Lillian Ezra(Lillian), Sophie Abraham (Romila), Rachel Sofaer, Esther Victoria Abraham (Premila) and Pearl Padamsee filled the screen with their Anglo presence.
There were others, like Patience Cooper and Cuckoo Moore, local girls from the metro cities, who also provided a cosmopolitan look in the films. And we should not forget the whole lines of unnamed dancing girls in frocks, who filled the frame in so-called cabaret song and dance routines in Indian films, right upto the late 1960s, before they suddenly disappeared. This was because most of them migrated to Australia, Canada, England and New Zealand, to find boys to marry. Indian Cinema suddenly lost a lot of its film artist generation, which was unique.
However the first foreign look in Indian cinema came as early as 1919 when an American lady, Dorothy Kingdon, entered India as a love-struck young actress attached to Baron Van Raven, a wealthy businessman. The latter stayed in South India for about eight months and financed the silent era film ‘Shakuntala’(1920). It was pretty obvious right from the start that ‘Shakuntala’ was a character tailor- made for Dorothy!! The lady was soon star-struck and decided to accept offers for some more roles in silent cinema. She could be said to open the doors for other ‘European looking’ ladies waiting in the wings. But then Dorothy soon faced serious competition when girls like Patience Cooper, Miss Jones and Ermaline stepped before the camera and walked all over Dorothy’s presence with their own oomph! There was no need for words. They were just required to throw their oomph. This they learnt from the imported films from England, USA, Italy, Germany, Denmark, and other lesser known sources of film production.
India’s own contribution to world cinema with Anglo Indian artists, rests with at least four extraordinary ladies-Vivian Mary Hartley (Vivian Leigh), Estelle Merle O’Brien Thompson (Merle Oberon) Julie Christie and Joan O’Callaghan (Anna Kashfi). Two of the mentioned stars also had an Indian Railway connection, though today’s Indian Railway may not be aware of this pedigree at all. Anna Kashfi is best remembered as Marlon Brando’s first wife, but she is better respected as a bestselling author of a book she wrote in the early 1980s called ‘Brando For Breakfast’, and many other essays published in American publications. And now out of the blue, comes this beautiful lass, Olivia Colman holding her Best Actress ‘Oscar’ statue for her portrayal in a film made in 2018. Olivia has an Indian connection. Her great-great-great-great grandmother was an Indian lady from Kishanganj, Bihar! That was the place where the British cultivated Indigo and Opium for export through the East India Company. The British actress, Julie Christie, does not hide her origin which goes back to the tea gardens of Chabua, Assam. She is ranked among the great artists of the 20th cent. We remember her role in ‘Dr Zhivago’. Two recently lesser known ladies of the silver screen in Indian cinema are, Lara Dutt and Diana Hayden.
The Anglo Indian community gave us not only women artists but also some well know names from the men’s world, who ruled the world of entertainment in their respective times. They were singers Cliff Richard from Lucknow and Engelbert Humperdinck from Chennai, and actor Ben Kingsley from Gujarat. And writers like Rudyard Kipling, George Orwell, William Makepeace Thackeray, and Ruskin Bond. Unfortunately, some of the Anglo Indians who became prominent in public life, shunned their Indian origin and attributed their dark coloured skin to various other circumstances.
Arguably the only Anglo Indian who took to Indian cinema as an artist, is George Baker. Baker hails from Kolkata where he spent his early childhood, but his schooling was in Lucknow. He returned to Kolkata for his graduation and during this period he took a serious interest in theatre. He got a job in the Assam tea gardens and began to take interest in theatre again. Finally he got the role of playing the lead in ‘Chameli Memsahib’ which catapulted him into Assamese cinema as this film was adjudged as the Best Assamese film of the year. Baker took retirement and returned to Kolkata and joined politics. He has done a term in the West Bengal Assembly. I am tempted to include in this essay the contribution of Tom Alter. Though an American by birth he finally sought Indian citizenship and played an important part in the development of the English speaking theatre and filled many roles of Britishers in Indian scenario.
We include within the definition of Anglo Indian cinema also those films which had their origins outside of India, were India themed films , were made by non Indians, and which had a cast of artists of both Indian and foreign origins. Like the British Empire, this genre had a beginning and has a possible ending too.
The first of the real Anglo Indian films seems to be ‘Bhowani Junction’ (1956) based on the novel of the same name by John Masters. The film was significant for both Ava Gardner who played the main female lead as well as the issue that she portrayed on the screen. It was supposed to have been made in India, but the newly-independent Indian government denied the crew shoting permission, stating that the film could hurt the feelings of the Anglo Indian community. The film unit walked across into Pakistan and made their film there, recreating the backdrop of Delhi in Lahore. It was also the time when Ava Gardner fell in love during the shooting of this film. Later, as she lay on her deathbed afflicted with debilitating cancer, Stewart Granger called on her. As he sat by the bedside, Ava went back in time recalling her days in Hollywood and the many lovers she had had. Then in a brief moment of emotion, she whispered to Stewart, ‘Remember how we made love in ‘Bhowani Junction’? And Stewart whispered, ‘Yes, my darling, it was heavenly’. Exhausted, Ava sank into a light sleep.
There is a moment in this film when Ava the Anglo Indian girl, has to decide whether she will stay in India where her roots were, or go along with the British defense officer who is returning to England. In one impulsive moment she decides to discard India and to move to England. In real life too, thousands of Anglo Indians were compelled to take that decision in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Those in most parts of the country who decided to stay back realized that they were not acceptable to the new India emerging in an aggressive manner.
John also saw two more novels turn into films, namely, Night Runners of Bengal and The Deceivers.
Four films, the BBC serial, ‘A Jewel In the Crown’, ’36 Chowranghee Lane’(1981), Bara Din(1998) and ‘Bow Barracks Forever’ (2004) -beautifully sum up the dilemma of a majority of the Anglo Indians who stayed behind in the hope that they would be properly integrated into the social fabric of independent India. Sadly this relatively small community was exploited in most States of India, with perhaps the exception of Kerala, and finally ignored and left to their fate. Jennifer Kendall played a role of a lifetime as Ms Violet Stoneham, the retired teacher exploited by her former student, in the film ‘36 Chowranghee Lane’. In ‘Mahanagar’(1963), Satyajit Ray comments on the vulnerability of the Anglo Indian young girl who could be exploited by her Indian employee because this woman had no huge community to fall back on for personal protection.
There are not many films in which the dilemma of the assimilation of members of the Anglo India with communities outside of their own has been portrayed. In ‘Batoan Batoan Mein’ (1979), this aspect of uncertainty, came to be reflected. The rejection to acknowledge the genius in this community was at the same time pointed out in ‘Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hai’ (1980). In this film, an expert motor mechanic wants to be recognised for his expertise by his client and to be treated at par socially, but this status is refused, and Pinto is rebuffed. In ‘Julie’(1975), based on a Malayalam film ‘Chattakkari’,(1974) the social dilemma of the Anglo Indian family is again pointed to when a Christian girl finds rejection in a wider Hindu world, but the situation is resolved with her being finally accepted. The only film that touched on the missionary work of foreigners was ‘Miss Beatty’s Children’, directed by the Punjabi-born Pamela Rookes, nee Juneja.
In 1998, Leslie Carvelho made a low budget film, ‘Outhouse’ which also won the G. Aravindam Puruskaram. It narrated the struggle of an Anglo-Indian woman to assert for identity and economic independence in her alien Indian culture. Such examples remained rare.
The only foreigner who contributed to Indian cinema in any material manner was the American citizen Ellis R. Dungan. Dungan was a cinematographer who was invited by an Indian associated with the Tamil film industry for a brief stay. Dungan however stayed for nearly 15 years in Chennai (1936-1950) and made over 20 well-known feature films, many of them commercial ‘hits’. Dungan also introduced many modern film techniques to make Tamil cinema technically superior to Hindi cinema. He is not remembered for this. But at least he is credited with one contribution: that of introducing the cabaret dance number into Indian cinema!! That is where we have the ever lasting contribution of an Anglo Indian person to the Indian film industry through Helen Ann Robinson, Helen to all of us.
Helen entered Indian Territory in 1943 as a Burmese refugee with her family. She first came to Guwahati, then went to Calcutta, and finally moved to Mumbai. She was befriended by another Anglo Indian dancer, Cuckoo Moore, who taught her some common dance steps and got her into the dance line of junior artists. Helen’s first film is arguably Shabistan. No where one noticed her. Except Bhagwan Dada, an actor who was good in modern floor dancing. Helen came under his tutelage. Bhagwan introduced her to a higher grade of dancing, and Helen slowly climbed the ladder of success until she hit the jackpot in ‘Howrah Bridge’(1958). The rest is history. Helen was associated with the Indian film industry for the seven decades, and worked in more than 700 films in eight languages, Tamil, Hindi, Marathi, Malayalam, Telugu, Kannada, Bengali and English. She remains to date as one of the most endearing images of the Anglo Indian community in India.
There is another segment of Anglo Indian cinema that we can talk of. This is the Christian representation in Indian films. Most of the major regional cinemas have featured this category. Indian cinema has a large representation from the Christian community both on and off screen. They could be seen in large numbers in chorus line-ups in songs; then, towards the end of the 1960s, they began to thin out. In Hindi cinema, their number has practically ended.
It was in Bhanshali’s ‘Khamoshi’ (2003) that a Christian family held centre stage. Till then we all remembered Lalita Pawar as the titular character ‘Mem Sahib’ and as Miss D’Sa in ‘Anari’. Bhanmshali followed this up with another Anglo Indian subject, ‘Black’ taking his camera into the household of the McNelly’s and their deaf and dumb girl.
Perhaps we cannot term Indian films that were made in India by foreign crews and in which Indian film artists played either walk-along roles or in some cases, prominent roles, as Anglo Indian cinema. However, since we are on a related subject, a few such important films are talked about here simply for the records.
For some time, I.S. Johar represented Indian cinema in foreign films. He was in ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, ‘Harry Black and the Tiger’, ‘North West Frontier’, ‘Death on the Nile’ and ‘Maya’. He also acted in two Italian films. Similarly Saeed Jaffrey too featured in many English-language films. And so did Victor Banerjee (‘Passage to India’, ‘Anthony Firangee’). Actor Kabir Bedi elevated the Indian presence in the James Bond film ‘Octopusy’ and was quite a presence in the Italian serial ‘Sandokan’. The best Indian villain would easily be Anil Kapoor in ‘Slumdog Millionaire’, the film that along with ‘Gandhi’, placed India on the centre stage of the world audience and took her out for an ‘Oscar’ evening.
When foreign film directors came to film their subjects in India, they had to suffer immense tribulation to get their clearances before they could start shooting. It took Richard Attenborough nearly thirty years to get through an approval for the script of ‘Gandhi’. Mark Robson’s film ‘Nine Hours to Rama’ fared worse. It was banned. ‘Encounter of the Third Kind’ faced crowd control problems, ‘Indiana Jones….’ and ‘Purple Plain’ were refused permission and they completed their respective films in Sri Lanka. So was the case of ‘Bridge on the River Kwai’. And hardly anyone would recall ‘Wind Cannot Read’ (1958), a film that had Dirk Bogart in the lead.
There was closer scrutiny of films under production when they involved India-Britain relations. European film directors perhaps faced less trouble for themselves. Jean Renoir, the French film director, made ‘The River’ in 1951 and faced no trouble. So was the case of ‘Pardesi’, which was a Soviet-India production.
There was also a small category of ‘India’ being created in film studios of Hollywood, or Pinewood. ‘Rains of Ranchipur’ featuring Richard Burton and Lana Turner was shot completely in film studios. The sati rescue episode in ‘Around the World in Eighty Days’ was also a studio job, or at least, it was not shot in India.
There is no sizable population of Anglo Indians left in India anymore. Most of them are concentrated in pockets in Kolkata, Chennai, Kochi, Bangalore Dehra Doon, and Mccluskieganj an isolated habitat in a corner outside Ranchi. Their world population may be around 500,000, but in India it is about 120,000. The English-speaking schools are now inhabited majorly by converted Christians, and the true Anglo Indian remains for most part just a memory. ‘Death in the Ganj’ (2016) is probably the last, that recalled this community.
It seems the term Anglo India could still be retained if the definition of the term is altered, thereby allowing a new type of people to be included in this category.
In 1969, a gentleman from England came to India to teach English and Theatre. He was Barry John. He first stationed himself in Bangalore and then moved to Delhi. Here he trained Shah Rukh Khan, Naseeuddin Shah, Pradip Krishan, Manohar Singh and many great names, in professional acting. Then he moved to Mumbai and opened a theatre workshop. Barry John then decided to give up his British passport and accept the Indian nationality. He also accepted to play ‘British’ roles when called on to do so by his Indian film directors, including Satyajit Ray. Barry in my estimate is an Anglo Indian who represents the best of the two nationalities. As India moves up in the trajectory of becoming a bigger economic and cultural power, there will be more persons from England who may make India their home.
Try as one may by edicts, laws and barricades, when two communities come face to face, when two religions come face to face, and when two genders also come face to face, there is bound to have some exchange of glances, customs and snatches of languages. John Barry and Tom Alter are just individuals. But when the Engish decided to stay in India to rule and brought their families, this separation did not work. The dilemma was first shown in film Janoon (1978), based on a short story by a fellow Anglo Indian, Ruskin Bond. This problem kept on repeating itself as the new community was born out of social intermingling and racial conversions.
A reverse migration began to take place in 1953 with Indians moving to England. It finally led to the island nation being swamped by people who were referred to as ‘Asians’. From India, labour hands moved from Punjab, Bengal and Andhra to work the steel mills and then the more sophisticated, moved out from the Indian medical colleges to sustain the National Health Schemes. Some took to the Arts.
The more fair skinned took to marrying the local girls and their children born now came under our definition of Anglo Indians where one needed to do a bit of ‘arm twisting’ and say Indians, for British in the original term. These ‘Anglo Indians’ first took hold of the local theatre and having made a mark there, started taking small steps as bit players in films. Socialist artists would not have found fault with the new class of mullatoes sharing the brief spotlights with them.
An early bird in this case was Ben Kingsley who moved from theatre to television and finally to brief moments in cinema until “Gandhi” hit him straight! Others of his kind, followed. The more “British” with Indian fathers and English mothers, were soon entering the entertainment industry as new audiences had more presence of non British gentry. Ben Kingsley alias Krishna Bhanji, Navin Andrew from Kerala, Dev Patel, Parminder Nagra of Bend It Like Becham fame, Archie Panjabi, Nina Wadia, Indira Ann Verma are familiar names in England who represent the new Anglo Indian race that is rising in that land, and filling the space of that termed community, which is becoming a victim of old age and times.
The new multi racial cinema in England has also seen lead Indian actors join their resident counterparts to create shows which have shown a good light on cultural harmony which exists in the British Isles. Prominent actors from India include the late Om Puri, and Anupam Kher.
Finally a place can also represent the community of Anglo Indians by the activities it generates. This we find in the cinema of Kerala.
In the cinema of Kerala, however, things are very different. It has become quite the trend these days to shoot in and around the European heritage zone of Fort Cochin, and to often include a stereotype, Fort Cochin character. This erstwhile Anglo Indian bastion in Kerala has a rare distinction—it is one of the few, if not only, places in the country where this community continuously enjoyed being treated with immense respect and suddenly began to flourish in the mid 90s with the opening up of the economy, and where quite a sizeable number of non-Anglo Indians spoke the queen’s language in decades gone by.
In the olden days, residents of other districts of Kerala were in fact so envious of the European-style culture of Fort Cochin that many ridiculously wild rumors existed of what really went on there, and a proverb too was created that says, “Kochi kunduverkuachchivenda”. Figuratively, “He who has once seen Cochin loses all inclination of going back to his wife and home.” This is reminiscent of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “A stately pleasure dome decree… For he on honey-dew hath fed, and drunk the milk of Paradise”.
The image of the Anglo Indians did not necessarily mean the skirt wearing ladies. In Kerala cinema, veteran actress Shrikumari very often played the Anglo Indian, speaking in English but with a white pamaranian in arms! It was a stereo type image of an Anglo Indian who was a dog loving and liquor drinking with sleeveless blouse for women, and half pants for men.
No music plays in Fort Cochin now like before. The dance floors are empty. And the ambiance too isn’t quite like what it was. Most Anglo Indians who lived there have migrated to more lucrative English-speaking lands, and it is improbable that they would ever want to return. The merriment may have disappeared from Fort Cochin and other such Anglo Indian zones of India, but it continues unabated in places in Canada, Australia, England, & the US. History could one day perhaps completely erase all trace of the Anglo Indian from the soils of India and make its cinema too, a distant memory, but the soul of the Anglo Indian has a heritage that is eternal.