My Mumbai Mirror column:
What the 1956 Ava Gardner starrer Bhowani Junction tells us about the British, Anglo-Indians and the railways in colonial India
But what was created was something that endured, and became the lifeline of the empire. It isn't surprising, then, that the British colonial imagination identified deeply with the railways. One of the films to display this most vividly was the 1956 MGM extravaganza Bhowani Junction, directed by George Cukor (Gaslight, The Philadelphia Story, My Fair Lady) and based on a bestselling 1954 novel of the same name by John Masters.
Masters, who had
served in the British Indian army, set his narrative just before Independence,
crafting a classic colonial story
in which the noble British are only trying to pull out peacefully while the Congress
leadership is intent on the non-violent but continuous disruption of peace, and a
violent Indian Communist organiser is trying to make sure there is a
“bloodbath” when the British leave – so that “Moscow” can take over. And
fascinatingly, almost all the action in the film revolves around trains. Some
sequences make only incidental or dramatic use -- such as a passing train
hiding a murder. But in most, the railways have a starring role: The action
involves either letting a train through (to rescue dangerous explosives),
rescuing victims from a deliberate train accident (caused by the villainous
Communist straw man), or preventing a train from blowing up with Gandhi on
board (an artfully colonial postcolonial narrative, in which it is a British
colonel who keeps the great Indian alive).
Whatever one thinks of this portrayal of India (with not a single Indian in the primary cast, of course, and white actors in blackface spouting a bizarre range of accents), Masters had enough experience of India to get some things right. He knew that colonial policy had staffed the railways, especially at the lower rungs, with Anglo-Indians – a mixed-race community that was equally a creation of empire. And so Bhowani Junction's heroine is an Anglo-Indian. Played by the striking Hollywood star Ava Gardner, Victoria Jones makes her cinematic entry getting off a train -- in uniform, but on leave. After four years at headquarters in Delhi, she's coming home – to her sleepy old town, her Anglo-Indian engine driver father and her waiting Anglo-Indian boyfriend Patrick, who also works in the railways.
But 'home' seems
harder and harder to define. The British are preparing to leave India for good,
leaving the Anglo-Indians vulnerable to both political and social upheaval.
Their unspoken position in the social hierarchy is articulated in the film in
Patrick's rather sad sense of racial superiority -- below the colonial masters,
but striving to be somehow above the vast mass of Indians. Meanwhile, there are
European villains -- British men who see Anglo-Indian girls as fair
game; Western in tastes and dress, but not deserving of the same moral niceties
as a genuine English memsahib. Victoria – despite her unsurpassably colonial
naming for the late queen -- doesn't identify with the British, but she doesn't
feel Indian either. So she spends much of the film trying to become 'truly'
Indian, which seems to involve exchanging her skirts for diaphanous saris and
contemplating conversion to Sikhism to marry her seriously dull suitor.
Victoria doesn't succeed. But
what's incredible is how much Bhowani Junction, despite its impeccable
Hollywood credentials, feels like an Indian melodrama. The slipping sari pallu,
of course, but also a film told entirely in flashback by the hero – on a train;
and sequences like the one in a gurdwara, where Gardner's character, with a
dupatta on her head, has a dizzy spell while replaying all the film's previous
important dialogues loudly inside her head, complete with imaginary echoes, in
a way that would have fitted right into Kahani Ghar Ghar Ki
Running (literally) from this crisis of identity, where does our Anglo-Indian heroine go? She turns up at the railway yard, to fall gratefully into the arms of her estranged engine-driver father – whom she calls Pater – and climb into the driver's cab with him. Like 27 Down's Sanjay, 20 years later, Victoria is a child of the railways. The trains she once childishly imagined as taking her to England, are now her safe space. India may be complicated, but the railway is home.