The Gunga Din tamasha

I have had the good fortune to get my hands on some Filmindia issues from 1939, courtesy of my friend Shalini, who sums up the reading experience perfectly: “…like being in a time warp with a sarcastic, witty, opiniated guide.”

In 1939 Hollywood released the blockbuster film Gunga Din, which went on to win an Oscar nomination and is considered a classic. But Baburao Patel and his colleague Khwaja Ahmad Abbas (the famous screenwriter and journalist) didn’t see it that way, and said so, eloquently! Their battle on an international landscape gives us a fascinating look into what the fight against British rule and imperialism meant to them. Mr. Abbas fired the first missive off in the February issue (click to enlarge the scan for reading):

Filmindia continued to support this view in every following issue. In the middle of the year Baburao embarked on a world tour via ship, and met with Alexander Korda in London after travelling through Italy, Hungary and Germany and examining their film industries; he left Germany just as World War II was declared! Korda had produced and directed a film called The Drum in 1938 which also portrayed Indians in a bad light, and Baburao did his best to convince him to do better.

A sidebar in the September 1939 issue says this:

Face to Face with Korda

The man who made “Drum” and the man who kicked a hole right through it came face to face at the London Films Studios at Denham, England. The British Film Institute arranged this meeting between Baburao Patel and Producer Alexander Korda.

“What was wrong with my ‘DRUM’?” was almost the first question Korda asked and it took Baburao Patel several hours to tell him that there was nothing right with it. At length Baburao Patel explained the political and psychological situation in India, why people resented such Imperialist themes as “Drum.” Korda pleaded that he had merely produced the picture as entertainment and not as propaganda. “Even as that,” retorted Patel, “you ended by slandering my people.”

In the end, however, Korda saw the point of the Indian’s argument and has promised to be extra careful about Indian sentiments in future.

I don’t know off-hand how well Korda did on that front—maybe another of you oldie film buffs can fill me in!

Baburao took the S.S. Normandie from London to New York, where he was greeted with enthusiasm as a “Million Dollar Personality.” From the October issue:

In California, Baburao met with studio executives and stars, and also with Gunga Din‘s producer-director George Stevens. Here’s what Baburao had to say about his time in Hollywood:

“The world had its ear turned to Hitler’s dreadful war-song. They had hardly any time to listen to India’s complaint about films that slandered India and her great people…

I had to shout, write and threaten. I did all that to carry my quarrel to their heart and home. From Alexander Korda in London to Harry Warner in Hollywood, all were seen and told. All listened sympathetically and anxiously. Sympathetically, because, Americans are good sportsmen and anxiously, because, India is a good potential market for American films…

Everyone seemed to understand and everyone promised. Even genial George Stevens, the man who produced “Gunga Din” without any intention but merely for entertainment, saw the force of my arguments when I explained to him the reasons of our resentment. And George said, “Next time I produce an Indian subject, I hope to please India.”

Luckily for us, Baburao made it home across the seas now made perilous by war:

Ships were sunk ahead and behind, floating sea-weeds became magnetic mines and human imagination ran riot…And now I am glad I went but more so because I returned.

I can only shake my head when I see this, about his stay in London:

I have only one complaint. And that is that in London, the capital of our King Emperor, twenty six good hotels refused to give me lodgings because I was an Indian. Englishmen are still as stupid as ever and believe in such puerile demonstration of their supposed racial superiority. The Germans who rain bombs on their wives and children can enjoy the hospitality of any hotel in London, but the Indians who feed and maintain the British prestige are denied this ordinary coutresty.

At least there has been some progress in the world. I would also really love to know what Baburao thought about the way the Chinese, Africans, and yes! my own gora people! were portrayed in Indian films across the decades. But I guess that would be a story for another day.

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43 Comments to “The Gunga Din tamasha”

  1. I will have to go back later to read the actual texts, but – isn’t it sort of satisfying that people have been thinking about issues like this for so long? Yes, we wish things would have changed _more_, I suspect, but at least people have been thinking and talking about them.

  2. I found the whole thing so fascinating—especially that Baburao and Abbas could be so scathing about British rule while they were still BEING ruled. It’s a great glimpse into the past for sure but also says a lot about the future :) Someday people will look back on articles about things like gay marriage and wonder at our ignorance and narrow-mindedness!

    • Baburao’s humilation I understand but I honestly find myself failing to put myself in K A Abbas saab’s shoes. It has everything to do with your wondering about what “Baburao thought about the way the Chinese, Africans, the Sardars, the south Indians, the bengalis and so on were depicted.
      In fact, I always get a kick from how woolly-headed people’s ideas about “other” people always is. :)

  3. Color me impressed! Who knew a man obsessed with bosoms was also the man who spent hours telling Alexander Korda off! Not to mention tempting George Raft with his watch!

    And having sat through Gunga Din, I can only agree with Baburao – although I had the good fortune to watch it as a citizen of free India in these politically correct times and as such was able to laugh heartily. Can’t have been very funny for Baburao. And srsly, what an excellent point about the Germans vs. Indians in preWar London. Or even postWar London for that matter.

    Did he never write about the charms of Helen in Mera Naam Chin Chin Choo?

    • I haven’t seen Gunga Din, but I found Temple of Doom (Indiana Jones) appalling on the same score. And it was made not that long ago! Both he and Abbas made very strong points, and it’s so very interesting to see the issue through the eyes of people affected by imperial “occupation.”

  4. Memsaab, thanks for digging up gems like this. Baburao seems to be the sort of person I’d have over for dinner. I’m now looking over the excellent earlier post you did on him.

    The thing about these glimpses into the past is that we realize how contemporary .those people all seem—not their immediate concerns, but in a general sort of way. I’ve been reading sections of the Baburnama and Babur –well, I’d not have him over for dinner for he’d be most badly behaved.

  5. I am sitting here open mouthed and don’t know what to say.

    It is such a multilayered story.

    Well, the others are always the bad ones. Be it any side. This makes it easy to dehumanise them and more important make oneself feel more ‘good’.

    Gives a good peek into the times then.
    It reminds me that Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was also banned in India. It is funny though, because nearly everybody who watches hollywood fare had caught it up on video.

    Love the reference to his not getting a room in a London hotel.

    Very interesting is the sentence:
    The Germans who rain bombs on their wives and children can enjoy the hospitality of any hotel in London

    It doesn’t say ‘who rain bombs on them’ but ‘on their wives and children’.

    • Ha ha! I mentioned Temple of Doom above too—reminded me of that. And Gunga Din wasn’t banned everywhere in India—there was a whole brouhaha about that too. Bengal didn’t ban it, for instance, and some Indian journalists there even liked the film which made Baburao apoplectic.

      The “wives and children” mentality is definitely one of the 1930s (although plenty of the same still prevails today I guess)…when men were MEN and women and children were to be protected!

  6. This is fabulous! I am glad somebody spoke intelligently against Kipling – I hated him even as a 12 year old who wasnt too sensitive to Orientalism or exoticising of India (I actually enjoyed Connan Doyle’s The Sign of Four!).I wonder why Kipling is so widely available and even popular in India and part of childhood reading (I remember reading Kim and Junglebook as a kid). Come to think of it, Bollywood films do their fair share of exoticising the rural and tribal Indians, not to mention “others”.

    As to Gunga Din, I am with Amrita – it just made me laugh. But then, I saw it when India had been independent for more than 60 years and had its own long tradition of evil “goras”. The Americans may have listened sympathetically to Baburao, but things did not improve significantly (as you’ve seen in Indiana Jones) – probably because nobody would be interested in finding how ordinary and normal the “other” people are. Exotic is so much more interesting (and useful at the box office) than ordinary is, after all!

    • Well, for the most part evil and debauched goras in Hindi films just make me laugh too :) It’s good (and necessary!) to have a sense of humor about such things. BUT of course as you and Amrita both point out, we have the luxury of being free people. Makes a big difference…

      I would die without the exotic!

      • I would die without the fantastical. Really looking forward to the Alice in Wonderland movie–probably the only Holly I will see this year.
        About exotic, hmmm. The Elephant Man, the Hunchback and another side show, you know the one where they put people from other faraway lands in cages—makes me cringe. I live in Europe (unspecified place) and India is *very* exotic here.

        • Elephant Man and the Hunchback were not exoticized for their places of origin but for their deformities…a whole different topic possibly!

          India is exotic here in the US too—and rightfully so. You won’t find a place more different from Amrika than India (there may be some AS different but none more I think…at least I haven’t found it!).

  7. That is so fascinating! Who knew, when I started getting into Hindi films, that it would enlarge my world in so many other ways than the movie screen? Thanks for posting the scans, Memsaab.

  8. I confess, I throughly enjoyed Gunga Din too. I can’t help myself – it has Cary Grant! That said it was interesting to read Baburao’s views on the film. In his own inimitable style, he makes one think.

    • I have to confess that I am tempted to see it now. The cast is marvelous ;-) I think KA Abbas was so eloquent on the subject. I really am enjoying his editorials…

  9. Let me add my voice to the chorus of thanks to you for posting these remarkable articles.

    Steven Spielberg acknowledged “Gunga Din” as one of his direct inspirations for “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.” The difference between the two films–for me–is that “Gunga Din” presents itself more as a historical adventure (to my mind more offensive) and “…Temple of Doom” is more of a fantasy…sipping soup from monkey heads is much more patently ridiculous than the more insidious Orientalism of “Gunga Din.” Many will disagree, I’m sure.

    Another interesting point is that Sam Jaffe, the actor who played “Gunga Din” in his ridiculous brown face was a Yiddish theater actor who specialized in the exotic; he was also the High Lama in “Lost Horizon.” He was not allowed to play Jewish characters, as a rule…also rarely seen on Hollywood screens at the time.

    The “thugee” plot, which was a staple of adventure fiction/films/tv in a less politically sensitive day, is handled in an extremely interesting way in the Merchant Ivory film, “The Deceivers” a useful contrast to “Gunga Din.”

    • I hated Temple of Doom. It made me cringe on so many levels, but mainly it SUCKED. A bad, bad film. That it was racist too was just…well not icing, but…something icky, on that particular distasteful confection.

      At least Gunga Din can be looked at through a “nostalgic” lens…which is not forgiving of everything but at least for me counts for something. But I must say that now I will see it—when/if I see it—with Baburao’s and KA Abbas’ voices whispering over my shoulder :)

      • Didn’t you watch The Deceivers with us? Oh Greta, it has Pierce Brosnan in brownface talking with an Indian accent – MUST WATCH!

        And if you thought Temple of Doom was bad, you should read the account of its making in You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again. Make you want to kill everyone associated with it. Although Amrish Puri was the bizness! He’s always the bizness!

        • I have not seen the Deceivers although one of my favorite films is The Party, with Peter Sellers in brownface talking with an Indian accent :)

          Just watching TOD made me want to kill everyone associated with it. Except maybe Amrish Puri, but I did want to smack him upside the head and say “What were you thinking!?!”

          • Me, on the other hand, knowing how
            “boring” the prosaic reality was,
            loved every bit of it. Hey someone thought
            we were as exotic as Darkest Africa! Cool! :)

          • And quite frankly, if an Indian actually
            enjoyed anything set in “Darkest Africa”
            (the possibility exists for both Abbas and
            Baburao) and still found Gungadin
            offensive, he is an idiot.

          • @ Sunil – true! Like King Solomon’s Mines! Was Baburao a Stewart Granger-speaks-to-the-cannibals fan? Inquiring minds want to know!

  10. Joining the que in adding my thanks for this stuff. Haven’t seen Gunga Din or Temple of Doom. Makes me think if i will enjoy watching David Leans’ “Passage to India” based on a colonial book ie E.M.Forster’s book by the same title. A colleague at work has passed me the DVD of Passage to India.

    • I saw The Far Pavilions recently….but didn’t much like it. The women in it were so horribly self-sacrificing. Sound familiar? :D

      • I read the book Far Pavillions long ago – didn’t like it –
        had all the masala of colonial times with the usual
        stereotyping as if the author is appeasing the typical
        audience in the western world in those days!

  11. This article reminds me of Munnabhai MMBS
    The scene with the Japanese tourist and his camera. LOL!
    We can use it as humour now :-D

  12. Have not read the small-print articles here (will do so later) but absolutely love the post !!! Thanks, Greta.

    I have not seen the movie Gunga Din but the first time I heard of the name had nothing to do with movies but with cricket. I read somewhere that Fred Trueman (one of the greatest English cricketers of all-time) had said “Pass the salt, Gunga Din” at a dinner hosted by the Indian High Commissioner in London. This was in 1952 – Trueman denied it but his career was full of juicy statements and stories and this one stuck…True or untrue, it caused quite a furore at that time from what I have read.

    In today’s situation, it is so much easier for us to read about or watch film where a particular country’s people are a target of fun. Speaking purely for myself, I think I would have even then – in 1939 – laughed it off as just an attempt at entertainment and not an attempt to insult any country as such – but I guess that’s just me, thick-skinned and all that. I can fully understand people getting worked up about this, especially in a country already struggling with racial discrimination and seeking to establish itself as an independent nation. To me this whole post is not about who is right and who is wrong – it is an insight into delicate issues in 1939 society. I may not agree with a lot of Babubhai’s views on a host of matters but I will give him credit for never shirking an issue that was close to his heart. He always seemed to be ready to go on a crusade.

    About Temple of Doom, I did not find the supposedly funny parts particularly funny. I did not find them particularly offensive either – I just laughed them off as stereotypical stuff. They just could not get me to even smile, let alone laugh.

    I have seen Passage to India and consider it a classic. It deals with a difficult subject in pre-independence India with great finesse. David Lean has done a very good job here.

    In general I have watched a fair number of movies with “brown-painted” actors (there was one about a train journey, I cannot quite remember the name now). There was also this Khyber Pass movie in the “Carry On…” series. In general where Indians have not been painted in good light, if we can just laugh at the silliness of the whole thing (as must have been the original intention of the director in his slapstick scenes) we will find it much easier to enjoy the movie instead of getting all worked up about it. Especially now – where Indians do not need to have a colonial hangover anymore.

    There have also been a few series on BBC about Indians/Asians. Some of them made by Asians themselves. They have been a right laugh – and pretty popular too. The Kumars at 42…for example.

    I guess it is all much easier now than it must have been in 1939.

    • Thanks Raja about “The Passage to India” – I will see it soon.

    • I think if you are a people who are “occupied” and basically treated as second-class citizens (at best) in your own country it would be very difficult to tolerate the perpetration of that same thinking on the part of people who are “free” but just plain ignorant. At least I would find it so. I think it’s much easier as several have pointed out to look back at such things as “nostalgia”…but when it is in your face every day I think it must be a different matter altogether (my long-winded way of saying that I’m not so sure you would have found it inoffensive in 1939 India ;-)

      I will put Passage To India on my list of things to see! Hope you are enjoying your travels!

      • Yes, I have enjoyed my trip so far. India is always fun. Was a bit pressed for time in Mumbai – had only 2 days there. Am in Bangalore at the moment.

  13. About movies/series made in UK these days – I am afraid some of them still do continue to stereotype the Indians/ Asians living in Britain. I recently saw a couple of movies produced and directed by local Brits.

  14. I loved Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado, I loved Verdi opera–19th centrury stuff. I loved the costumes, the quaintness and the innocence of all that exotification. But then with jet travel and later the internet, people learned about each other. Temple of Doom is just ignorance arrogantly on display. And Gunga Din too. I’m with Baburao then and now.

    Sadly for us, the only way to get the exotic is to imagine extra terrestrials or mythical creatures or make believe kingdoms. I love stuff that is essentially weird and hey Bolly fits the bill for me. (Actually, Holly comes through too on that score). Which is one reason why the treatment of women in the movies doesn’t bother me as much as it could. When Meena Kumari shows up, I just say, oh, the strange crying creature has come.

    • I find Temple of Doom much less excusable than Gunga Din myself.

      I tend to think that it just doesn’t get any weirder than human nature!!!! And next time I watch a weepy Meena flick I will try to remember to think: “Ah the strange crying creature has come.” LOL!!!!

    • Me too- LOL about Meena Kumari on “strange crying creature has come again”!

      Even in India, we young indians used to call her “Weepy Meenakumari” and couldn’t understand why she appealed so much to our parents generation. Perhaps it had something to do with the social set up then!

  15. Some more thoughts.
    Considering what’s going on with SRK and the ‘sena’ in Mumbai (I feel like saying Bombay just to spite them ;-) Baburao was very lucky I must say!!
    He tasted the freedom of speech to a far greater extent then.

    I was struck by the comment of Baburao about the cringing of Gangadin (the word cringe being used multiple times in relation to Gangadin, he says), and feels people will think that’s what all Indians do. He was forgetting that Gangadin probably did do that as well as others of his cast which was obviously low.

    • I do say Bombay. Everyone else does so I figure I might as well. Was Bombay when I was growing up, will always be Bombay to me. It’s too bad people don’t focus on more important issues like children living on the streets and people starving. You are right re: freedom of speech!

      And excellent point too about Ganga Din probably cringing even in the midst of his own people :)

  16. I have a few old Filmindia’s. Want to add to my collection. Do contact me.

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