Oh, what a treasure this film is! It brought the light and beauty of 1920s India into my cold snowy winter, and cheered me considerably. I can only hope that it will someday soon be available in gorgeous professionally embellished dvd form like its sibling A Throw of Dice. The movie itself is more a series of staged vignettes than what we now consider a motion picture, although there is plenty of pageantry: shambling elephants, prancing horses, trotting camels, and crowds of people. And if the story is a bit over-simplified (adapted from Edwin Arnold’s 1897 epic poem by the same name about the life of Prince Gautama, the Buddha) it doesn’t really matter to me. This is a rare glimpse of history indeed, and a visual and creative feast.
Also, just as a warning: I am going to talk about the story all the way through to the end, which I don’t really consider spoilers since everyone knows the story of the Buddha (or can, if they look it up online). Nothing suspenseful here!
The film opens with a travelogue of exotic India: the Jamma Masjid in Delhi, Benares, Calcutta, Bombay, snake charmers, and scenes with firangi tourists (flapper dresses and cloches! topis!) shopping and watching a poor bear “dance” for them (the Buddha would not approve).
We tourists still gawk like this in India, although I at least am not nearly as stylish.
Sightseeing takes us to the ancient Buddhist temple at Gaya (Bodh Gaya), in modern day Bihar, where the Buddha attained enlightment after meditating under a bodhi tree for forty days and forty nights.
An old sage there offers to tell the curious foreigners the story of Prince Gautama…
Centuries before the birth of Christ, King Suddodhana (Sarada Ukil) and Queen Maya (Rani Bala) have not produced an heir for their kingdom of Magadh. At the behest of his subjects, the King follows tradition and sends out a sacred elephant to choose an adoptive heir, leading to some hilarious scenes of very unhappy children being groomed—literally in some cases—for selection:
Were I the elephant, I’d have picked the happy little guy at the top here smiling serenely as his compadres flail and scream:
but the elephant returns home empty-handed; he knows (although everyone else, including Maya, is surprised) that Queen Maya is finally about to be blessed with her own miracle, a son.
She dies shortly afterwards, and Gautama (Himansu Rai) is brought up by his doting father alongside his “cousin and rival” Devadutta (Profulla Roy). The Prince’s compassionate nature is brought to the fore on his first hunting expedition as a young man. A hunting cheetah (I think: cheating! sorry) chases down a deer and kills it, and sensitive Gautama is horrified.
He cradles the deer’s head in his hands, and then looks at Devadutta in anger.
I am totally with Gautama on this one.
Also: early continuity issue? we cut back to the hunting cheetah, except it’s not a cheetah any more. I guess one cat is as good as another?
Devadutta (“to further annoy Gautama,” the intertitles solemnly inform us) shoots down a swan flying overhead, which survives but with a broken wing. Gautama rescues it and, when Devadutta demands his prey, refuses to give it to him. They take their quarrel to the king and his wise advisors—who are wise indeed.
These are words to live by!
The King dreams that night of an empty throne beneath a canopy (I love the special effects here):
and, disturbed, sends for a “dream reader”.
You’ll notice that there are drastic color changes now and then, a result of the practice during the silent era of “tinting” certain scenes to lend them extra atmosphere. It’s a wonderful idea, but the restoration here includes these rather gaudy tints—I can’t help but wonder if they would have been more subtle originally than they are now (credits give a Czech company credit for the tinting, and Tom tells me it is a very reputable company indeed, but I find it a bit jarring). Blue is used for night scenes, and bright green for garden and jungle scenes, and lurid yellow for yet others.
Anyway, the dream reader tells Suddodhana that Prince Gautama is fated to wander the earth lonely and poor rather than live out his life in luxury as a king. Suddodhana asks what he can do to change this awful fate, and the sage suggests that he keep Gautama distracted with the pleasures of life, hiding the ugly side of it from him. Gautama is unmoved by the lovely dancing ladies of the court, so the King decides to get him married to the daughter of his neighbor King Dandapani, Princess Gopa (Seeta Devi), whose beauty is legendary.
It is love at first sight for both Gopa and Gautama, but Gautama must by tradition win a competition against all the other would-be suitors for Gopa’s hand. This tournament is really good fun to watch, a spectacle filled with ceremony and lots of action.
The Maharajah of Jaipur made everything in his entire kingdom available to the production team during the making of this film. He provided the animals, the vehicles, antique clothing and his own palace for their use. The credits at the beginning of the film note this, as well as the fact that everything was filmed on location—there were no “sets” put up at all.
Gopa need not have worried (and maybe she didn’t, though I would have): Gautama defeats them all, including Devadutta, and he and Gopa are married at this rather spectacular temple (does anybody know where it is?).
They settle down in a lovely palace set in the middle of a lake to keep Gautama shielded from anything ugly (dead flowers on a plant, the aged, the sick). He is happy with Gopa, but as it will, boredom soon comes creeping into his paradise. One day he orders his carriage brought around, and ventures forth into the town. Despite the King’s instructions to hide anything unlovely from view, he encounters two old men, one of whom is dying; and also witnesses some people carrying a shrouded corpse out of a house.
His manservant Channa explains the concepts of aging and death to this poor naive Prince, and Gautama is shocked and disturbed.
That night (could you tell?) he agonizes over his decision to leave everything, especially his beloved Gopa, but in the end fate and his calling win and he rides away, leaving Gopa sleeping and unaware.
The next day the King comforts his heartbroken daughter-in-law and sends his men out across the kingdom to search for his son. Gautama (who has sent his horse and his sword and crown back to the palace with Channa) comes across an old man, and exchanges his silk robes and jewels for the old man’s rags.
Possibly I am overthinking things, but it occurs to me that he might have done more immediate good for people if he had spread all that jewelry around a little bit. In any case, I kind of love how that old skinny man looks draped in all those pearls (and I think he does too). Actually it looks like he might fall over, so weighed down is he.
I also love that many of the horses in this film wear elephant costumes.
I wonder if it is historically accurate, or if it was a particular whim of the Maharajah of Jaipur’s? In any case, it is AWESOME.
As Gopa waits, refusing to eat (and forced to reject Devadutta’s romantic overtures), Gautama continues to wander.
Eventually, tired of waiting, Gopa forsakes her luxuries and leaves home to wander too, in search of her beloved.
The palm trees don’t apparently cut it, enlightenment-wise (or possibly it’s the lurid color):
but eventually Gautama settles underneath a bodhi tree and stays there, unmoved by weather or temptation, until he finds the knowledge he has been seeking.
He sets off again, now as a teacher: talking sense into crazy Yogis and saving helpless goats from slaughter.
Finally Gopa happens upon her husband in front of a crowd of curious people and her own heart is touched by his words.
She becomes his first convert, and they live happily ever after, spreading the word of Buddhism. The end!
As some critics have pointed out, the film is not by any means historically “accurate” in terms of content or setting, but I would guess that painstaking historical accuracy was not one of the production company’s main aims anyway. As entertainment (and Buddhist Philosophy 101) it works perfectly for me, and in this day and age the movie is irreplaceable as a treasure from a bygone era of filmmaking. Thank you for taking care of it, British Film Institute!
Himansu Rai’s wife Devika Rani designed the set decoration and Charu Roy (Rai’s co-star in A Throw of Dice) the costumes, and together with director Franz Osten and cinematographer Josef Wirsching (and the Maharajah of Jaipur) this Indian-German team truly created a lovely piece of cinema history.
I salute you all!