Monday, October 6, 2008

The Far Pavilions (1984) – Raj romance or Raj masala?

The Far Pavilions Based on M M Kaye’s novel of the same name, this miniseries is a lavish period piece set in 1870’s India with a galaxy of stars – Sir John Gielgud, Omar Sharif, Christopher Lee, Saeed Jaffrey, Parikshit Sahni, Jennifer Kendall, Vinod Nagpal, Art Malik, etc. There is a strong thread of lost-and-found along with forbidden love-affairs, battle scenes and of course, lavish sets and costumes – in short the recommended masala allowance and then some!
Warning: Epic-length post with many spoilers ahead!
The story begins in 1865 when 11 year old Ashok makes his way into the head quarters of the Queen’s Own Corps of Guides at Mardan (North West India). Dodging the guards, he manages to hand over a package to the commandant (Robert Hardy). The package contains proof that he is really Ashton Pelham-Martyn, son of late Hilary Pelham-Martyn, and a British subject.
Young Ashton (or Ash he is called by everybody), lost his parents in the days of the 1857 mutiny and was saved from the vengeful Indians by his faithful ayah Sita (Joanie Sethi). She passed him off as her own child – Ashok - and took service with the royal family of Gulkote.
Brought up as an Indian servant in the castle, Ashok incurred the enmity of Biju Singh (Saeed Jaffrey in an EVIL role!) as well as the undying affection of his playmate Princess Anjuli. Biju Singh branded Ashok with a hot revolver (the brand is significant, in true masala tradition!) and later drove Sita and Ashok out of the castle. Before they left though, Ashok and Anjuli exchanged secret love-tokens! (I am disappointed that they did not decide upon a song while they were about it!)
Sita decided to take Ash to his English relations in Mardan but the journey was too much for her. She died on the way but managed to tell Ash/Ashok about his true parentage. Once convinced of his identity, the commandant at Mardan sent Ash straight off to the old country to be brought up as a Pukka Sahib.
We pick up the thread of Ash’s story again, several years later. Grown up Ash (Ben Cross) is now back in India and on the way to join the Guides in Mardan. His fellow passengers on the long train and carriage journey are George Garforth (Rupert Everett), Mrs. Viccary (Jennifer Kendall), Mrs. Harlowe and her lovely daughter Belinda (Felicity Dean).
George and Ash proceed to fall for the divine Belinda and indulge in a friendly rivalry over her affections. The lady appears to favor Ash as he tells the most interesting tales of his romantic childhood and has the most absurd ideas about the “natives” of India – he has an Indian foster brother Zarine (Art Malik) whom he insists on embracing in public! The true Sahibs are appalled at such pedestrian behaviour.
Belinda and Ash are well on the way to happily-ever-after when his commandant plays the part usually reserved for disapproving parents in Bollywood films. He denies Ash official permission for marriage and posts him away from head quarters.
Poor Ash’s cup of woes isnt full yet. He learns of Belinda’s projected marriage to an old man and comes back to confront her. While he is away, some of his troop’s ammunition is stolen and all the soldiers under his command are penalised. He goes to their aid, disguising himself as a Pathan, and helps them recover the stolen ammunition. His superiors are impressed by his ability to go “native” but are unwilling to overlook his breach of discipline.
Poor Ash is sent off to Rawalpindi where he raises hell with fellow officer Wally (Benedict Taylor). He is finally assigned to escort a duo of Princesses on the way to marrying the Rana of Bhithore (Rossano Brazzi). If Ash only knew – this is his ticket to ROMANCE!
The group he is to escort is under the leadership of the Princesses’ Uncle, Kaka-ji Rao (Christopher Lee) of Kharidkote and the commander of Kharidkote, Moolraj (Parikshit Sahni). To his delight he discovers that it also has his foster father (of Gulkote days) - Koka Dad (Omar Sharif). It from Koka Dad that he learns that the princesses he is escorting are from the Royal family of erstwhile Gulkote (now Kharidkote) and one of them is his childhood playmate Anjuli (Amy Irving).
Also of the party are Ash’s old foe Biju Ram and Anjuli’s younger half-brother Prince Joti (Shayur Mehta). Biju Ram is along to arrange a fatal accident for Prince Joti at the behest of Kharidkote ruler Prince Nandu (Ravi Behl).
Whilst at dinner one night during the journey to Bhithore, he manages to pass his old love token to Anjuli. Alas for Anjuli. She wasnt brought up on Bollywood and entirely fails to recognise Ash as her Ashok. Our hero assures her of his identity and there is a tearful re-union. The two soon embark on a forbidden romance that can only last the duration of their journey.
The lovers manage to sneak off for daily rides as the Princess claims to be tired of travelling in the carriage all day. And then, a freak dust-storm during one of these rides gives them their only chance to consummate their love. Ash is all for eloping and leaving the escort behind but Anjuli is made of more self-sacrificing stuff. She is marrying the elderly Rana because her younger sister, Princess Sushila (Sneh Gupta), the Rana’s affianced bride, is terrified of going to Bhithore alone! For her sister’s sake, Anjuli will marry the Rana and sacrifice Ash.
Apart from secretly romancing Anjuli, reminiscing with foster-father Koka Dad, striking up a friendship with Rao Saheb, Ash also manages to foil Biju Ram’s plots. He reveals his former identity (through the brand, of course!) to Biju Ram and proceeds to annihilate him.
Once in Bhithore, Ash and Rao Sahib have to cross swords with the Rana of Bhithore. The Rana isnt keen to marry Princess Anjuli as she is the daughter of the Prince of Gulkote and a Russian woman and to marry a half-caste is beneath his dignity. After much sparring, the Rana is brought to agree to the marriage which duly takes place.
Poor Ash! He watches his second great love get married, and returns to the Guides to resign his commission.
The Commandant sends him on one last assignment – he is to disguise himself as a Pathan and gather information in turbulent Afghanistan for the English mission there. The Brits just defeated the Afghans and set-up an embassy there headed by the bull-headed Sir Louis Cavagnari (John Gielgud). The Afghan soldiers are in an ugly mood and far outnumber the British troops. Ash however, is unable to get Sir Louis to evacuate from Kabul and can only help them in a doomed defence against the rampaging Afghan soldiers.
Being the only Englishman to have survived the Afghan debacle isnt the end of our hero’s adventures. He learns that the Rana of Bhithore lies dying. Its been decided that upon his death, the Rana’s two wives will commit Sati. Ash enlists the help of his father and the Gulkote doctor - Hakim Gobind Dass (Vinod Nagpal) - to rescue Anjuli from the funeral pyre.
The whole series clocks in under 310 min and was originally telecast in 6 episodes. In an epic style, there are more side stories and characters than I can begin to recount in one review. The production values are excellent – there are lavish sets, great locations, lovely costumes and the battle scenes are very well done though a bit too long for me. In the Afghanistan and Bhithore of the series, many of you might recognise the pink sandstone buildings of Jaipur and the palaces of Udaipur (there was one location that I remember seeing in Paheli, too). The story is fast-paced and well narrated, keeping you engaged with the action onscreen.
My major problems were with the two leads. Ben Cross was good but I couldnt find myself warming to him. He is shown to be a British soldier with divided loyalties but apart from a few outbursts against treatment of “natives”, he gives no indication of loyalty to anything but the Raj. Moreover, he didnt seem to be able to even pronounce his name – Ashok – well enough to pass for an Indian! Princess Anjuli was more of a self-sacrificing prig than Meena Kumari at her lachrymose best. It didnt help that Amy Irving as the Princess gave a good imitation of a brown-painted wooden plank. Her “Darling I love you” and “What is the time” were all declaimed in the same tone!
What I really liked about the series (and the only reason why I spent 300+ min on it) was the rich supporting cast. Christopher Lee was wonderful as the Rao Sahib and could almost pass for an Indian! Omar Sharif was adorable as the benevolent Koka Dad. Vinod Nagpal was great as the helpful hakim and Jennifer Kendal looked surprisingly happy in her all too brief part. Art Malik was charismatic in his small appearance as Zarine while Saeed Jaffrey was horribly evil as the conniving Biju Ram. The other actors in the British roles were all expectedly good – especially Rupert Everett and Felicity Dean. I forgot to mention Iftekhar who played an Afghan helping Ash. Didnt someone in blogland say Iftekhar is everywhere? Well it appears to be true!
Though there was meticulous attention paid to detail, I was surprised by the odd accents of all the characters who were playing the non-British parts. Even the Indians who were playing Indian roles had rather odd English and Hindi accents! And the brief snippets of folk songs and kathak dance were surprisingly bad.
Its an interesting story in the true romantic tradition – something that normally appeals to me. But, I found the main story rather uninteresting and couldnt care less about the boring Ashton Pelham-Martyn or his extremely annoying lady-love. That apart, it may be enjoyed for its epic story-telling and beautiful visuals.

23 comments:

  1. Ah, mis-casting can ruin everything.

    Amy Irving looks idiotic. And Ben Cross is the British Biswajeet ;-)

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  2. British Biswajit describes Ben Cross to a T! lol. With better leads this one could have been quite fun.

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  3. Have you read the book by any chance? I read it a while ago, and I loved it, so it saddens me to hear that the leads aren't great in this one. The story in the book, as I remember it, did actually make a good job of showing how torn Ash is, not fitting in anywhere, really, raised Hindu, then becoming British and spending a lot of time impersonating Muslims. And, with it all being on paper, there are no problems with odd accents.

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  4. The book is on my shelf waiting to be read. Having read Kaye's Shadow of the Moon earlier, I decided to watch this instead of spending time reading the book. SOTM also had a "sympathetic" British officer and an almost Indian heroine (she was brought up in an Indian household for a few years) in 1857 India but I couldnt take to those leads either. And Kaye's writing put me off - I have discovered in myself an unusual sensitivity to hearing India described as a vast "savage" land peopled by "natives"!

    Perhaps The Far Pavilions will prove better reading. I will give it a shot and try to forget the wooden Anjuli and the colorless Ash of the series!

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  5. I read this book as a teenager and remember feeling "meh" about it. Maybe it was too grown-up for me. But I really enjoyed M.M. Kaye's globally-set mysteries, and her fairy tale for children "The Ordinary Princess."

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  6. Bollyviewer I read that, too, and I generally like Kayes writing, though I preferred the Far Pavillions. Maybe the choice of words grates less with me, as English isn't my first language, I don't know.

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  7. Ajnabi, didnt realise she wrote mysteries, too! If there is one thing I like, its a well done whodunit. Just found some in my local library - cant wait to see how it turns out.

    Gebruss, my prejudice isnt linguistic but semantic. I resent India being exoticised and cant really understand the British take on India - guess all those years of school history telling us about the BAD Brits did have its effect on me! That is not to say that I dont enjoy Raj-sagas, I just need characters I like as well as lots of masala.

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  8. As campy as it sounds, I'd love to see it for Christopher Lee- he looks completely fab in that outfit!

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  9. Christopher Lee and Omar Sharif were the saving grace of the enterprise! They both got too little screen time (in my opinion) though.

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  10. I haven't seen this one, or read the book. It all sounds suitably complicated. But yes, I resent the Raj take on India too, specially when it is accompanied with fake brown skins and fake accents. But still, you made me curious enough to want to see it.

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  11. Its certainly an interesting story - perhaps the book may prove better than the series. I didnt like Kayes's Shadow of the Moon but it gave some surprising new insights on the 1857 War - at least they were surprising for one who's only insight so far was CBSE History textbooks and DoorDarshan dramas.

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  12. Well, considering Amy Irving is Mrs. Steven Spielberg #1, she doesn't NEED to act.

    I read The Far Pavilions first but loved Shadow of the Moon, so the miniseries was interesting to watch but no great shakes. Plus the lead pair were terrible imo.

    The thing about the so-called Raj take is that Kaye and her family, esp her husband's family were what the British used to call AngloIndians - British people settled in India for generations. It's a little hard to imagine or even understand them now because the distance between our current reality and theirs is much more than the 60-odd years that separates us chronologically speaking, but they considered themselves Indians too. Just white Indians who owed allegiance to the British crown.

    Within that context, Ash is absolutely correct as a character. He is far more native than his British colleagues would like but he is not Indian enough to sympathize with the anti-crown populace. It's very interesting to me, for instance, that he was a survivor of 1857 who was saved and raised by his Indian ayah - and subsequently fell in love with a "half caste" princess. They're both the same character arrived at by separate paths.

    In fact my only problem with Ash as a character (I'm speaking of the book) is that he's such an annoying brat. You just want to smack him upside the head everytime he starts whining about how life isn't fair.

    If you ever get a chance to read Kaye's autobiography, do read it because it's fascinating.

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  13. Hey Amrita, thanks for the thoughtful comment. To be fair to Kaye, she was a lot better than most other Raj writers (like Kipling, for e.g.) but as you point out - there are 6 decades between the novel and me (not to mention several years of Indian History textbooks and Indian depictions of the Brits).

    Will definitely look out for Kaye's biography. Right now I am working my way through her globally-set whodunits and they are great.

    Thanks for the fact re Amy Irving - it explains a lot!

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  14. A bit of a late comment:) I read The Far Pavilions when I was a teenager but can't quite remember whether I finished reading it or not. However,as the above commenter suggested, I also happened to chance upon two of MM Kaye's three part memoir and it was very interesting to read about her experiences of her time during the Raj in the second one, Golden Afternoon. She has stray references to the shooting of the film in Jaipur and also tells the reader about how an Indian family friend told her the story of a lone British officer accompanying a huge royal baraat (a little boy and two half sisters) to a distant state in the Rajputana and the negotiations that subsquently ensued on arrival. Sounds familiar? :)

    Thanks for the review, hoping to find and see the miniseries...

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  15. Hey Priyanka, thats an interesting piece of trivia. So the entire story wasnt a figment of Kaye's imagination? :-) I have to try and get hold of her biography.

    I think The Far Pavilions - both the book and the series - would have appealed a lot more to my teenage self (romance+adventure+period setting!) as well. However, if you cant remember completing it, then it was perhaps not memorable enough to be revisited?

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  16. Actually, there is another installment to Kaye's story of hearing the anecdote about the British officer and the royal baraat. Apparently, after she was married and living in Ireland, she met another fellow army wife who had come to know that Kaye wrote books on India. She then presented Kaye with a copy of a diary of one of her ancestors who turned out to be the very same British officer whom the Indian family friend had told Kaye about! Am sure Kaye must have mined the diary for details and amalgamated them with that of her own imagination.

    I quite enjoyed the Rajputana/romance bits in 'The Far Pavilions' so I must have stopped reading only when the narrative turned to Afghanistan. However, after having read Kaye's biography, I am quite keen to give the novel another go and hopefully finish it this time!

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  17. Hmm... this gets more and more interesting. Maybe I'll give the book (The Far Pavilions) another try. The series was very un-engaging because of the leads but with such background info the book should make for great reading!

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  18. Bollyviewer,

    Being half-Punjabi (Pakistani), my "American" side of the family was fascinated with this movie once my mother and I had returned from six months in Pakistan. As a little girl, I was fascinated with the "Sati" scenes...
    As I grew older and realized Amy Irving was not Indian and was (gasp!)wearing brown paint, I got completely turned off by the whole thing. My mom recently purchased the DVD online and I have yet to watch it, as I never got over the disappointment of realizing the two leads could have been casted much better...heck, I don't even know that many actors from 1985 Bollywood, but right off the top of my head, I'm sure even Amitabh or Rekha would have done a better job! Or what about Shashi as Ashok?

    I'm going to write up a post on this(linking to your review)...I think Bollywood should do their own version..and I'm going to come up with a dream cast! It's time Bollywood bands together and does this story some justice!

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  19. For the male lead, I think they wanted a Brit who could also pass for an Indian - so an Indian actor wouldnt have done. I wish they'd taken Art Malik (he plays Ashok's "Indian" brother) instead of Ben Cross - he (Art Malik) sounds completely British and can pass as an Indian too, besides being way more charismatic. The female lead though, could have been an Indian actress (Anjuli was born and brought up in an Indian household so there was no need for her to even sound British) and Rekha would have been perfect. Its too bad they didnt take our advise before casting! And thats a cool idea about [make-believe] remaking it with a dream cast - cant wait to see who you cast in the lead roles! :-)

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  20. Actually, I thought that Ben Cross was pretty good in the role. Especially since he spent most of the miniseries AS a British officer. Amy Irving, on the other hand . . . miscast to a "T".

    I thought the miniseries was unecessarily long, but the best part of it was Ash serving as escort for Anjuli and Shushila's wedding procession.

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  21. The Rush Blog, you liked Ben Cross?!! Guess we'll have to agree to disagree. Amy Irving, of course, cant act!

    Agreed about the miniseries length. a lot of Ash's back story could have easily been cut, to focus more on the marriage procession part.

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  22. I read the Far Pavillions years ago and did not like the book. Like many comments posted here, the book is guilty of "the Raj" view of India and also cateing to a typical western expectation of a "mystic" India.

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  23. Most of M M Kaye's writing is pretty dated - at least from the current Indian perspective. Though I must admit that I would have enjoyed this when I was much younger and more oblivious to exoticisation of Indians - it was a pretty Once upon a time long ago... kind of tale!

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