I’ve always been keen on watching foreign films set in India, though I’ve seldom liked them! They’re either too Orientalist or too boring, frequently both, for my taste. In spite of that, its hard to resist the pull of seeing India through an alien lens. Bhowani Junction was one of the first set-in-India English language films that I ever saw. I’ve compared every subsequent film of this kind against it, and found it wanting! Its not because Bhowani Junction eschews Orientalism/Colonialism altogether, but because these are kept in fairly good check, and the fast-paced and interesting narrative keeps me too occupied to brood upon the flaws.
The film is set in 1947, in the closing days of the British Empire in India. The Brits had announced their intention to leave, the Indians were intent on speeding them on their way, and the various political factions were gearing up to fight for control of Independent India. Set against this tumultuous backdrop is the story of Victoria Jones (Ava Gardner), a young Anglo Indian girl in search of her ethnic identity.
The story is narrated by Victoria’s superior officer, Colonel Rodney Savage (Stewart Granger), a British soldier assigned to protect the railways in Bhowani Junction. The film opens with him bidding Victoria a romantic good-bye on the train that is taking him on the first leg of his journey to England. As the train pulls out of the station, Savage starts telling his fellow passenger the story of his last few months in Bhowani Junction. The rest of the film is in flashback, with Savage’s narration holding the threads of the complex story together.
Savage and his troops were sent out to Bhowani Junction in early 1947 to keep the railways running smoothly (to facilitate the British withdrawal). As his train pulls into Bhowani, Savage finds the station a scene of unutterable confusion – its been flooded by Congress party workers, led by Surabhai (Abraham Sofaer), in a peaceful attempt at civil disobedience. Darve (Peter Illing), a Communist agitator, is also there to ensure that the peaceful demonstration does not stay peaceful for long. Amidst this confusion, Savage meets Victoria Jones, who is coming home after 4 years of service in Delhi. Come to meet her at the station is the local railway traffic Superintendent, Patrick Taylor (Bill Travers). He is also an Anglo Indian and is very much in love with Victoria.
Savage springs into action the moment he gets off the train. Patrick must provide him with railway transport for his troops to patrol the tracks. Victoria must cut short her vacation and help out, since she is experienced with communications and they are short-staffed. The first test for Savage comes when an ammunition train is stranded just beyond the perimeter of his patrols. He needs to send out a train to rescue the ammunition before the Communists capture it, but the Congress workers are lying on the tracks, refusing to let anything move out of Bhowani Junction. Savage’s solution? He gets a group of untouchables to throw sewage water on the high caste Hindu Congress workers. The dedicated patriots who were undeterred by threats of arrest or even a train rolling over them, run in horror at this outrage to their caste!
While Patrick is amused by Savage’s tactic (me too!) Victoria is revolted by the Congress worker’s humiliation at British hands. She feels so strongly that she breaks up with Patrick over his unfeeling amusement! Unfortunately for Savage, the majority of the townsfolk share Victoria’s feelings and the town is soon engulfed in rioting to protest against the outrage. Victoria, going home later that night, acquires an unwelcome bodyguard – Savage’s lecherous lieutenant McDaniel (Lionel Jeffries). He’s been drooling over her ever since he met her and had even tried to cop a feel, earlier. Now, finding her alone at night, he assaults her, as a train thunders past them. Unable to escape from his hold, Victoria grabs the first thing that comes to hand – an iron bar – and clobbers him in a haze of desperation. She comes to, to find that she has killed him! Fortunately, colleague Ranjit (Francis Matthews) is at hand to help her.
Ranjit takes her home to his Mom, the Sadani (Freda Jackson) for help. (Sadani? Is that meant to be Sardarni, i.e. a Sikh woman?) Sadani helps Victoria clean up and calm down, but won’t let her go to the authorities because an English officer was killed and Ranjit’s involvement will cost him dearly (the British could very well prosecute the Indian man for the killing!). So Victoria agrees to let the Sadani’s guest – Ghanshyam (Peter Illing) – take care of the body, and tells the police investigator that she bid good bye to McDaniel just after they encountered a sentry guarding the station that night.
Victoria’s been feeling alienated since her sojourn among the Brits in Delhi. It brought home to her that the British consider her a half caste (or Chee chee, as the film calls them) since she is half Indian, and the Indians do not accept her since she is half British. She is desperate to belong somewhere, and Ranjit and Sadani’s help convinces her that there is place for her among Indians. So, Victoria takes to wearing sarees, agrees to marry Ranjit and convert to Sikhism. But its not to be. The aftermath of McDaniel’s death catches up with her and things rapidly get complicated.
The police discover McDaniel’s body, along with that of the sentry who last saw them together. She will have to undergo some stiff questioning since she was the last person to see either of them alive. Also, she is beginning to suspect that 'Ghanshyam' is really Darve, the communist agent provocateur, and the man behind a horrific train crash that she witnessed. So now, even the Sadani and Ranjit cannot provide a refuge against her guilt and doubts.
So how did this troubled young woman go from being almost a murder accused to the radiant woman who happily bid farewell to Savage at the beginning of the film? How did Savage and she land up falling for each other when she could barely stand the sight of him? What happened to Ranjit and Patrick – the other men who loved her? And most importantly, how could she be happy that Savage is returning to England without her? I’d love to tell you all about it, but there is so much plot and drama packed into the last 40 minutes of the film that its a whole lot easier to watch – and way more fun, too!
Its a pretty fun ride, with all the requisite ingredients for a rollicking Raj tale. Where it scores over a lot of British-made Raj romances is that it does not carry that strong smell of nostalgia for THE RAJ that I find very hard to relate to. And though it does have a British officer riding to the rescue of the Indians in the best traditions of Raj literature, he isn’t the obnoxious empire builder (all 'British' courage and condescension for the "natives") so beloved of Kipling and his fellow Raj writers. Plus, it does have some strong Indian characters – both good and bad.
Performance-wise, all the principals did a great job. The only exception was Bill Travers who went in for a lot of old-fashioned scenery chewing. Victoria Jones was a change from Ava Gardner’s usually glamorous, non-demanding roles, and she did full justice to it. She was by turns happy, troubled, shocked and through it all, so very fascinating. This is my favorite Stewart Granger role, and I think that performance-wise its his best role as a leading man. He is perfect as the hard-bitten, no-nonsense, British officer, with just the right mix of intelligence, independence and of course, arrogance! Ava Gardner and he make a striking couple and they strike sparks off each other that Victoria is too cut-up to notice in the beginning. Its too bad they only did one more movie together - The Little Hut where they were also great.
My only problem with the film was with the casting of the Indian characters - all the Indians are played by British actors in brown-painted faces! They shot on locations in Pakistan (India reportedly refused permission), with a huge cast of Pakistani extras. Couldn’t they have found Pakistani actors for the roles? Its very annoying to see "Indians" who can’t even pronounce their names properly, especially in a film as well-made as this! If you can ignore that (with Stewart Granger onscreen, I can ignore much more!), its an entertaining film to watch.
Fun fact: This film is based on the novel Bhowani Junction - a part of the Savage family saga by John Masters. Another book in that series was The Deceivers which was made into a film of the same name, starring Pierce Brosnan. Brosnan played William Savage who was, fictionally speaking, a direct ancestor of Colonel Rodney Savage of Bhowani Junction!