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Jinnah

On Friday night, thanks to my brand new working DVD player, I was finally able to watch the DVD of Jinnah which I bought almost four months ago.

Jinnah tells the story of Mohammed Ali Jinnah (1876-1948), the man who pressed for, and brought about, the foundation of Pakistan as a separate Muslim nation when the British withdrew from India in 1947. The film was made in 1998, starring Christopher Lee as Jinnah himself, and the story is told mainly through flashback, as Jinnah and a heavenly guide review his life to pass judgement on his achievements.

The film was made in Pakistan, with Pakistani producers and directors and a largely Pakistani cast, and it caused much controversy there, for two major reasons. One is apparently that large numbers of people in Pakistan felt that Christopher Lee was an unsuitable choice for the role because of his history of playing characters like Dracula. I could understand objection on the fairly simple grounds that he is not a Pakistani, as I'm quite sure there are plenty of talented individuals with Pakistani origins who could have played the character just as well. But the objection on the grounds of his past film career I find both baffling and rather unsettling: it suggests an inability to understand the nature of acting or to distinguish fiction from reality which, to my western mind at least, seems irrational.

The other major area of controversy is of course the issue of the creation of Pakistan which the film tackles, and whether this was or was not a good idea. There are strong feelings on both sides of this issue, which the film naturally stirs: as a glance at both reviews and message-board posts on its IMDb page quickly reveals. The line taken by the film is that dealing with the issue of Hindu-Muslim relations in the wake of British India was a difficult problem to which there was no perfect solution, but that Jinnah did the best he could to ensure safety for the Muslim population, and by no means wished to see the violence and displacement of peoples which accompanied partition. There's certainly a case for this perspective, and it is effectively presented in the film. But it has angered those who, alternately, see Jinnah as a cynical and power-hungry politician, motivated mainly by personal pride, whose actions only encouraged a legacy of division, hatred and violence which persists into the present day.

The result of these controversies has been that Jinnah received only limited cinema releases when it first came out, and has only now for the first time appeared on DVD this summer: mainly as a result of the efforts of Christopher Lee's own son-in-law, Juan Aneiros. A shame, really, because whilst I didn't think it was by any means perfect as a film, it has its good points, and Lee's performance in it was certainly worth watching.

Perhaps it is cruel to start my review of it with a flaw, but unfortunately there is one which rather pervades the film, and that is the quality of the script. It may not the worst I've ever seen, but it did come across as seriously banal for most of its length. This could charitably be put down to the difficulties of getting the story across to an audience which the script-writers could assume would either be unfamiliar with it (in the West) or not have English as their first language (in Pakistan), but I still felt they could have done a better job.

Some of the acting, too, felt rather stilted. This did not apply across the board by any means, and where it did it may have been related to the poor script giving the actors too little to work with. But James Fox (as Lord Mountbatten) was certainly guilty: perhaps, though, a sign of poor direction, or the result of a character which was written as two-dimensional, as I know he can do a lot better.

On the other hand, both Maria Aitken (as Lady Edwina Mountbatten) and Shireen Shah (as Jinnah's sister, Fatima) gave engaging and compelling performances: the latter especially doing an excellent job of playing the same character as both a young and an aging woman. I wondered early on if the great Mr. Lee was succumbing to the same attack of stiltedness as James Fox, but as the film developed, I realised that this was far from the case: rather, he was very carefully and consciously portraying Jinnah as restrained and Victorian, but also showing clearly that he was doing this by tempering it with moments when the character's façade broke to allow anger, pride, humiliation or grief to show. There was one very moving moment at the very end of the film where he came face to face with a little girl who had lost her mother in the partition violence, and broke down in tears as the father asked Jinnah to forgive the child for asking whether she would see her mother again in Pakistan. Apparently, these were real tears which overcame Lee when faced with the power of Talat Hussain's performance as the father: certainly, it prodded some tears out of me, doubtless as the director had hoped it would.

Mooching around the internet after watching the film for information about the real Jinnah, and knowing that Christopher Lee had studied news footage of him and recordings of his voice in preparation for the role, I came to appreciate his approach to it all the more, as it seems that Jinnah really was restrained and formal, if sometimes powerfully rhetorical, in his movements and speech, at least in public. The make-up and costume departments had also helped out a great deal, by managing to make him look convincingly like the real Jinnah. In the end, I felt Lee's performance was both moving and dignified, and it will be the main reason why I watch the film again in future (no great surprise there, then!).

Other, more minor, reasons for watching it again will include the use of colour and light in the cinematography. Enough opportunities were taken to make use of either red and orange colours (presumably to capture both the rich exoticism and the arid hostility of the Indian subcontinent) and also greens and whites (certainly to recall the flag of Pakistan) to add an extra level of significance to certain shots, without it becoming a tedious motif. Appropriate lighting also helped to emphasise Jinnah's status as an almost super-human figure at times (for so he is seen by many in Pakistan) and also to convey the otherwordly sense of the scenes set in the afterlife.

On that topic, I must say that I had no difficulties with the device of telling the story through flashback from the point of view of a recently-deceased Jinnah, or the decision not even to present the flashbacks in strictly chronological order: both things that some commentators have criticised. Perhaps it is because I tend to specialise in watching films and reading books with a fantasy setting, so I am quite happy to accept seeing a dead character move about back and forth through the events of his past life, and even speak to his younger self on some occasions. Even a fantastical court-room scene towards the end of the film, where Jinnah presents the case for the prosecution of the British over their handling of partition, cross-examining both Lord Mountbatten and a British general who had refused to fight, as promised, on behalf of Pakistan, was fine by me (plus Lee looked fantastic striding about pompously in a lawyer's wig and gown!).

What I did find a bit silly, though, was the way this structure was presented as having been arrived at. Jinnah arrives in the afterlife to be greeted by his heavenly guide (not sure what a Muslim would call this character: a Christian would probably say an angel, but the cast list actually just credits him as the 'Narrator'), and is told that the book from which his life would normally be judged has been downloaded into a computer sent from the future (the future is as accessible to the heavenly guide as the past, allowing him to tell Jinnah the outcome of some of his actions after his death: again, fine by me, but I couldn't help noticing that it was a future which didn't seem to extend beyond 1998). The computer itself, however, is malfunctioning, so that they now cannot read the book or find the file. Instead, they have to set off through Jinnah's life themselves, starting in a cinema projection room, but later simply walking in and out of scenes from his past. I wasn't bothered by issues of plausibility here, but I did feel it was rather unnecessary: why go through all the rigmarole with being unable to use either the book or the computer, when they could have just presented the technique of walking back through someone's life as the normal way in which people are judged after their death? It all seemed like a lot of convoluted messing-about which added nothing to the impact or significance of the story, to me.

Finally, I should return to the issue of the historical interpretation of Jinnah the man. It's clear that the film is aiming to vindicate him, and that's a perfectly valid choice: but do they, in the course of doing so, warp the facts of history at all? Well, it's hard for me to answer this authoritatively, as I know everything I know about Jinnah from a combination of this film and the internet... But a few things did strike me from my rather limited perspective. One was that, although the film clearly wished to present Jinnah as a hero, it did at least aim to tackle the views of those who would criticise him: its central premise of whether he should be praised or blamed for his life's work only works if the critical view is acknowledged, after all. This made the film feel reasonably balanced, and deserves praise in itself, since to some Jinnah is simply beyond any reproach: a viewpoint inherent in the Pakistani government's official biography of him, and the title of 'Quaid-i-Azam' ('Great Leader') bestowed upon him. According to Jonathan Rigby's book on Lee's screen career, at least, the film has as a result attracted criticism from Pakistani nationalists for portraying him as 'unpatriotic', and on balance it has not been well received in Pakistan for these reasons.

On the other hand, certain aspects of his life and actions did seem to me to have been glossed over. For example, the amount of time he spent in Britain learning and practising law was underplayed, his first marriage was completely omitted (I came away from the film with the distinct impression that he had only been about 20 years old at the time of what I later found was his second marriage, only to learn that he had in fact been 40), and absolutely no mention at all was made at any point of the fact that the nation of Pakistan as he created it had originally consisted of two halves, one on either side of India: the eastern half of which, having little culturally in common with the western half besides a shared faith, seceded violently in 1971 to become the independent nation of Bangladesh. OK, so not every moment of his long and busy life could have been covered in the film, but I felt that the omission of East Pakistan / Bangladesh in particular was an attempt to bury a less-than-glorious aspect of Jinnah's legacy.

Still, I couldn't have written a great deal of this review without going off and reading a whole load of web pages after watching the film, so it certanily inspired me to learn more about Jinnah, Pakistan and the dying days of British India than I had known before. This is definitely a Good Thing, and one of the main reasons why I approve heartily of even poor representations of the Classical world in film. In summary, then, hoorah for the producers and the director of this work, and triple-hoorah for Christopher Lee, just for being so bloody great!

Most of the above about to be cross-posted to christopherlee_: apologies to those people who read both my journal and that community!

Comments

( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
(Deleted comment)
strange_complex
Nov. 22nd, 2004 01:10 am (UTC)
When I say I find this baffling, I don't actually mean that I don't understand the reasoning behind it. It's just that to me, as a westerner, that reasoning seems fundamentally flawed.
jestive
Nov. 21st, 2004 11:51 pm (UTC)
>it suggests an inability to understand the nature of acting or to distinguish fiction from reality which, to my western mind at least, seems irrational.

This is very true, but the shame is, that whilst the people who made this criticism may not have any problems distinguishing fiction from reality, there are many people who do. Maybe they were just worried about how it would be perceived by the general public. People take films too seriously sometimes, and quite frequently, if a character has played one part, he will be picked to play similar parts in the future. Thats the way cinema (and tv) works. People complain about it all the time, and some actors do get trapped in the same roles for all eternity. I'm not saying this makes the criticism right, just that maybe it's more understandable.

Then again, who knows, it's early and thinking is making my brain hurt. :(
Still, I thoroughly enjoyed reading your review, and if I ever see the film anywhere, it may have inspired me to watch it.
strange_complex
Nov. 22nd, 2004 01:11 am (UTC)
Glad you enjoyed it!
(Deleted comment)
strange_complex
Nov. 22nd, 2004 03:00 am (UTC)
Well, I do talk at a couple of points about events which happen in the film, and I also describe the overall perspective of Jinnah which it presents. But then again, this isn't a thriller, so the concept of 'spoilers' doesn't really apply here: its a historical film, so I think the film-makers pretty much assumed people would know what happened anyway! They don't include any 'shocks' or 'twists', or even tell the story in chronological order, but build up an impression of Jinnah by dropping in to different periods of his life as they go along.

You can buy the DVD direct from the Christopher Lee Web store, which is what I did: in fact, I don't think there is ever going to be any other major way of getting it.

Oh, and do post your story about the Rhapsody CD and your boyfriend at the September event to christopherlee_! We would love to hear it!
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )

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