Saturday, 11 August 2012

Bhowani Junction (1956)

WARNING! Spoiler Alert.

George Cukor's 1956 picture Bhowani Junction takes place during the time where India no longer wanted to be ruled under the British after the Second World War. It follows the work of the British army trying to keep order (and not in the most humane ways) against the rebelling Indians who protest against the British rule.

Cukor tries desperately to make this a true telling of the plight of the Indian people's fight for independence, and in many ways he achieves this. There are some fantastic scenes which show hundreds of Indians protesting and being forced back by the British either by threat of violence, or, as in one scene involving a train protest, by throwing sewage water on the protestors. The scenes which highlighted the mistreatment of Indians were done well and being a Brit myself, I did feel embarrassed if this was actually true. However, like so many of Hollywood's films where they try to show a strong political or moral message, it slowly falls into the background of the film, whilst the focus centres on the two leading characters, and their romance.

I was looking forward to seeing Ava Gardner in this film as I knew it would be a more demanding role, that she says herself in her autobiography was emotionally exhausting (i.e. the attempted rape scene). She played Victoria - a woman born in India, to an Indian mother and a British father - you see where this is going don't you? All her life, Victoria has felt that she belonged nowhere due to her dual heritage - to Indians she is British, to the British she is India - and with the political situation in India at the time, she finds this conflict between both sides of her heritage inside her hit its peak. Gardner is convincing as being part-Indian/part-British, and she does convey the conflicting feelings she is enduring very well. I do not think this is her at her best however, I think she does better in Mogambo (1953). Some scenes were particularly strong from her, like when she cannot bare to watch the Indian protestors be covered in sewage, when she cannot go through with her Sikh wedding, and a good few scenes where she has a go at certain British officers - I would not want to have gotten on the wrong side of Ava Gardner after seeing this picture! The attempted rape scene is done very well, taking place on the night of backlash after the sewage incident, and many Indians begin rioting, causing chaos and setting fire to buildings. No British person is safe that night, but of course Victoria walks home alone anyway. It is very dark and she is completely alone walking by the railway line. There is total silence except for footsteps, and even I was scared for her - walking home alone in the dark is a horrible and scary experience, you feel totally paranoid and on edge, and I think Cukor and Gardner pulled this one off magnificently.

There are a few more of Ava's films from the late 1950s I want to see as I have heard that they are more demanding of her talents. She also looks lovely here but noticeably older. I know Ava loved to dance and drink all night around the clubs of LA, and I don't blame her for loving that lifestyle. But I do wonder if it's already beginning to show in her face in Bhowani Junction. She still looks strikingly beautiful, and we know that although Colonel Rodney Savage (Stewart Granger) is rude and dismissive with her at the beginning, that he will fall in love with her by the end of the picture.

Stewart Granger is not highly talked about in film today, but I must say I do like him a lot. I may have only seen him in the terrible Rita Hayworth picture Salome (1953) where he played a handsome Roman solider, even though he was not given the best part, he was definitely one of the better elements of the film. In Bhowani he is very good. He seems like a really strict, no-nonsense English colonel. He gives orders expecting them to be obeyed, and sticks to his plans without a care of whom objects. This is all given with great authority and a good deal of presence, which I hadn't seen in Granger before, also allowing for his harsh scenes with the Indian protestors all the more effective, because he is believable. Granger looks super handsome in this role as well.

Granger's character Col. Savage is very hostile towards Indians, including Victoria (Gardner), whom he is incredibly rude to during the first half of the picture. Of course, true to Hollywood form, when Victoria realises that she cannot be totally Indian or any single one of her nationalities, Savage is the one there who understands and comforts her. He even rescues her from interrogation surrounding her near rape. Even though this situation is very Hollywood-ey, it is not unrealistic at all, in fact, it is a very believable romance that builds nicely and steadily throughout the film. You can see straight from the beginning that although these characters are very different: one is very one-sided in his tactics and a total professional, whilst the other understands both sides and is from both sides, so they are inevitably going to clash. But at the same time, this enormous difference between them underlies huge similarities and a mutual understanding, and eventually they find each other. I did wonder whether Savage at the beginning was just being a professional and following his orders, and not letting a beautiful woman like Victoria distract him from his duty, however he gradually gets to know her, and her him, and so the romance blooms.

This love story is ruined slightly by the film's very abrupt ending. After Savage has successfully stopped an Indian rebel 'bad guy' who tried to blow up the train Mahatma Gandhi was travelling on (a pretty serious and interesting addition to the narrative) he is sent back to England. The love story then takes on a cheesy and highly unbelievable turn when we take into account the characters journeys we just witnessed for two hours. I think it would have been more realistic if Victoria went back to England with Savage, as India hadn't worked out for her, and he was the only person she felt she belonged with. Instead, she says that she has to stay (even though she doesn't fit in there, surely try some place else?) to which Savage, who has shown himself to be a strong character goes all gooey and dah-dah, declaring that he will come to India for her and how happy they will be. After saying goodbye to her on the train platform, he tells a fellow colleague of this romance, to which the colleague says he will put in a good word so that he can move back to India sooner. All of this happens in the space of five minutes by the way, and I think it's quickness is so that we cannot dwell on the fairytale and unbelievability of it all.

All in all, a decent film - I'd give it 3.5/5 - between worth a watch and very good. Many critics will disagree with me, but I enjoyed it more than I expected too (perhaps Granger's handsome face had something to do with that!). A lovely and believable romance until the finale, with two solid leads, and a good telling of the fight for independence by the people of India during that time. If it's on television one afternoon and you have nothing else to do, give it a go, I'm sure you will enjoy it.

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