In a career of over two hundred feature films through which he became most famous for the many genre roles he played, the long association with the horror films of Hammer studios and their ilk as well as the title role as a James Bond villain in The Man with the Golden Gun, it is one of his lesser known performances that Sir Christopher Lee considered not only to be among his best but also one of his favourites, that of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, founder of the nation of Pakistan.
Directed by Jamil Dehlavi from a script co-written with Akbar S Ahmed and originally given scant release in 1998, it was Lee’s one hundred and seventy fifth credit and overshadowed at the time by the three immediately subsequent films in which he was cast, Sleepy Hollow, The Fellowship of the Ring and Attack of the Clones, but now available on Blu-ray for the first time from Eureka it is due for a timely reappraisal.
Eschewing the standard approaches of the biopic, most often either a strict chronological retelling of a significant life or a moment of crisis where the subject reflects on all the decisions that have brought them to that pivot, the film opens on 11th September 1948, the day of Jinnah’s death, as the elderly and gravely ill father of the nation touches down at Karachi airport.
On his way to Governor House his ambulance breaks down, and slipping from consciousness Jinnah awakes in another place where he is met by an unnamed and mysterious guide (Shashi Kapoor) who invites Jinnah to witness the history of his country, the negotiations, the betrayals, the bloody consequences, and questions Jinnah on the actions of his life in order to determine whether he is to be sent to heaven or to hell.
In the aftermath of the Second World War the last remnants of the British Empire were crumbling and India was in turmoil, with religious intolerance leaving the Muslim minority a target for Hindu extremists, leading to the proposition that those states where the Muslims were most populous would secede to form a new state, a proposal turned down flatly by Lord Louis Mountbatten (The Double‘s James Fox), Viceroy of India.
At Jinnah’s side is his loyal sister Fatima (Shireen Shah giving a warm and understated performance) while his political opponent is Jawaharlal Nehru (Robert Ashby), leader of the Indian independence movement, while in unexpected agreement with Jinnah’s dream is Mahatma Gandhi (Sam Dastor) who recognises that long term peace through independence is the way forward.
“He would never lie, though as a politician he would not always tell the truth,” Jinnah says of Ghandi, and Dehlavi’s film observes that same diplomacy, and it is here that the lack of supplemental material on the disc becomes frustrating as it would be informative to know how much of the film is established, unvarnished fact and how much is extrapolation, speculation, fiction based on inference or created purely for dramatic requirement.
While the events depicted are relatively recent, within living memory for some, there has been an awful lot of history since then and some guiding context would have been useful, yet it remains a respectful film, Jinnah, Nehru and Ghandi all shown to be kind, thoughtful and progressive, leaders who seek solutions, though it is apparent that Jinnah in particular is painted as whiter than white.
Considerably less flattering is the depiction of Mountbatten, pompous and conniving, determined to sabotage with his left hand what he offers with his right, though despite her infelicities, her relationship with Nehru an acknowledged fact, Lady Edwina Mountbatten (A Fish Called Wanda‘s Maria Aitken) is persuaded by Fatima to use her position to try to better the lot of those who have been worst affected by the relocation and the subsequent attacks of those opposed to the new state.
The period is captured well with much of the film shot on location, but again, some insight into the production would not have gone amiss, not least of which would be the question of how Christopher Lee came to be cast in such an atypical role and why such a particularly Pakistani story was filmed in English, the concession to the international market immediately compromising the project.
Yet it remains timely in that twenty years after the film was made, seventy years after the events it depicts, the deliberately antagonised divisions between Pakistan and India are still a flashpoint for trouble over historic grudges and dwindling resources as climate change reduces water flow, particularly in the disputed area of Kashmir where, having agreed to the formation of Pakistan, British troops were then supplied to destabilise it.
While Jinnah is shown vocally and vigorously to oppose blind fanaticism of extremism, clearly stating that religion has no place in politics, despite the best efforts of those in ostensible power it arises as a consequence of the manipulation of distant former colonial masters who are determined that the territories should fail, using the lives of innocents as pawns to prove a point and punish those who had the temerity to refuse to bow to servitude.