Rebirth of a nation

May 23, 1997

Revisions of history tend to be western. Now, in a new film, a Muslim academic is challenging the West's view of Pakistan's founder and of Mountbatten, India's last viceroy. Lucy Hodges reports.

Revisionist history is all the rage. A new movie about Queen Victoria and her alleged affair with a Scotsman will shortly hit the big screen. And later this year the first biopic about the founding father of Pakistan, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, could be coming to an Odeon near you and possibly to Channel 4 too.

It will provide a reinterpretation of the Quaid-i-Azam or "great leader'' and a controversial depiction of Lord Mountbatten, the last viceroy of India. There will also be some nudge-nudge, wink-wink stuff about the relationship between Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister, and Mountbatten's wife, and its effect on Jinnah's position.

This year is the golden jubilee of the creation of Pakistan. Fifty years ago millions of Muslims packed their bags, left their homes in Hindu-majority India and crossed into a new country. Two million people were killed in the violence which accompanied partition and 15 million lost their homes. The man who led the exodus was Jinnah, an austere Lincoln's Inn-trained barrister, depicted in Attenborough's film Gandhi as a deeply unsympathetic character.

For Pakistanis, however, Jinnah has almost divine status. Now they are preparing to get their own back. The movie Jinnah, due out in September, will show Jinnah (played by Christopher Lee who is, as the pictures testify, a Jinnah lookalike) as hero - upright, principled, incorruptible, tough and tender, all the things that today's Pakistani politicians are not.

It is being made by moderate Muslim Akbar Ahmed, a fellow of Selwyn College, Cambridge. He sees Jinnah as another moderate Muslim who can set a good example to his country - which has been described as the third most corrupt nation in the world - as well as win the respect of the West and show that not all Muslims are mad mullahs and military dictators.

But the shooting of the film in Pakistan over the past three months has been dogged by bad publicity. Newspaper headlines there have screamed loudly about the choice of Christopher Lee, a white man best known for his Dracula roles, to play Jinnah. "Stop the filming now,'' screeched the most hostile paper, day after day. There were erroneous reports that Salman Rushdie, whose book The Satanic Verses led to rioting and deaths in Pakistan, had a hand in the script. Then there was criticism of the choice of Shashi Kapoor, a portly Indian actor who is a Hindu, for the part of narrator.

A retired Pakistani army major tried to sue the film-makers for defamation of Jinnah (the case was thrown out) and a historian objected to shots of Jinnah coughing, even though the politician did die of tuberculosis a year after the creation of Pakistan.

The leading actors - James Fox as Mountbatten, Maria Aitken as his wife and Sam Dastur as Gandhi - found the whole business extremely fraying. Christopher Lee declared that he had never before encountered such problems in the whole of his 240-film career. In an interview with The Independent Lee said that the film was under-manned and under-budgeted and that the entire unit had been ill. Lee even had to help stem the tide of abuse himself - writing letters to the president, making speeches at press conferences and refuting what he called "an endless stream of lies in the local press".

Eyebrows were also raised at newspaper stories that the movie would depict Jinnah in friendly chats with Saddam Hussein, Yasser Arafat and the Archangel Gabriel. The pressure finally got to the new Pakistani government, and it recalled the Pounds 1 million it had committed to the project.

Akbar Ahmed has turned the bad publicity to his advantage, though he does admit the two-and-a-half month shoot, March to May this year, was stressful. "You can't believe what we went through," he says. The pressure was intense. "There was a moment when I thought it was all over. I thought we wouldn't survive."

But high-placed friends rallied round. There was more fundraising and Ahmed managed to raise about two-thirds of the cash snatched back by the Pakistan government. Cuts were made to the movie, the shooting schedule was curtailed and belts were tightened. The film is now virtually finished.

It is a good thing the Pakistan government has withdrawn its funding, according to Ahmed, because now the film has more credibility. Moreover the publicity has meant virtually every household in Pakistan and India has been discussing the movie. And the Pakistan government has supported the movie in every other way: it allowed the governor's house in Lahore to be used as a location for the viceroy's house; and the president lent his personal bodyguard.

Rushes of the movie, viewed at Ahmed's Cambridge home, portray Jinnah in heroic style. He is shown as governor general saying he will take only one rupee a month in salary, he is shown weeping and begging forgiveness after the bloody bayonetting of a woman crossing the border in 1947, and he is shown being altogether more rational and law-abiding than Gandhi. Jinnah is also depicted as a supreme Islamic cheerleader, declaring at a cabinet meeting that Kashmir, the territory in the north of India disputed by India and Pakistan, was a Muslim state. "Kashmir is the jugular vein of Islam," he says.

Given that at barely Pounds 3 million Jinnah is a low-budget film, the film makers have managed to create some authentic-looking battle scenes, with turbanned Sikhs and warlike Muslims charging around on horseback. The monocled Jinnah is shown smoking cigarettes (presumably politically correct in today's Pakistan) but not drinking whisky or eating pork, both of which he did enthusiastically.

Asked whether he is showing Jinnah warts and all, Ahmed replies: "Well, as far as you can. For us as Pakistanis he has very few warts, he's a hero figure. We're trying to bring him to life, to show him as the great man he was. We are able to retrieve and project the image of Mr Jinnah. If we had failed the only image you would have had for ever of Mr Jinnah would have been in the film Gandhi. In that you had a negative, scowling, glowering, evil man."

The film-makers are also trying to show why Jinnah proposed the idea of an independent Islamic Pakistan split off from India. "We need to convince the non-Pakistani viewer that what he did was the best thing possible," adds Ahmed.

Some might call that propaganda rather than history. Jinnah's most recent interpreter, the Columbia University-based historian Ayesha Jalal, argues that partition was the last thing Jinnah wanted. He was pushing for a separate Muslim entity within India, but when the Congress Party rejected that in 1946-47, he had no option but the creation of a new homeland.

It is difficult to see how Ahmed could have gone into such details when the Pakistani government was financially supporting the film. History professor Francis Robinson, of Royal Holloway College, London University, comments: "Akbar Ahmed has a difficult path to tread. You have to see this in the context that Jinnah has been rubbished by the Indian press and that the Gandhi film did not do him justice. Jinnah deserves a better press than he has had, but a lot of us professional historians are not going to be happy with Ahmed's interpretation of partition."

Nor are the British public going to be happy with the depiction of Mountbatten. He is shown as doing down Jinnah and the Muslims because of his close relationship with Nehru and because of Nehru's romantic involvement with Edwina Mountbatten. "This relationship affected the partition process," says Ahmed. "It affected the division of the districts - Kashmir, for example."

Edwina's flight with Nehru to Kashmir, according to Ahmed, was immediately picked up by the British press who said she had compromised the neutrality of the viceroy. Ahmed has resisted pressure to show the couple as lovers but the film does hint at such a relationship. "Jinnah didn't have the same kind of access that Nehru had to Mountbatten," says Ahmed. "People assume in the West that the viceroy of India would be a neutral figure but in fact by being involved in an emotional way with one party, Mountbatten had tilted towards Nehru and Jinnah was left out in the cold."

Another professor of history at Royal Holloway, Nigel Hamilton, who is writing a biography of Nehru, believes that Ahmed is misreading history if he is claiming that Nehru's love affair with Edwina, whether or not it was consummated, played any part in the way Jinnah was treated by Mountbatten. Nehru's relationship with Edwina deepened after partition, not before and not at the time, he argues. "One can't really use that relationship in trying to assess the story of Independence itself." He does agree, however, that Nehru's relationship with Mountbatten was extremely close, in contrast to the chemistry between Mountbatten and Jinnah.

Nevertheless Professor Hamilton, official biographer of Field Marshal Montgomery and the author of J.F.K. Reckless Youth, is all in favour of revisionist history. He sees no harm in Pakistanis wanting to present an alternative view of their country's founder. Our understanding of what happened in the past needs to be revised constantly, he thinks.

The problem with the Jinnah movie, according to Hamilton, is that it is "revisionist history with an agenda". Which should make the arguments which are likely to rage once it hits the west's screens all the more interesting.

A book to coincide with 50 years of Pakistani independence, Jinnah, Pakistan and Islamic Identity, by Akbar Ahmed will be published by Routledge later this summer.

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