“ Jinnah”: A Celluloid Salute to the Giant
By Farhana Mohamed, MBA, PhD
Los Angeles, CA
[The following article was first published in the January 8, 1999 issue of Pakistan Link, shortly after the limited release of Jinnah movie in 1998. This article is being published again (with some minor updates) due to possible recent release of Jinnah movie in Pakistan by Director Jamil Dehlavi who has purchased the rights to the movie for a wider release since he believes that “Jinnah’s message deserves to be seen by the younger generation that wasn’t around when the film was initially released,” ( The Express Tribune, June 1, 2015). Another noteworthy event is the passing away of Christopher Lee on June 7, 2015, at 93. According to BBC, Lee considered Jinnah as “the most important film I made, in terms of its subject and the great responsibility I had as an actor.”].
Professor Akbar S. Ahmed in his book, Jinnah, Pakistan & Islamic Identity: The Search for Saladin (Routledge, New York, 1997), writes, “By not having humanized images of (Quaid-i-Azam Mohammed Ali) Jinnah and utilized those in the media, Pakistan lost a chance to construct an idea of a national hero around which a national image could have formed.” As a result , what we have today is a totally misunderstood image of one of the greatest statesmen of this century. For instance, Richard Attenborough’s “Gandhi” (Feature Film, 1982, 188 minutes) stunned our sensibilities with the demonic portrayal of Jinnah. In Gandhi, Alyque Padamsee played a ten –minute ‘villainous’ role of Jinnah which per Akbar Ahmed, “seemed to be motivated by only one thing: his hatred of Gandhiji. This was a historically incorrect portrayal.” As a matter of fact, Jinnah always regarded Gandhi, his political rival, as a great leader. After Gandhi’s assassination by Hindu extremist, Nathuram Godse, Jinnah said, “Moslems of India have lost a great friend.” (Stanley Wolpert, Jinnah of Pakistan, Oxford University Press, 1984).
The vicious hatred of Lord Louis Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of British India, against Jinnah is also quite obvious, “Mountbatten contributed to the slander against Jinnah, calling him vain, megalomaniacal, an evil genius, a lunatic, a psychotic case and a bastard, while publicly claiming he was entirely impartial between Jinnah’s Pakistan and Nehru’s India. Jinnah rose magisterially above Mountbatten’s blatant bias, not even attacking the former Viceroy when, as Governor-General of India after partition, Mountbatten tacitly condoned India’s shameful invasion of Kashmir in October 1947.” (Andrew Roberts, Sunday Times, London, August 18, 1996).
These episodes of partiality, bias, and a constant barrage of contempt towards Jinnah and the nation he created led to the making of “Jinnah” (Director Jamil Dehlavi, 1998, Feature Film, 110 minutes). The business documents of the subsidiary production company, the Quaid Project of America, reveal the budget of “Jinnah” to be about $5.0 million. This amount includes at least $0.3 million of free accommodation and other amenities the movie production received in Pakistan. The Quaid Project Limited (UK), the parent company, began operation in March 1994. Shooting of the movie began in Pakistan in March 1997 and concluded in May 1997. The production was halted in the fall of 1997 due to lack of funds but was re sum ed in April 1998. This was mainly due to the dynamic fund-raising efforts spearheaded by Executive Co-Producer, Dr Nasim Ashraf. About six dozen Pakistani-Americans invested $1.5 million towards the movie.
The film cast boasts many fine actors. Christopher Lee plays Jinnah, Richard Lintern acts as young Jinnah, James Fox as Louis Mountbatten, Maria Aitken as Edwina Mountbatten, Rashid Suhrawardy (Robert Ashby) as Nehru, Sam Dastoor portrays Gandhi, Shakeel plays Liaquat Ali Khan, Talat Hussain as a refugee in the last scene of the movie, Shireen Shah as Fatima Jinnah, Indira Verma as Ruttie Jinnah, and Shashi Kapoor portrays the narrator.
The film drew its share of negative publicity, bureaucratic roadblocks, and a general consensus that the movie project would never come to fruition. The movie was labeled as a “mix of ‘Time Bandits’ and Salman Rushdie.” The selection of 73 - year - old Christopher Lee was heavily criticized for his previous portrayal of “Dracula”, though Lee also played over 250 other roles. However, Shashi Kapoor, who played the role of the narrator and received his share of flak, especially in India, said, “The film will also be a great exposure of the Quaid -i -Azam to the world, not just the people of India and Pakistan. Very little of the man has been televised or filmed. The film is a tribute to the life and feelings of the great man.” (Most of this para excerpted from Rediff On The NeT, April 4, 1997).
It appears that the initial brouhaha further enhanced determination of the production team to treat “Jinnah” as a labor of love. The movie was finally premiered on September 2, 1998 at the World Film Festival, Montreal, Canada. This was followed by the Hollywood premiere on September 26, with much glitter and pomp. Elizabeth Fullerton wrote on the occasion, “The privately backed film, described by some as a cross between ' Gandhi ' and ' Lawrence of Arabia, ' - A fast-paced period drama centered on the turbulent months preceding the 1947 partition of India, which was largely engineered by Mohammed Ali Jinnah, it is the first major international film to come out of Pakistan.” (Buffalo News, September 30, 1998). Los Angeles - based Daily Variety wrote, “Christopher Lee (invests) Jinnah with dignity, resolve and humor.”
“Jinnah” was also shown at the prestigious London Film Festival (LFF) on November 8, 1998. Derek Malcolm of The Guardian (November 10, 1998) had this to say: “Jinnah is a safe, solid, middle-of-the-road film-making, with Lee contributing a portrait of Jinnah which goes well beyond a natural resemblance and Lintern carrying weight too---For all its faults,---the attempt to rescue Jinnah from his distracters and to make sense of at least part of the jagged history of Pakistan is largely successful.”
English journalist Victoria Schofield (Dawn, Karachi, November 29, 1998) mostly collected the responses of the audience during LFF which included Pakistanis and Indians. She sums up her reactions thus , “There is no doubt that the character of Jinnah as represented in this film will fire the imagination of future Pakistanis, just as the film makers hoped. Though the dramatic representation---Jinnah lives again not as the “villain” as portrayed in Richard Attenborough’s film “Gandhi” nor as the rather austere man who stares out from portraits hung throughout Pakistan---; instead the viewer sees him throughout his personal and political struggles as a man of integrity and principle, who laughs and weeps.”
The film was premiered at Cairo International Film Festival in the first week of December 1998. According to a Radio Monte Carlo Report, “The film ' Jinnah ' in Cairo was a success and had its viewers. Its success, however, was inferior to the success won earlier by the film ' Gandhi. ' (UCF-PSA/NNI, December 6, 1998).
Rogers and Cowan, the international media firm, arranged limited release of “Jinnah” in December 1998 at two Laemmle theaters in Los Angeles. This was done to fulfill the requirements for eligibility for Oscar Award nominations. Movie Critic Kevin Thomas wrote, “Jinnah” illuminates the character and times of this important but little-known world leader in an absorbing fashion---. A sweeping historical epic centering on the life of the founder of Pakistan, played with understated power and great dignity by Christopher Lee. A good example of a film that illuminates a complex and vital period of history while engaging us with its human drama.” (Los Angeles Times, December 15, 1998)
The film was planned for international distribution in 1999, including Pakistan and probably India. Well, talking of India, how did “Jinnah” fare with the Indian v iewers? The reaction appeared quite mixed during the making and preliminary release of the movie. Vijay Dutta writes in Hindustan Times ( February 12, 1997), “An overt and pernicious attempt is obviously being made to denigrate India and drag down its stature internationally by attacking and defaming Jawaharlal Nehru in a film on Mohammed Ali Jinnah.”
“Jinnah” was also screened in May 1998 in Bombay for selected Indian intellectuals. Some of them felt the film was anti-Indian. Former Bharatiya Janata Dal Leader Madhu Deoleker told Rediff On The NeT, “The film highlights atrocities on Muslims during partition, while there are hardly any scenes of atrocities of Hindus. Moreover, Jinnah has been painted as a hero which cannot be accepted by Indians.” (UCF-PSA on the web, October 3, 1998). During the release in LFF, Schofield wrote that despite discomfort expressed by the Indian viewers, they seemed to be fascinated by the knowledge they gained about Jinnah.
“Jinnah” may not be a grandiose affair garnering major awards yet it already had made tremendous impact on its viewers-especially in the West. Christopher Lee (it was unfortunate that he was not nominated for an Oscar) magnificently portrays Jinnah the way he was---honest, unhypocritical, fair, a giant statesman who never “stooped low to conquer,” and a man who wept and was publicly in anguish at the aftermath of the genocide following 1947 partition.
Jamil Dehlavi, whos e other critically acclaimed work is “The Blood of Hussain” (Feature Film, 1980, 112 minutes), states, “Jinnah has been made to set the records straight.” The team of Akbar Ahmed and Jamil Dehlavi has successfully taken the initiative to positively and objectively portray Jinnah to the younger Pakistanis, a disillusioned nation, and ill-informed West. “We feel proud. The film has restored my faith in Pakistan,” James Sheera, a renowned overseas Pakistani activist based in Britain and former Mayor of Rugby, UK, told Schofield. “We need the message to be conveyed of what Jinnah stood for: his liberal ideas, his respect for religious beliefs of minorities and his concern for women. Pakistan needs Jinnah now as much as 50 years ago.”