Tuesday, August 27, 2013

               Making of 'Bhowani Junction'


Bhowani Junction –a brief but memorable encounter with Hollywood
Fiction and fact meeting in Pakistan when new country was smiling and full of fun.  Hollywood dropped in for a brief but memorable encounter.
John Masters was a British army officer and famous author.  His novels dealt with life in British India.  John’s own background fully qualified him for the task.  His family had long association with India going back to 1805 when his great-great grandfather came to India with 8th Light Dragoons.  His great grandfather was headmster of La Martiniere school in Calcutta and his grandfather served with Indian police.  His father served with 16th Rajputs while three uncles served with 34th Sikh Pioneers, 104th and 119th Hyderabad Infantry.  John joined 1933 batch of Sandhurst and commissioned in August 1934.  John joined 2nd Battalion of 4th Gurkha Rifles.  He left army and became a celebrated author writing historical novels about India.  His observations about Indian life are amazing and famous Indian author Khushwant Singh said that Kipling knew India but Masters knew Indians.
In 1954, he wrote Bhowani Junction which was an instant hit. This novel was set in 1946 around the life of an Anglo-Indian girl Victoria Jones in a rapidly changing world.  She has three affairs with an Indian, Anglo-Indian and a British.  The political background of the novel is India’s march towards partition and struggle between non-violent movement of Congress and violent Communists.
In 1955, MGM studio decided to make an epic  movie of this best selling  novel.  Ava Gardner was chosen for the role of Victoria Jones and British born Hollywood star Stewart Granger for the role of Colonel Rodney Savage.  MGM wanted to film at location in India.  The geographic location of fictional Bhowani Junction was most likely Jhansi and Colonel Savage was Commanding Officer of a Gurkha battalion.  Indian government was not comfortable with the novel’s theme and many considered it as insulting to Indians.  Indian government insisted on seeing and approving the script.  Indian tax collectors wanted more than fair share including twelve percent of the net world profit.  MGM decided to approach Pakistan and Pakistan government offered all the asistance as well as waiving all taxes.
In early1955, film crew from Hollywood and London landed in Lahore.  Many scenes were filmed at Lahore railway station, Shalimar Gardens and Shah Almi market.  Film crew stayed at Falleti’s Hotel and room 55;the two room suite where Ava stayed was later named Ava Gardner suite.  There were many interesting incidents during crew’s stay in Lahore.  One day, Ava ran out of bathroom stark naked shrieking with fear and chased by a large bat. Someone handed her a large bath towel while others chased the bat with tennis racket.  A luch buffet was arranged in hotel’s garden where film crew and local elite were invited.  As soon as food platters were laid out, dozens of squawking crows attacked the party plucking food from the plates of guests.  Many guests ran away in panic.
Mathews who played the role of Ranjit recalled that one night he and Ava hopped on a tonga and went to the house of a dancing girl in the infamous street.  One local recognized Ava and insisted to escort them for their safety.  The musicians in their excitement tried to play the only western music they knew for their celebrity guests.  Ava shouted, ‘Goddammit; that’s the Isles of Capri’, can’t you play something else.  Nervous musicians palyed the same song but much faster.  Incidentally, Ava’s husband Frank Sinatra sang this song for his album Come Fly With Me in 1958.   There is another story that a die hard Lahori fan of Ava later managed to get the pillow from Ava’s bedroom and fifty years later still had his prized possession.  In 1947, mass migration on both sides saw departure of Sikhs from Lahore and most Sikh Gurdwaras were closed.  For one scene about Sikhs, Pakistan government opened a Sikh temple and allowed many Sikhs from across the border to participate in the scene.
Bhawani Junction
Ava Gardner and Stewart Granger arrive at Lahore Airport,1955.  Photo;Nadeem Paracha
Pakistan army and police provided soldiers for the film.  5th Battalion of 13th Frontier Force Rifles (now 10 Frontier Force Regiment) then commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Shah Khan provided officers and soldiers for the film.  It was a motorized infantry battalion and part of 3rd Armoured Brigade along with 5th Probyn’s Horse.  Frontier Force Regiment and Frontier Force Rifles is nick named PIFFERS.  Some other officers;Agha Aman Shah and Shah Rafi Alam of 5th Probyn’s Horse were also assigned to assist the film crew.  Some suggest that another battalion First Battalion of 13th Frontier Force Rifles (now 7 Frontier Force Regiment) also provided help.  In fact, in movie Colonel Savage was commanding First Battalion of 13th Frontier Force Rifles.  One can see some grizzly PIFFER Junior Commissioned Officers (JCOs) in the movie; many probably veterans of Second World War.  In one scene, Victoria and Savage dance with PIFFER soldiers while regimental band is playing the tunes.  There is an incident involving Lieutenant Colonel Aslam Khan and probably he was commanding 1/13 FFR.  It is not clear whether it was a coincidence or someone in Pakistan army had read the novel as in novel Colonel Rodney Savage commands a fictional 1/13 Gurkha Rifles and in movie he commands real 1/13 Frontier Force Rifles.  These battalions were part of 7 Golden Arrow division and in movie Golden Arrow is visible on arm of Colonel Savage.  When venue of shooting was changed from India to Pakistan, Gurkha Rifles was replaced by Frontier Force Rifles and Johnny Gurkha had to make room for the Pathan. Most of the soldiers were Pathans and there are some exchanges in Pushtu in the movie.
One day everything was all set for the shoot with all the crew in place and hundreds of extras ready for a major scene.  A crisis situation developed as Granger’s well pressed uniform was missing.  Ava Gardner was having conversation with Lieutenant Colonel Aslam Khan.  She noticed that he was of same built as Granger.  She suggested to Granger that ‘I just know that the dashing Colonel’s uniform would be a perfect fit for you, Stewart. Don’t you think so Colonel?’ Then, holding Colonel Aslam’s arm, she said to George Cukor: ‘We are making history here Colonel, aren’t we George?’ Years later, Stewart recalling the incident to Mahmud Sipra said,“I wonder how the good Colonel explained away Ava’s make up on his uniform.”
Bhawani Junction 02
Ava Gardner shooting a scene at the Lahore Railway Station in 1955. Photo; Nadeem Paracha
There was an incident involving Stewart Granger and a young Pakistani cavalry officer Shah Rafi Alam.  The story goes that Granger got upset when he saw Ava sitting in Rafi’s lap.   The two came to blows and Rafi hit him on nose.  This is folklore and not true.  Actual story is totally different.  An EME company was assigned for the film production providing cranes and dozers for the sets.   It was commanded by an old British officer.  Some British officers had decided to stay back in Pakistan on contract and this officer was part of that group.   One day, this EME company failed to bring all the necessary equipment and shoot scheduled for the day had to be cancelled. In the evening,actors and some Pakistani army officers were having drinks in the lawn.  The old EME Major was seen arriving to join the party.  Seeing him, Stewart Granger acidly remarked that, “We had to loose the Empire with men like him at the helm.” Rafi lost his temper and strongly reacted.  Some very hot words were exchanged between Granger and Rafi but there was no physical contact.  Only a chap like Rafi could take such a stance not to be cowed by any celebrity.
Bhawani Junction 01
Pakistani fans gather around the main cast of Bhowani Junction on the film’s sets in Lahore,1955  Photo; Nadeem Paracha
Film was completed in England and Hollywood.  First sneak previews caused uproar about many things in the movie including race.  Inter-racial relationship was a taboo in Europe and United States of 1950s.  Many scenes where Victoria kissed Anglo Indian Patrick and Indian Ranjeet were deleted despite the fact that all actors were either British or American.  In novel, Patrick and Victoria narrate their experiences but in movie Colonel Savage is the sole narrator.  The ending was also completely changed.  In novel, Victoria finally joins Patrick but film ending was revised where Patrick dies a heroic death and Savage would come back from early retirement in England to join Victoria in India.  Film director George Cukor actually cried about all these changes.  He protested loudly with tears in his eyes and said, “Listen, I made a good movie here.  You are crucifying this movie and turning it into a goddamn Hollywood love story,and it’s going to be crap”.  Ava was in full agreement that a good film was ‘seriously damaged, oversimplified, and over sentimentalized’ after preview audiences didn’t approve of certain aspects of the film.
If Bhowani Junction was released in its original form,it was likely to become an epic film in league with Gone with the Wind and Lawrence of Arabia.  However, film was still a success.  Ava also liked her role in the film.  In her last days, Ava would watch her old movies alone. She watched Bhowani Junction and called Stewart Granger in Los Angeles asking him “were we really that beautiful,honey?”  Stewart replied “You were, my sweet.  You still are”.  Rest in peace Ava; You are beautiful in the eyes of a whole generation enchanted by you.

No comments:

Post a Comment