The 1939 Hollywood film, Gunga Din, is based on a short poem by Rudyard Kipling, which was published in 1892. This poem narrates the story of a low-caste bhishti (water career), Gunga Din, who lost his life while fulfilling his duty of quenching the thirst of wounded soldiers in the British Indian Army. Producer RKO and director George Stevens of Hollywood made a swashbuckler, cinematic version of the poem. This high-adventure drama is located in the rugged region of the North-West Frontier Provinces (NWFP) of the late nineteenth century colonial India. The screen adaptation of Kipling’s poem illustrates a breathtaking tale of three adventurous British Sergeants and their ‘low witted’ Indian water bearer’s fight against a vicious gang of thugs, a supposedly religious cult of ritualistic stranglers in colonial India who worshiped the ferocious Hindu goddess, Kali. These three confident British officers are assigned the task of eliminating thugee in NWFP.
Apart from being a brave protector of the Raj, one of these officers, Sergeant Cutter is also a gold digger. Gunga Din convinces him to make the dangerous journey to a mysterious temple and claim its hidden treasures. However, upon reaching this temple, Sergeant Cutter discovers that it is actually a hiding place for thugs. Rest of the film is a tale of the three Sergeants’ determination, shrewdness and bravery in fighting the ‘savage’ thugs. The developed cinematic representation of Kipling’s short verse was remarkable for its magnitude, sophisticated cinematography, engaging performances, and a tight, suspense-filled script. This cinematic text, however, is equally important for its specific portrayal of British and Indian characters as well as its emphasis on the ‘civilizing’ role of the empire.
Although it was produced in Hollywood, Gunga Din represented a dominant British discourse regarding the empire and Indian society. In view of the nineteenth century liberal, utilitarian and Evangelical reformers, India was a land of stationary and superstitious religions and cultures. In this context, the primitive practices of sutee and thugee were often cited to underline the characteristics of a ‘bloodthirsty’ and ‘irrational’ people. Such constructions created a hierarchy of the civilizations, situating Britain at top while India was placed at the bottom. British imperial ideology thus deployed its superior position to legitimize its colonization of India as a moral mission, which would civilize and modernize India. In this sense, Gunga Din’s most striking twist to Kipling’s poem is the depiction of a resurrection of the thugee cult. This addition to the main narrative not only gave a sensational angle to the film but also confirmed India’s supposed insularity to forces of progress. Along with the cinematic shots of snakes, elephants, and the references to buried treasures, this emphasis on thugee conjures an exotic and inherently ‘different’ image of the orient.
In one of the opening sequences, a British Colonel tells his subordinates that thugee was a murderous, Hindu religious cult that had spread throughout India and Ceylon whereas historically it was limited mainly to central India. These factual errors apart, the existence of thugee as a coherent and specifically religious cult, different from other bands of dacoits, is still a debatable question among historians. In the early nineteenth century, its members included landless peasants and unemployed people who were forced to adopt criminal methods as a survival strategy. However, in colonial records, thugee was defined as a specific cult whose presence was another example of natives’ ‘barbarity’. Its supposed elimination by a British soldier and administrator Sir W H Sleeman illustrated the British empire’s enlightening role in India. In this context, the film’s central narrative around thugee has certain important implications. The fictitious reincarnation of thugee in Gunga Din frames colonial India as a timeless and stagnant society. One of the scenes shows a group of thugs damaging telegraph wires and forcefully driving away the inhabitants of a village, which depicts them as a threat to modernity and colonial order. In contrast, the discipline, shrewdness and concerns of British army men show their determination to protect the colony against such retrogressive forces. In many ways thus, this film could be compared with American journalist Katherine Mayo’s 1927 book, Mother India, which provided graphic details of Indian ‘savagery’ and ‘backwardness.’ While this highly circulated book stimulated waves of angry rejoinders from Indian nationalist leaders in both Britain and the US it reestablished the Raj as a necessary evil and a ‘civilizing mission’. Both Gunga Din and Mother India emphasized colonial people’s backwardness and thus held them responsible for their own political subjugation.
Moreover, it is not accidental that the thugs and their leader, Guru, are shown using the nationalist and revolutionary jargons of the early twentieth century anti-imperialist struggles. The film deliberately superimposes nationalist consciousness onto a criminal group to undermine the growing mass appeal of both Gandhian nationalist and socialist revolutionary organizations of the 1920s and 30s. For example, the leader of the thugs is a replica of Gandhi. Although actor Eduardo Ciannelli’s muscular frame makes him unfit to play a look alike of Gandhi, his loin cloth, shaved head, bamboo staff, slightly bended body as well as the language of sacrifice and nationalism consistently remind viewers of the Congress leader. Moreover, many militant nationalist leaders, particularly those coming from Bengal and Maharashtra, were followers of Hindu goddess Kali and Bhawani. Gunga Din’s depiction of Kali’s followers as a sinister lot effectively ridicules such revolutionary movements as nothing but primitive and diabolical designs against western forces of progress and modernity.
Since the beginning of the nationalist opposition of its rule in India, the empire had frequently projected itself as a champion of the interests of the Muslims and lower castes. The images of Hindu thugs’ attack on Muslim villages reinforced minorities’ anxieties about a hegemonic Hindu nationalism. Although the Hindu nationalist underpinnings of the Indian National Congress are undeniable, in the particular context of the NWFP, Gunga Din undermined the efforts of the Red Shirts and the Indian National Congress for building a common front against British Imperialism. The portrayal of dalit water career, Gunga Din reflects a same patronizing attitude. Although the sergeants frequently use verbal violence against the “untouchable” and lower-ranked bhishti, their condescending behavior to him simultaneously shows the white man’s greater capability to accommodate the outcasts of Indian society. In reality, the post 1857 British policies consciously aimed at forming alliances with the upper castes and aristocratic sections of Indian society. The non-ranked, lower position of dalit Gunga Din is a reflection of this upper caste bias in imperial institutions including the army. Apparently Gunga Din aspired to become a soldier in the army, an ambition which merely creates comic situations in the film. Therefore, despite a positive depiction of the raj, the film clearly shows that the caste biases of ‘civilized’ British officers were hardly different from the views of ‘uncivilized’, upper caste/class Indians.
Cinema studies scholars frequently point out that a strong and successful cinematic history takes artistic liberties to produce a less academic and more marketable narrative. However, such creative adjustments should be balanced, tolerant, and thoughtful. Gunga Din could be judged as an authentic film in its depiction of imperial army and attitudes of some British officers about India and Indians. However, it thoroughly ignores Indian people’s anti-imperialist struggles and represents an apologetic perspective on the Raj. The emphasis on Hindu nationalism and the overwhelming shots of Indian army men killing and chasing away the thugs (rebels) show the division among Indians. In the late 1930s a worldwide economic depression and Indian nationalist demands had substantially weakened the British Empire. In this backdrop empire films such as Gunga Din emphasized the military aspect of the empire, creating a false consciousness of imperial control over the colony, an illusion of permanence.
Priyanka Srivastava is a graduate student at the Department of History, University of Cincinnati. Her doctoral research focuses on labor and gender history of South Asia.