Informed friendships between Indian men and white men in cinema
The spectre of Empire, either erstwhile or omnipresent, has habitually informed and tarnished the friendships between Indian men and white men in cinema, in which connections of soul often cannot transcend the barriers of race or the baggage of colonialism. This is never more in evidence than in David Lean’s magnum opus A Passage to India (1984), based on the novel by E.M. Forster, set in 1920s India. On the surface, kindred spirits Dr. Aziz (Victor Banerjee) and Cyril Fielding (James Fox) prop up a grand tale of doting friendship quite along the lines of Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s sentimental classic Anand.
Yet, the imbalances are laid out like portents at the outset, with Fielding’s rationale and forbearance contrasted with Aziz’s infantilised joie de vivre. It is now established that Forster had based the central relationship on his own (mostly unrequited) love affair with Syed Ross Masood, an Indian educationalist, who might scarcely have been as simple-mindedly deferential as the exotic Aziz. Lean allows for the slightest modicum of sexual tension in the scene where Aziz waits in the study while Fielding showers behind a sheer curtain, and later awkwardly offers Aziz his collar-pin, a phallic symbol if ever.
In James Ivory’s Heat and Dust (1983), this dynamic is turned on its head by the pivotal friendship between an openly gay British civil servant (Nickolas Grace) and an Indian prince (Shashi Kapoor), who controls the balance of power between them. Grace’s character, Harry Hamilton-Paul, was partly inspired by Forster himself, and his time at the court of the Maharaja of Dewas (as detailed in The Hill of Devi). Like Aziz, the blue-blooded Kapoor wears his emotions on his sleeve, cheerily absolved of any sexual complicity, while the queer Harry must ignore his own compulsions. Once again, it is an uneasy association, and doomed to end as unsatisfactorily as the friendship between Aziz and Fielding — when Aziz is implicated of rape at the Marabar Caves, Fielding cannot wholeheartedly stand in support of his ‘native’ friend. In these scenarios, the differences of culture are seemingly insurmountable.
If we were to leave the Raj behind, Stephen Frears’ wonderful My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) catapults us straight to the Thatcher era. In the film, an early Daniel Day-Lewis plays Johnny, a working-class type who hangs out with racist skinheads, but is irrevocably drawn to the ambitious second-generation British-Pakistani Omar (Gordon Warnecke). It is an affair rooted in a childhood friendship, but now grapples with issues of race and class and the accelerated change that the Thatcherite ‘hard economics’ appeared to have brought about — with Johnny standing in as ‘brown master’ Omar’s Man Friday in a racial reversal of sorts. The two men display a playful sexual chemistry that is unconcerned with what their love insinuates, a dynamic reflective of writer Hanif Kureshi’s work. However, it is also an association that requires a cultural leap of faith in which the fissures of history continue to find expression.
Enduring and invested
Of course, there is the felicity of another great kinship in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982) — that between Gandhi (Ben Kingsley) and missionary Charles Andrews (Ian Charleson), much more balanced and enduring, and invested with a frisson that enlivens the film considerably. Attenborough imbues their very first meeting with an uncertain intimacy shared with many of the aforementioned portrayals — all these films were oddly released within a year of each other.
When Ketan Mehta was faced with the prospect of another such friendship in Mangal Pandey — The Rising (2005), between Aamir Khan’s Pandey and Toby Stephen’s English captain, he cast his men in a resolutely hyper-masculine mould. However, when pitted against each other in a wrestling pit, the ‘yin and yang’ dynamic proved to not have been obliterated completely. There is certainly a subtext here that carries many more implications than just the obvious.
The writer sought out cinema that came at least two generations before him, even as a child. That nostalgia tripping has persisted for a lifetime.
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