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India's first color epic should be more widely known
THE TIGER AND THE FLAME (aka JHANSI KI RANI, 1953) is quite an unusual film, a big-budget historical epic billed in the credits as "India's First Picture in Color by Technicolor," but made with some western help, including noted Hollywood cinematographer Ernest Haller and English film editor Russell Lloyd. It's not like any other Indian film I've ever seen, but not quite like any western historical drama either. Its heroes are Indians who participated in the Indian Rebellion of 1857, which targeted the British East India Company, yet it's quite fair to the British themselves. It's not exactly a Bollywood movie, but it does have an Indian music score and several Indian songs on the soundtrack as well as a few scenes of dance performance. The version I saw is a shorter, English-dubbed version meant for western audiences and may have gotten scant release in the U.S. At 96 min., it's missing 52 minutes from the original cut, listed on IMDb as 148 min.
It tells the true story of Jhansi Ki Rani, known to her family and childhood friends as Manu, a spunky girl picked to be wife of the Maharajah of the sovereign state of Jhansi in northwest India. She's eight years old at the time, but Rajguru, the Maharajah's trusted adviser, trains her in all the arts of the court, including the warrior arts, and when she's 18 she marries the middle-aged Maharajah, who has maintained peaceful and cordial relations with the British officers stationed in Jhansi. A lot happens in the course of the film's 96 minutes and before too long, Queen Jhansi, as Manu is now called, is forced to take up arms to defend her state from the British, after she's been falsely accused of abetting a massacre of British officers and their wives by mutineers. Complicating things is the presence in the British officer corps of Lt. Henry Dowker, who'd been a childhood friend of Manu. The British launch an assault on the fortress walls of Jhansi but the queen rallies her troops and some heavy artillery and holds them off. However, the British are aided by a treacherous relative of the late Maharajah and Jhansi soon falls. The queen manages to flee and gather some troops in a neighboring state for one final battle...
The film covers 20 years in Manu's life, from 1838 to 1858, and plays more like an extended pageant instead of a drama, with selected scenes from the whole saga singled out for epic treatment. Everything takes place on a public stage, with few scenes of personal drama or human intimacy. It's all painted in broad strokes, which makes for some very pretty pictures indeed, but keeps viewers somewhat at a distance. We never get inside Manu's head or that of Rajguru, her wise and loyal mentor and adviser. Granted, there are huge gaps in the narrative and there may be more intimate scenes among the 52 minutes that have been removed, but my guess is that the cut material is just more of the same, historical incidents that fill in the bigger picture, not the smaller one.
Still, it's quite an impressive visual spectacle, with rich color in every shot and picturesque scenes that take advantage of dozens of age-old palaces, public buildings and fortress walls on location in India. The sets are lavish and the costumes beautiful in every scene. There are scenes of celebration with hundreds of extras in procession and a full-scale performance of a dance piece entitled "The Tiger and the Flame," commissioned by the Maharajah expressly to welcome his new wife to court.
And there are the battle scenes with hundreds of extras, many on horseback and all in uniform, lots of cannons and scenes of combat, including close-quarter fighting as two cavalries clash and horsemen hack and cleave at each other. There are two major battle scenes in the cut I viewed and they're both quite spectacular, on a par with Hollywood productions of the time and certainly grander than those in the similarly-themed Hollywood film made the same year, KING OF THE KHYBER RIFLES, starring Tyrone Power (although I have to confess I find the Hollywood film a better work in most other respects).
The DVD I viewed (released by Geneon) offers a transfer from an original film print and not a restoration, so we get the rich colors of old Technicolor but also the occasional scratch, a slight softness of the image and choppiness in a few scenes where snippets of film have been damaged and removed. A digital restoration, however, would alter the color values, which, as seen in the current transfer, most likely reflect how this film must have looked in a theater when it was seen in its U.S. release, presumably in 1956.
The producer/director, Sohrab Modi, also co-stars as Rajguru. His company, Minerva Movietone, produced the film and made many similar epics in the course of its 20-year history. Modi was active in the Indian film industry from 1935 to 1983, just before he died in early 1984 at the age of 86. Modi was married to the star, Mehtab, who plays Queen Jhansi and displays quite a strong, stirring presence. The cinematographer, Ernest Haller, is best known for such Hollywood classics as GONE WITH THE WIND, MILDRED PIERCE and REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE and editor Russell Lloyd was the longtime editor for director John Huston on such films as MOBY DICK, THE UNFORGIVEN, and THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING.
While this film may not be a must-see for every fan of Indian cinema (particularly Bollywood addicts), it's an important footnote in Indian film history and should be seen by students of Indian cinema and fans of early color movies, as well as history buffs interested in seeing this subject dramatized through Indian eyes.
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