When You Get Really Close to a Movie Screen, Film Emulsion Looks like…
Boiling Sand
BHOWANI JUNCTION (1956)

A few years before Hollywood’s most celebrated movie on racism and personal identity was filmed, Douglas Sirk’s IMITATION OF LIFE, M-G-M sent a stellar cast and crew to Pakistan to bring John Masters’ 1952 best-selling novel of identity politics, Bhowani Junction, to the screen.

Half-Indian, Half-English Victoria Jones (Ava Gardner) suffers a crisis of identity as she attempts to convert to the Sikh religion.

Half-Indian, Half-English Victoria Jones (Ava Gardner) suffers a crisis of identity as she attempts to convert to the Sikh faith.


Ava Gardner plays Victoria Jones, a half-caste woman serving in the British Army during the time of India’s independence and Britain’s withdrawal from the Raj.  Her father is British; her mother Indian.  The racial slur for her breed is “chee-chee” (according to Webster’s, its origins are in the Hindi phrase chi-chi fie! — literally “dirt” ).  With her colonial protectors leaving and her countrymen seeing her as an outsider, Victoria has no identity, no culture, no community.

The film was directed by George Cukor who as a Gay man fifty years ago intimately knew the feelings of diaspora, lack of protection, and otherness experienced by Victoria.  As with the Gay coming-out process, she endeavored to understand herself through exploratory romantic / sexual relationships (with a fellow half-caste, an Indian Sikh, a British colonel) and through altering her image by the clothes she wore that would label her socially and mark her public status. 

Victoria sees herself in a sari for the first time: 
an image worthy of Sirk or Lacan.


Compounding the psychological landscape of BHOWANI JUNCTION are the political outbursts of a nation in transition:  violence, demonstrations, terrorist attacks.  Victoria’s crisis of alliance is not only racial:  in one of the movie’s strongest moments she kills a British officer who tried to rape her; an Indian belonging to a terrorist group discovers her beside the body, takes her in and conceals her crime.

BETWEEN TWO WORLDS:
Victoria, in her British Army uniform, helps an Indian woman wounded in an anti-British demonstration that has turned violent.


This was the film Cukor made directly after A STAR IS BORN, which had been his first color film and the first collaboration between Cukor and photographer George Hoyningen-Huene.  [Part of the reason the final release prints of A STAR IS BORN were heavily cut without protest is because Cukor was in Pakistan at the time.]  Hoyningen-Huene again acted as color and visual consultant on this film, which is blessed with luminous, textured images that broke many of the rules of studio-system cinematography such as the use of silhouettes and keeping most of the frame in darkness.

Having said so much about the qualities of this work, I must state that the film definitely has script problems.  The movie should have been one of those three-hour epics, but it clocks in at just under two, with lots of tiresome expository and explanatory voice-overs to compensate for those elements that couldn’t be developed within the feature’s length.  Ava Gardner gives a good performance, however in scenes with Bill Travers who plays her half-caste boyfriend, he wildly overacts and unfortunately she tries to match his energy level, creating a series of awkward screen moments.  The film gets very plotty near the end in a Book-of-the-Month-Club sort of way, and the book’s resolution is tossed aside in favor of a “happily bi-racial ever after” climax.

Nevertheless, for those who love to dig into a film, examine the details and ask the right questions, there are treasures in this work.
Doug / PoMo Joan

Iconic Vogue photo by Hoyningen-Huene, shot in Paris just hours before the Nazis arrived.  A Madonna video later paid tribute to this image.

Iconic 1940 Vogue photo by Hoyningen-Huene, shot in Paris just hours before the Nazis arrived. A Madonna video later paid tribute to this image.

Doug / PoMo Joan

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