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Bhowani Junction: One upon a time in India


In 1955, MGM Studios decided to make a film based on a novel by John Masters called ‘Bhowani Junction’, which was published a year earlier. The novel is set in 1946, as the British are facing increasing ‘independentist’ pressure in India. The book is a part of a series of historical novels set in India and written by Masters, involving several generations of the fictional Savage family. It narrates the incidents taking place in a fictional railway town of Bhowani Junction, including historical events catching up with a number of characters, and in particular with Anglo-Indian Victoria Jones, fresh out of Women’s Auxiliary Corps service and in search of her cultural identity in a rapidly changing nation. The novel is also a romantic adventure featuring Victoria and three men around her.

MGM outbid two other studios to buy the film rights to the novel, paying more than $100,000. Ava Gardner and Stewart Granger were announced as leads almost immediately; Gardner incidentally had been on suspension at the studio for refusing to appear in ‘Love Me or Leave Me’ (1955). The legendary filmmaker, George Cukor was assigned to direct. Once Cukor came on board, he wanted Trevor Howard as the lead, since Granger who had been a front-runner for the role of Norman Maine in Cuckor’s earlier film, ‘A Star is Born’ (1954) had backed out when he was unable to adjust to Cukor’s habit of acting out scenes as a form of direction. Finally, MGM preferred Granger to Howard.

Actor, Sabu was tested for, and nearly cast as Ranjit Kasel. The role however went to Francis Matthews. According to Matthews, huge chunks of his part ended up on the editing room floor.

Cukor travelled to India in October 1954 to research the movie. “I feel that for the first time India has been presented in this book as it really is, instead of the usual hokey-pokey atmosphere in which it is painted by most authors who write about it,” he said after arriving in India.

No one knows where Bhowani junction is located but based on the description it was thought that the place is Jhansi, and therefore, the production team approached the Indian government to have permission to shoot the film there. In the 1950s, India under Pt Jawaharlal Nehru was vigorously following the line of non-alignment and the Indian government looked at such a request by an American company with some suspicion. After much deliberation it decided that the project can go ahead provided the script is thoroughly scrutinised by the Indian authorities by charging a fee for it, besides a bunch of tariffs and taxes paid by MGM to Indian exchequer. It is also believed that the Indian government was not too keen to allow shooting of this film in India for political reasons, especially due to the scenes involving ‘Hindu terrorism’ including against Gandhi himself. Nevertheless, not happy with Indian government’s response, MGM looked towards India’s new neighbour in the West, Pakistan, which in those days was at the early stages of its own relations with the US. The Pakistani authorities spent no time in approving the project with Lahore and its railway station as the location, in addition offering all co-operation from the local police and military units including the Lahore based 1/13 Frontier Force battalion of which Col Savage was to be the commandant rather than the 1/13 Gurkha battalion in the novel.

When Stewart Granger and Ava Gardner arrived in Pakistan, in 1955 for the shooting of ‘Bhowani Junction’, they were accorded a red carpet reception at the Lahore airport and the national press gave the arrival a front-page coverage. The film stars were housed in Faletti’s Hotel then the best in the town located a stone’s throw away from the Mall Road, Lahore’s answer to Champs-Élysées, in those days. The suite in which Gardener stayed has been since named as ‘The Ava Gardner Suite’. In its lounge one could see a beautiful large sized, black and white portrait of Gardner smiling. During her stay in Lahore – February 22, 1955 to May 1955 – the actress was often seen walking on the Mall Road in the evenings.

Several locals had a role in the movie, mostly as extras. As many of the scenes were supposed to be set in India, many of these locals had to wear Nehru caps during the shooting and although they did not like Pandit sahib as they referred to Pt Nehru, they had no problems wearing his trademark cap as long as they got some dollars at the end of the day.

When ‘Bhowani Junction’ was completed, MGM was concerned about the confused and negative responses from its preview audience, which led the studio to re-cut the film, changing it significantly from Cukor’s original version. The movie’s voice-over narration and flashback approach was hastily added. Cukor was unhappy with the final cut and later claimed it had been rearranged in “a most uninteresting way.”

When released, the film’s uneven reception was largely due to the observation by the critics that Cukor was ill-equipped to capture the epic sweep of the political uprising in India. Cukor was known for his incisive female character studies, and, as such, he was rarely called upon to manage crowd scenes or stage action sequences. Not surprisingly, it is Gardner’s dramatic scenes that shine in ‘Bhowani Junction’, while the railway sequences of protest and conflict noticeably lack in focus and scope.

Produced at a budget of $3,637,000, the film earned $2,075,000 in North America and $2.8 million elsewhere, recording total earning of $4,875,000

John Masters eventually wrote the novel, ‘To the Coral Strand’ as a sequel to ‘Bhowani Junction’, which was published in 1962. It was however never filmed. In the sequel, Rodney Savage does stay on in India after the end of British rule, but he does not marry Victoria Jones, and rather goes through many upheavals before finally finding love with another Indian woman.

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