The Anglo-Indian identity in cinema

Few Indian films have explored the identity of this minority, abandoned by the British and isolated in post-Independent India, through either character or theme, writes Shoma A. Chatterji

Rani Mukherjee in Black, which is set against the backdrop of an Anglo-Indian family
Rani Mukherjee in Black, which is set against the backdrop of an Anglo-Indian family

Jennifer Kapoor in 36, Chowringhee Lane
Jennifer Kapoor in 36, Chowringhee Lane

Lillette Dubey in Bow Barracks Forever
Lillette Dubey in Bow Barracks Forever

The Anglo-Indian, a minority ethnic group, is in the news. Bow Barracks Forever directed by Anjan Dutta, is about to be released. Pritish Nandy Communications’ Bow Barracks Forever offers an insight into the real life story of a tiny but resolute Anglo Indian community right in the heart of bustling North Kolkata actually called Bow Barracks. The group is desperately trying to keep its ethnic and cultural identity alive against the dynamic change in the world around them that threatens not only their culture and ethnicity, but also perhaps, their very existence. It is a tale of heartbreaking loneliness and immense courage.

Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Black, generously lifted from the Hollywood film The Miracle Worker, is a celluloid exploration of the real-life relationship of Hellen Keller and her mentor-teacher-and-guide Anne Sullivan, transformed in the film into the relationship between Michelle McNally (Rani Mukherjee) and her teacher, the ageing, frustrated, once-alcoholic Debraj Sahai (Amitabh Bachchan.) The film is set against the backdrop of an Anglo-Indian family, the McNallys, covering a 50-year span opening in the 1950s. Michelle is the severely handicapped elder daughter of the McNallys who could belong to any extremely westernised Indian family in the country. Their very affluence overshadows their ethnic roots. The vast mansion in which the McNallys live, the clothes they wear, the servants they employ, do not really represent the average Anglo-Indian family in the country. Except for the extreme arrogance of the head, Mr McNally (Dhritiman Chatterjee), there is nothing specifically ‘Anglo-Indian’ about them. The McNallys may perhaps be of British origin who did not leave India after Independence. They do not fit into the clich`E9d celluloid stereotype of the Indian Christian character in Indian cinema either.

Indian cinema has reduced the Christian minority in India to a convenient monolith—a homogenous entity that does away with their ethnic divisions—Indian Christians, Roman Catholic, East Indian, Anglo-Indian, Syrian Christians, et al. In films featuring Christian characters, one finds common signifiers—the church, the altar, the priest, the Holy Cross, Christmas or Easter festivals. Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Khamoshi—The Musical, centred on the tragedy of a Goan Christian family of deaf-and-mute parents with a normal daughter who falls in love with a Hindu boy. Its precursor from the South, Julie was a big hit. Mostly, these characters are projected as caricatures or paper cutouts of real people. We see them as –

  • fun-loving, beer-guzzling people who love to sing and dance and have fun,

  • people with repetitive first names like Peter, Jack, Robert or Tony,

  • the villain’s henchmen with lots of brawn and no brain,

  • the semi-nude cabaret dancer who is either a dumb blonde fashioned after villain Ajit’s ‘Mona Darling,’ or,

  • A beautiful vamp with a heart of gold who falls in love with the hero.

Few Indian films have explored the Anglo-Indian identity either through character or through theme. Ruth Labadoor (Nafisa Ali) in Shyam Benegal’s Junoon (1978), her mother (Jennifer Kapoor) and grandmother are half-English escapees of an attack on a congregation in a British Church by a band of Indian soldiers led by Sarfraz Khan (Naseeruddin Shah.) The girl and the two older women take shelter in the house of a faithful Hindu retainer. They are soon discovered by Javed Khan (Shashi Kapoor) who wants to marry Ruth. When the news of the fall of Delhi reaches Javed, he joins the mutinying soldiers and is killed in battle. Fifty years later, Ruth dies in England, a spinster.

Anjan Dutta’s debut film Bada Din, starring Mark Robinson and Shabana Azmi, is the first film after Aparna Sen’s 36, Chowringhee Lane to try and grasp the lives of Anglo-Indians in Calcutta in the changed, crime-ridden, lumpen-filled scenario of the 1990s. The link of the underworld mafia with the police, both of which try to brutalise and victimise an innocent bystander, forms the crux of the film. There is a sub-plot of love between the beer-guzzling, drunken landlady (Shabana Azmi) and her much younger tenant (Mark Robinson). Commercial films like Basu Chatterjee’s Baton Baton Mein depicted the loves, adventures and problems of a middle-class Anglo-Indian family with a down-to-earth sweetness characteristic of the Basu Chatterjee stamp—neither cloying nor annoying. Lovely songs and lively performances by the late Pearl Padamsee and Ranjit Choudhry made the film an enjoyable experience.

The credit for trying to dispel most of the myths surrounding the negative stereotype of the Anglo-Indian woman goes to Aparna Sen’s 36, Chowringhee Lane. Miss Violet Stoneham’s character breaks every myth in the ‘Anglo-Indian Woman’ book. It is the story of the Anglo-Indians, abandoned by the British and isolated in post-Independent India. In a deeper and truer sense, it depicts a universal reality: the loneliness of old age.

The Anglo-Indian precursor closest to Miss Stoneham on celluloid is Vicky Redwood (Edith Simmons) in Satyajit Ray’s Mahanagar (The Big City -1963). For the first time, a filmmaker treated an Anglo-Indian character with empathy. The strong female bonding between a low-middle-class Bengali housewife and a low middle class Anglo-Indian spinster is perhaps, a unique instance in Indian cinema. The highlight of 36, Chowringhee Lane and Mahanagar lies in Sen’s and Ray’s consistent refusal to co-opt the ‘minority culture’ of Violet Stoneham’s and Vicky Redwood’s Anglo-Indian identity within the fold of the ‘majority’ and project it as part of mainstream national culture.