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The Rediff Special/ Archana Masih

Did Jinnah go to heaven, Gandhi to hell?

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Historical films somehow cannot escape it. Controversy, that it is. While British historians squirm about Shekhar Kapur's representation of Queen Elizabeth I -- as the Virgin Queen who wasn't and played naughty with Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester -- another film set 350 years later is dogged by fresh accusations. And sex is just one of them.

Jinnah, the film on the life and times of the founder of Pakistan, has been in constant controversy since its genesis. First, over the choice of actors -- Dracula famed Christopher Lee playing Jinnah and Indian actor Shashi Kapoor cast as the sutradhar (narrator), a role that many think is that of the angel Gabriel.

Then, the script. Though the film was first commissioned by then president Farooq Leghari to commemorate the golden jubilee of Pakistan's birth, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharief asked Cultural Affairs Minister Mushahid Hussain to scrutinise the script when the film was being shot in Pakistan.

Now, it is the after life of its three important players -- Gandhi, Jinnah and Nehru -- that lies in question. A moral distinction between good or evil calculated by a divine source which takes these human souls to heaven or hell.

With the film slated for release this summer, a recent magazine report suggests that Jinnah shows Gandhi and Nehru left behind while Jinnah ascends an illuminated staircase to heaven.

Whether this means Gandhi and Nehru are just left behind or are banished to hell is an inference left to the audience to decide. According to the report: 'Kapoor decides who goes to hell and to heaven. Gandhi, Nehru and Jinnah are all in the waiting room. "Well gentlemen, I must leave," Kapoor tells Gandhi and Nehru. "Jinnah Sahib, I'm afraid you are coming with me." To Gandhi and Nehru, he says: "Er... we'll meet again. Please say your goodbyes." Gandhi and Nehru (their ghosts, that is) instantly rise in deference to Jinnah. Nehru and Jinnah exchange a loaded handshake.

'... He then turns to Jinnah. "Mr Jinnah, you're being called. On your way Jinnah Sahib." A door opens up and a shimmering staircase awaits Jinnah. He ascends to Heaven.'

This contention is, however, vehemently denied by those involved in the film. "It is a malicious lie. Nowhere do we suggest that Nehru and Gandhi go to hell," says Professor Akbar Ahmed, who visualised the film and is its executive producer.

Aimed at correcting Jinnah's portrayal in Richard Attenborough's Oscar-winning Gandhi, Jinnah claims to present an accurate and honest presentation of the man popularly known in Pakistan as Quaid-i-Azam -- the people's leader. Attenborough's Jinnah had a 10-minute presence in a three-and-a-half hour film and was portrayed by Alyque Padamsee as someone who scowled all the time and clearly despised Gandhi.

"Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, has either been ignored or, as in the case of of the hugely successful film Gandhi, portrayed as a cold megalomaniac, bent on the bloody partition of India," writes Ahmed in his recent book, Jinnah, Pakistan and Islamic Identity (Oxford University Press, Pakistan).

Though Tariq Azim Khan, director of the Quaid Project, agrees that Gandhi was a ''good'' film, he believes it was "much flawed." Of the accusation that Gandhi and Nehru go to hell in his film, he says: "It is mischievous and deliberately misleading." Khan clarifies the film does not aim to score points or indulge in propaganda, but deals with Jinnah's life, the rationale and the events leading to the creation of Pakistan.

"Although Jinnah could see through their (Gandhi and Nehru) designs and foresee the plots being hatched around him by his political opponents, he, nevertheless, showed nothing but courtesy and respect for them. In real life he mourned the assassination of Gandhi and called it a sad loss for the Muslims," Khan said in a faxed response to a questionnaire from his office in London.

Indian history sees Jinnah as an obdurate leader who would settle for nothing less than a sovereign state for the Muslims. However, in Indian historical accounts, he is overshadowed by Gandhi and Nehru throughout the freedom struggle. Many historians from across the border obviously feel Jinnah stands misrepresented. Ahmed maintains the black and white characters of Gandhi may have made for good cinema, but it was poor history.

Robert Ashby, the British actor and son of Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy -- one of the creators of Pakistan and later its prime minister -- who plays Nehru in Jinnah reiterates that the heaven and hell assumption is incorrect. "The film bears no such implication," says Ashby who remembers meeting Gandhi as a child in Calcutta during 1947. He, however, reveals that the concluding scene has a surrealistic appeal and is set in a computer room where Nehru and Gandhi make statements on India.

"It is a journey through Jinnah's life -- where long after his death he is brought to the demolition of the Babri mosque, and all of them see what is happening at that time," discloses Ashby in a telephone conversation from London. The actor, who moved to England in 1951, also stresses that the film provides a balanced portrayal of its characters. "I didn't want to be involved in a film that slanted towards some -- or showed Hindus as villains. The film allows Gandhi and Nehru to express their opinions," he says, adding that the film has proved quite an emotional experience for him.

Shashi Kapoor -- the common link among the characters who apparently leads Jinnah to heaven, is non-committal about the film's climax. "I have not yet seen the film. How can I give proof of the pudding until I have tasted it?" quips the 60-year-old actor. He, however, adds that his role had no such portrayal.

Known to have been provided security while shooting in Pakistan, the film provided Kapoor a chance to visit his ancestral home in Peshawar. He was also invited by Nawaz Sharief to dinner. "If the producers send me an invitation for the opening of the film, I will definitely go," he says.

There is little denying that the film is a cinematic response to Gandhi. This time a serious one. Unlike Stand up from the dust, a film on Jinnah made by the government of Pakistan in the mid 1980s; its poor quality prevented it from gaining visibility, even in Pakistan.

Jinnah is clearly an attempt at correction -- both cinematic and historical. People involved with the film see it as the untold story of a political colossus who succeeded against the combined might of Mountbatten, Gandhi, Nehru and others to create the second-most populated Muslim state in the world.

"It is hoped the film will not only educate Western viewers about Jinnah and Pakistan but also impart better understanding amongst Indians, especially the younger generations, who have for so long been indoctrinated to only one way of thinking," says Khan.

The heaven sequence is not the only controversial element in the film. Scenes that involve Nehru and Edwina Mountbatten may also ruffle Indian sensitivity. Though much has been written about their relationship, films or documentaries have glossed over it -- Jinnah apparently breaks this longstanding taboo.

According to the afore-mentioned magazine report: "The first shot shows the feet of Edwina in bed. Nehru is sitting by them, on her bed, stroking her hand... This is only their first bedroom scene. Another is at daybreak, with Edwina in bed, Nehru just out of it, drawing the curtains. The momentous political decisions of the time are taken in bed..."

Khan maintains the film depicts a correct representation of the Edwina-Nehru association, supported by academic research and historical facts. "Lord Mountbatten's attitude towards Pakistan or Edwina's affection for Nehru need no corroboration," he says. On the contention that there is no proof of the relationship, the director sticks to his ground.

"True, no recording is available of the love-coated political chit-chat between them, in the privacy of their love-nest. However, subsequent events, her diary as well as M J Akbar's biography of Nehru more than support the facts related in the film. Personal chemistry between the two did play a crucial part in the shaping of events. Who was using who, is still a very interesting debate," he says.

After previews of the film received adverse publicity, Jinnah's promoters have now decided to hire a publicity consultant to help market the film in the United States. The Quaid Project has also hired a Hollywood producer to supervise post-production. The film is scheduled for release on August 14 -- Pakistan's Independence Day. Initial plans for the premiere, planned to coincide with Pakistan's National Day on March 23 in Washington, had to be abandoned. Professor Ahmed had said American First Lady Hillary Clinton would attend that screening.

"Since it deals with Partition it is bound to be controversial," says Professor Ahmed, who expects more controversies ahead. Khan thinks some of these attacks are aimed at damaging the film even before it is released. "Some Akhand Bharat supporters and partisan commentators who were overjoyed at the villainous portrayal of Jinnah in Gandhi are now crying foul as they see their glee turn to gloom. They are frustrated that the record is being put right," he adds.

That "record" has Nehru sitting at Edwina's feet. That "record" has Gandhi and Nehru awaiting an angel to decide whether they will ascend to heaven or descend to hell -- a "record" that includes many hypothetical notions. How movie audiences will react is anybody's guess, but if the film is permitted to be screened in India, Jinnah will simmer in the controversial cauldron for a long time to come.

'Christopher Lee playing Jinnah is like Mukri playing Gandhi'
'Both Gandhi and Jinnah were great leaders. I believe the demonising of these extraordinary founding fathers must stop. We need to recognise their universal calibre''

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