All Hallow’s Lee – JINNAH
Jinnah is among the more, perhaps even most, fascinating films of Lee’s career. He himself felt it was his finest work and his most important film because of both the subject matter and the emotional range the role required. Despite that, the choice of Lee to portray Pakistan’s revered founder was, at the time, scandalous: The Pakistani government withdrew its funding of the project and protesters demanded the actor’s arrest and deportation and even sent death threats. Though, as far as I can tell, the uproar was not due to the choice of an Englishman to portray a Pakistani, rather it because of Lee’s previous roles as Count Dracula.
Nevertheless, the film was finished, though rarely seen outside of festivals and the occasional art house. That’s odd, because it’s not altogether inaccessible to a Western audience; director Jamil Dehlavi’s and co-writer Akbar Ahmed’s story of one man’s campaign for national independence and liberal use of flashbacks naturally evoke Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi and Anthony Minghella’s The English Patient as does cinematographer Nicholas Knowland, who shoots Pakistan as a land awash in yellows and browns, with the sun providing the occasional holy light now and then. Even the framing story takes the form of A Christmas Carol, with the older Jinnah revisiting events from his past and providing some perspective to a supernatural guide.
The film opens with the elder Jinnah on his deathbed in Karachi. He’s whisked to a heavenly place and greeted by what we assume is the Indian version of St. Peter, who informs Jinnah that his judgment is at hand…but it’s tough to make a decision since heaven’s in the process of digitizing its archives and the computers are all down. So the guide must now take Jinnah through a quick tour of his life, questioning his true motives behind Pakistan’s founding, pointing out the turmoil it caused, and delving into his private life.
It’s hokey, and it’s not helped by the fact that Jinnah never needs to reflect, only explain. That said, Lee’s body language does provide some quiet moments of contemplation that the writers never supply, and there are still many instances throughout the flashbacks where Jinnah does have to make tough decisions, but the dramatic core of the film is missing; this is a vindication of Jinnah, not an examination.
The framing device also tangles the narrative threads: One moment we’re embroiled in arguments for Pakistan, another we’re watching Jinnah struggle with the decision to make him its prime minister, and soon after that we watch him ask the father of his love for permission to marry.
In fact, that scene is a perfect example of the film’s major problem: We’ve never met the girl Jinnah wishes to marry, and the focus of the scene is entirely on the fact that he is a Muslim and she a Parsi. To be fair, that issue comes back later, but the film chooses to highlight the politics of the scene and not the emotion.
Again, the film is more concerned with vindicating Jinnah rather than understanding him, and at times this can take some very bizarre detours. In one of the movie’s strangest moments, Jinnah, in Heaven’s control room, is asked by his guide if the creation of Pakistan was a good thing, to which Jinnah responds that it was necessary to protect Muslims, citing the holocaust as an example of a people exterminated under what was once a democracy. He is then shown a news report of Hindu fanatics from the late 1990s, razing cities; Nehru appears, and then Gandhi, and they insinuate that this violence is directly attributable to Pakistan. In another, very close near the end, Jinnah dons his barrister robes to prosecute Lord Mountbatten, laying all the blame for every subsequent problem at his former friend’s feet. Perhaps it could work despite the abrupt change in scenery, but even more jarring is the fact that the film here loses itself — thus far it’s been a defense of Jinnah and now it becomes an outright attack on Mountbatten. More importantly, it makes Jinnah, whom the film repeatedly casts as a diplomat, the aggressor.
Scenes like that, however misguided, are still fun to watch because they’re so jarring. But even more jarring than that, at least to my big dumb head, are the many stances it takes that seem decidedly un-Western. Early on, for example, Jinnah addresses a crowd, explaining the equality between Muslim men and women, and citing the public involvement of Mohammad’s wives; at another, Jinnah points out the dangers of democracy within India, which will lead to Hindu dominance and marginalize Indian Muslims; the underlying story of the creation of Pakistan actively advocates secession; even Gandhi, while praised and admired for his nonviolence, is also shown as a wily political maneuverer. To a Westerner, at least an American, these are contrary to the status quo, if not inconceivable – imagine the uproar if American Muslims wished to partition some area of the U.S. for their own separate homeland.
I say all this but still maintain that Jinnah is not a bad film. It looks good, and the creation of Pakistan, with all the political dealing, is an interesting story once you piece it together. And, above all, there are the performances. The incomparable James Fox is appropriately menacing as the scheming Lord Mountbatten; Sam Dastor gives a fresh look at Gandhi; Robert Ashby is devious as Nehru. But Maria Aitken is given so little to do; same for Indira Varma as Ruttie and Shireen Shah as Fatima Jinnah, Jinnah’s daughter and sister, respectively. We’re told these are the two women Jinnah loved most in his life, but their lives are viewed only within the context of that damn framing device.
And Lee. Lee truly is magnificent in the role, and Dehlavi makes exceptional use of the man’s presence. There’s something authoritative and fatherly about Lee that every good director who’s worked with him picks up on, though never quite on the ingenious scale as the father of an entire nation. But even more, the role gives Lee a chance to joke and smile; to storm and even to cry. So many scenes in the film lack a proper setup or feel rushed into – Jinnah’s apology at the very end, for example, which any other actor would make feeble, but Lee’s sincerity sells it. So, too, does it find a way to legitimize every other bizarre situation the writers find themselves in. This is a film where the lead actor’s performance provides the better narrative than the script, and Lee’s assertion that this was his best is understandable.