The Making of Jinnah (1998) – Gup Shup with Najaf Bilgrami
During the film production of arguably one of the most important films in Pakistani film history ‘Jinnah’, young Najaf Bilgrami served as the Assistant Director. In this interview, Najaf recalls the behind the scenes tension between the filmmaker and the Pakistani government and also his experience working alongside the director of the film Jamil Dehlavi and the legendary actor Sir Christopher Lee.
A review on Pakistani Historical Biopic film, Jinnah (1998) starring Sir Christopher Lee as Jinnah. The film is co-written by Akbar S Ahmed and directed by Jamil Dehlavi. Jinnah was released in cinemas in 1998 and was distributed by Dehlavi Films Productions.
Directed by Jamil Dehlavi
Written by Akbar S Ahmed and Jamil Dehlavi
Cinematography by Nicholas D. Knowland
Edited by Robert M. Reitano and Paul Hodgson
Music by Nigel Clarke and Michael Csányi-Wills
Produced by Jamil Dehlavi
The “never released” Jinnah film from 1983
After the release of Richard Attenborough’s Biopic on Mahatma Gandhi in 1982, the Pakistani government of Zia-ul-Haq was appalled by the abhorrent depiction of Mohammad Ali Jinnah (Founder of Pakistan) in the film as a stubborn, heartless monster who was hell bent on dividing India. In retaliation, the government of Zia-ul-Haq announced their very first film on the founder of Pakistan. According to Mushtaq Gazdar’s detailed book Pakistani Cinema 1947-1997, the film was to be named Stand Up From the Dust (in reference to the story where Jinnah saw school boys playing marbles on a dusty road and urged them to get up from the dust make something useful of themselves). Funded directly by the Pakistani government at the time, they micromanaged every aspect of the script, spending millions of rupees on the expenses of the crew and production.
According to Gazdar, the film was just an alibi to “legitimize” the government of Zia-ul-Haq as the true “Islamic State” vision of Pakistan, just as Jinnah would have intended. Apparently the film was somehow completed and privately screened for Zia-ul-Haq. Upon the film’s conclusion, Zia admitted: “Very good effort… but the film lacks in feeling…”. Since the production of the film was found unsatisfactory, Stand Up From the Dust was shelved in the vaults of the Pakistani government, never to be released for the general public.
Another attempt at the film
With the advent of Pakistan’s 50th Anniversary, Akbar S Ahmed (writer and Scholar) wanted to fulfill his personal wish of completing a film on the founder of Pakistan. With the Pakistani Independent Director Jamil Dehlavi onboard, the government of PPP Benazir Bhutto and the Pakistani Army acknowledged to help finance the film. But as the pre-production started, the PPP government was toppled and Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N came into power. The film project was immediately disapproved by the government and were threatened to shut down the production altogether. It felt like Akbar S Ahmed’s dream of working on a film about Jinnah would not be brought to fruition once again. But with the help and support of the Pak Army, Jamil Dehlavi and many others, the film went ahead with its Pre-production.
After searching high and low for lead actor to play the Quaid, from Daniel Day Lewis to Jeremy Irons to local Pakistani actors, the producers of the film finally settled on a British veteran actor Christopher Lee who was at the time known for playing the role of Dracula in the 1970s and a James Bond villain in The Man with the Golden Gun (1974). The casting was immediately followed with backlash from many Pakistani publications who claimed that the film producers tried to equate the leader of Pakistan to a “blood sucking vampire”. Nonetheless, the film went into production and was scheduled for 11 weeks of shoot in Karachi, Lahore and London. According to Akbar S Ahmed, numerous funds promised by the government never materialized.
Despite resistance from the PML-N government and several news outlets (mainly Imran Aslam, the editor of The News) hell-bent on destroying any credibility of the film, Jinnah finally made it to the theaters in 1998. Upon release, the film was met with very positive reviews from critics and the general public.
Controversies and legal battles surrounding Jinnah
Unfortunately, the controversies surrounding the film grew as a legal battle ensued between the writer and the director regarding the rights of the film. Around the same time, another new controversy surfaced that it was in fact Farrukh Dhondy who ghost wrote the script to the film. His work was kept secret due to the fact that Farrukh was an Indian born.
Even after almost 25 years since its release, the film is still shrouded in controversies and never received a proper foreign market distribution.
+ Main Cast
Christopher Lee as Mohammad Ali Jinnah
Shashi Kapoor as Narrator
James Fox as Lord Louis Mountbatten
Maria Aitken as Edwina Mountbatten
Richard Lintern as Muhammad Ali Jinnah (Younger)
Shireen Shah as Fatima Jinnah
Indira Varma as Rattanbai (‘Ruttie’) Jinnah
Robert Ashby as Jawaharlal Nehru
Sam Dastor as Mahatma Gandhi
Shakeel as Liaquat Ali Khan
As Jinnah (Christopher Lee) stands at the gates of Afterlife, he is greeted by the “Narrator” (Shashi Kapoor) who recalls Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s life as a lawyer, husband, father, politician and of course, the leader of the Nation called Pakistan.
+ High Points
i – Looking back at this film once again (23 years since its release), this is arguably the best rendition of Mohammad Ali Jinnah that could have ever been approved by the Pakistani government and the censor board. The writers of the film, Akbar S Ahmed, Jamil Dehlavi (and ghost writer Farrukh Dhondy) have done a magnificent job in presenting the Quaid, with all his integrity, all his strength and ambitions and most importantly, with all his flaws. Although his political goals were never to be compromised, Jinnah perhaps could not devote the time that he could have to his family. He was perhaps not the greatest husband or father to his child but that was the price Jinnah had to pay if that meant that the muslims of India would finally have their own separate homeland.
Biographical films are meant to be case studies of famous figures of our history. Legends that inspire us to fulfill our ambitions in life, no matter what the cost. Jinnah was not a “mahatma”, he was a man who learned with time why he believed that the muslims of India will never be free unless they have their own separate homeland. The film Jinnah does a splendid job in portraying him with all his ambitions and flaws as a political leader, a husband and a father.
ii – While Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982) was a straightforward Biopic, Akbar S Ahmed and Dehlavi strived for something different. The script gave Jinnah a chance to witness (in third person) his own political career and personal life. That for me, is a vastly more creative way of tackling the story of Independence. The Indian Independence movement is intricate and layered with many sides and opinions. The Congress Party had one for a united India whereas Jinnah had one (later on) for a separate Muslim Homeland. This “meta” introspective was a brilliant move by the director of the film Dehlavi and the film brings a whole new perspective on the partition once again. Was it inevitable? Could Muslims have coexisted in a united India? Was it Jinnah’s political ambition or conviction that drove him towards the Independence movement? While there will never be concrete answers, there will always be varying opinions from the audience of the film.
iii – As the narrative of the film is never linear, we get to go on a journey with the Quaid himself as he takes us through his younger days as a lawyer, a newly wedded Husband, loss of his loved one and eventually, striving for the birth of Pakistan. The pacing of the film works seamlessly, bringing a sense of awe and fascination towards the subject once again. I must admit, I am absolutely flabbergasted how the financiers of the film gave Jamil Dehlavi the freedom to convey a non-linear story to its audience. Perhaps this still might not be the film that Jamil intended but the film Jinnah can never be accused of taking a “safe” approach in its storytelling.
iv – The casting of Christopher Lee as Jinnah. Regardless of him having a striking resemblance to the leader of the Nation, Lee was mostly known for playing low life, villainous characters in commercial or low budget films. Jinnah was his chance to prove that he in fact did possess the talent needed to rightfully portray such a larger than life political figure and he did not disappoint. Lee’s dedication and conviction to the role is admirable. From his stern yet accurate dialogue delivery to his stature on the podium as he delivers speeches to the masses all across the country, Christopher Lee did justice to the Quaid-e-Azam and is certainly one of his most iconic roles of his career.
v – Due to Christopher Lee’s astounding performance, Richard Lintern as the younger Jinnah never gets the proper recognition that he deserves. His naive but determined outlook towards Sub continent politics is stupendously portrayed by the young actor. His convincing performance in the film is one of the main reasons why Jinnah works so well as a non linear biopic. Richard Lintern had some essential, emotional scenes to pull off in order for the narrative to blend into the older Jinnah and suffice to say, he did a fine job.
vi – The opening scene contains some splendid editing where the last dying breaths of Jinnah are transitioned into the opening of the library of “Afterlife”. It’s a perfect way to invite viewers to join Jinnah into his epic journey towards his own previous life. Also the scene where the young and the old Jinnah coincide one another was a stroke of genius. It was a pivotal moment in Jinnah’s life where his resistance to embrace Gandhi’s non-violent movement would lead to more chaos and separation between the Hindus and Muslims of India.
vii – The supporting cast also plays its part well. Indira Varma as Ruttie brings out the softer side of Jinnah. A woman who he was in love with but did not dare to comprise his political ambitions in return for that family life.
viii – With the modest budget of just over $ 2 million, Dehlavi and team did a wonderful job of bringing authenticity to the film. The set design, the early 20th century cars, costumes bring the era of British Colonialism alive in moving images. A lot of credit should go to Nicholas D. Knowland’s cinematography. The slight overexposed film footage makes the images illusive, a past that can never be recreated, only re-imagined.
+ Low Points
i – Although I have praised Akbar S Ahmed and Jamil Dehlavi in their depiction of Jinnah as a leader of the nation and his private life, there is still a subject perhaps left virtually untouched; Jinnah’s relationship to his religion. By many accounts (prior to his goals later in life), Islam never played a massive part in his life. He preferred speaking English, wore three piece suits, smoked a cigar and dined as a proper British would do. Although Jinnah fought for muslim identity in the Subcontinent, how did he viewed his own identity? Unlike Gandhi (who wore his Hindu heratige on his sleeve), Jinnah had a more subtle relationship with his muslim background. It would have been fascinating to have explored that on screen but unfortunately, would never get past the Pakistan censorship board (and ultimately, hurting sentiments of the public along the way).
ii – The “Trial” scene at the end does feel a bit tacked on to the overall narrative. Perhaps this was the only moment I felt that the “meta” commentary went a bit too far for its own good. The information revolves around the injustices the Pakistani government had to face after its Independence and regardless what side you take, subtlety was most probably lost in that scene. I realise that Jinnah’s journey throughout his own life needed to reach its end destination but perhaps there could have been a better way to conclude the film.
iii – While Gandhi’s portrayal is more sympathetic and understandable, Nehru (on the other hand) is depicted as a conniving, devious politician who solely had lust for power to become the first Prime Minister of India. One too many scenes were focused on his affair with Lady Mountbatten which (understably) had an unfair advantage in judgment of the division of India. Even though it’s nowhere near as bad as Jinnah’s portrayal in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982), a better understanding of Nehru the politician could have served this film well.
With inventive storytelling and brilliant performances by the main cast, Jinnah is by far one of the greatest Pakistani films ever made.