The Man Who Would Be King

By Sunil Kumar

This one’s going to be about the far frontiers again; the land known as Nuristan or Kafiristan on the present-day Pak-Afghan border. Back in the times when Lahore was the capital and the most vibrant city in the Punjab; old Rudyard Kipling wrote a story about the strange land on the periphery of Indian civilization; following an ancient blend of Hindu traditions and strange Greek beliefs.


Visit Kolkata (Photo credit: flipnomad)

English: Kipling the British writer

Visit English: Kipling the British writer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This one’s going to be about the movie; directed by John Huston of “The Maltese Falcon” fame. Critics maintain that a common characteristic of his films is the human condition; the usual blah-blah; overcoming all odds et al. Why am I writing about this one! India, mon amigos! So when the Victorian imperialist decides to tell a tale about two mercenaries; of another time period; it’s all ye olde English in me brain; when the natives probably wore turbans and were sent off to the newly constructed universities in Bombay, Madras or Kolkata.

Sure enough; we have an ingratiating Bengali native who’s promptly kicked off the train in one of the first scenes of the movie. Gives you a feel of how much power a small pipsqueak country on the edge of Europe exerted over a vast sprawling nation.

Kipling is one of the most enduring legacies of the Indo-English love affair; the masterful poet and unabashed “white man’s burden” advocate who nevertheless seems to have had an affection for the sights and sounds of one of the greatest geographies on the planet.

Hollywood revels in caricatures; a turbaned, curried version of life and Indian accents that nobody in India can actually fathom. In the space between “mate”, “dude” and a thousand other cliched Yank constructions; the only thing coming out of an Indian in a Hollywood version is a strange garbled tongue. The Star Trek super-villain Khan Noonien Singh; made in the image of one of the creator Gene Rodenberry‘s friends; could have been played by a “desi” actor; but the mandarins in Los Angeles decide otherwise. Si, Montalban etc. But for now, back to the movie.

Saeed Jaffrey is eager to please as the Gurkha aiding the two Englishmen in their foray. Kipling, Englishman that he was; brings in the Macedonian half-breed Alexander; the man who faced off against the legendary Punjabi king Porus. As both the man explore this strange surreal environment; they come across a bunch of people who are eclectic, weird and wedded to an ancient past; and the memory of Sikander(Alexander). Great visuals of the mountains; and old Martini-Henry rifles( apparently the finest weapons of the time).

Cut the long story short; the scruffy adventurer Dravot(Sean Connery) falls head over heels over a Kafir girl; and decides to marry her. In real life; the actress playing this role is the wife of the other British actor Michael Caine. This evokes disgust in the priests; who believe he is some sort of divine avatar; and the girl who seems to be taken aback by the foreigner. A bite by the girl reveals blood; and the game’s over; before it’s afoot.

Bang bang; and a few years later; a visibly disfigured Carnehan(Caine) is narrating the story to the spectacled writer Kipling; an account of his street-smart sojourn to the wild frontier; and all that actually befell them since their departure from Lahore. As a parting gift; the writer(based on Kipling) is presented with Dravot’s head; so as to confirm the tale.

Can watch this movie if you’re interested in times long ago. For me; positives were superb cinematography and good acting.


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