Heartless or Broken-hearted? Muhammad Ali Jinnah in Film and Fiction

by Claire Chambers

Muhammad Ali JinnahToday is the anniversary of 70 years of Pakistan, and tomorrow it will be Indians' turn to celebrate their nation's Independence Day. I recently wrote about South Asian cultural production that portrays Nehru, the Mountbattens, and the Edwina-Jawaharlal relationship or affair. Today I turn my attention to depictions of the Quaid-i-Azam or founder of the nation of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Many influential historical accounts of the Partition have assigned sole responsibility for the country's division to Jinnah and the Muslim League. Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre's journalistic history of Partition, Freedom at Midnight, and even Sumit Sarkar's more scholarly account of the lead-up to Independence, Modern India 1885-1947, are examples of portrayals that to varying extents adhere to the view of Jinnah as a megalomaniac evil genius who masterminded the Partition to gain power. However, this politician was much more complex, as my blog post strives to show.

Like these history books, Richard Attenborough's biopic Gandhi portrays Jinnah as a coldly inhuman monster. Indeed, Akbar S. Ahmed writes of the cinematic portrayal, 'Jinnah conveys one Gandhiimpression: menace'. The Muslim League leader has unshakeable agency and is figured forth as a supercilious and worldly politician, who can often be found standing near to Gandhi making ironic comments. Gandhi, by contrast, is saintly and otherworldly, declaring with admirable pluralism: 'I am a Muslim! And a Hindu, and a Christian and a Jew'. In the film, it is Machiavellian Jinnah who says that as a response to the Jallianwalla Bagh massacre Indian violence is only an eye for an eye. To this statement Gandhi replies with the famous and possibly apocryphal line: 'An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind'.

The actor playing Jinnah, Alyque Padamsee, has aquiline features and rather sinister parti-coloured hair. In the screenplay, he is described as 'tall, slender, ascetic looking, but dressed impeccably' and, in a more barbed comment, as '[a] man made for the spotlight, a man loving the spotlight'. When Gandhi first returns to India from South Africa, Jinnah is sceptical about the dimuinutive man's abilities, enquiring whether he is a fool and suggesting that Congress should allow him briefly to vent his frustrations about South African racism before he slips into oblivion. Jinnah appeals to the Prophet Mohammed for patience when Gandhi keeps him waiting because he has travelled to meet him by way of a third class train compartment followed by a long walk. The contrast between the elegant lawyer in Western dress who drives a luxury car and this humble pedestrian clad in homespun cloth could not be clearer.

Later Gandhi hesitantly criticizes him:

Jinnah has – has cooperated with the British. It has given him power and the freedom to speak, and he has filled the Muslims with fears of what will happen to them in a country that is predominantly Hindu. […] That I find hard to bear – even in prison.

Here the Muslim League leader's apparent collaboration with the British stands in stark juxtaposition with Gandhi's honourable incarceration. Attenborough's Gandhi argues that Jinnah's support for Britain in the Second World War, has granted him a platform from which to influence both the British and Indian Muslims. Furthermore, according to the screenplay by John Briley, he uses this platform to incite Muslim violence, based on their allegedly unwarranted 'fears' of Hindu domination. In the movie's final quarter, viewers glimpse flashes of these fears, which lead to Jinnah's fury, and we witness his playing of the communal card. He 'sneers' at Gandhi's idea of Muslims and Hindus as the two eyes of the Indian body politic, and pronounces that not all Indians are as noble as the Mahatma. Jinnah's intransigence, holds this one-sided film, is where we should lay most of the blame for the cataclysm of Partition.

Bapsi Sidhwa's 1988 novel Ice-Candy Man intermingles fact with fiction in her narration of Bapsi Sidhwa Partition from the perspective of a young Parsi girl. While Gandhi and Master Tara Singh appear physically in Sidhwa's fictional rendition of Lahore, Jinnah and Nehru are merely discussed by various characters and the narrator. The portrayal of Jinnah is a particularly interesting one. Sidhwa, a Pakistani Parsi, goes against the dominant historical narrative tainting Jinnah as Partition's cynical architect. She calls this type of portrayal a 'caricature' and chooses to emphasize his humanity by providing details about his ill health and his troubled marriage to a beautiful, spirited Parsi woman, Ruttie Petit.

Sidhwa's portrayal is influenced by Pakistani revisionist views of Partition. Historians such as Ayesha Jalal argue that, far from engineering Partition, Jinnah fought against it and wanted greater autonomy for Muslim-majority states within a federal India. This idea seems to lie behind Sidhwa's suggestion that when he died soon after Independence the cause was his 'broken heart'.

And yet, Sidhwa's depiction of the Quaid isn't wholly positive. She is alert to a dissonance between the high rhetoric of nationalism and the horrors of lived experience on the ground Ice-Candy Man in 1947. For example, a group of characters listen to a radio report about unrest that is supposedly under control in Gurdaspur, but the gardener is alert to media misinformation and assumes that 'uncontrollable butchering' must be going on in the Punjabi border town. Through the gardener's remark, Sidhwa conveys the notion that establishment politicians, journalists, and intellectuals aren't speaking the same language as those caught up in the riots. Even Jinnah, who we have seen is the politician portrayed in the most favourable light in Ice-Candy Man, is shown to be divorced from the realities of Partition. His laudably tolerant first Presidential Address is reproduced in the novel:

You are free. You are free to go to your temples. You are free to go to your mosques or any other place of worship in the State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed, that has nothing to do with the business of State … etc., etc., etc. Pakistan Zindabad!

Yet the speech is truncated by the insertion of abbreviated 'etceteras', and in any case its position in the novel, sandwiched as it is between descriptions of mob violence and a neighbouring Sikh family fleeing incipient Pakistan, Jinnah's fine words ring hollowly.

In director Jamil Dehlavi's film Jinnah, Pakistan's founder is controversially played by white Jamil Dehlavi - Jinnah British former horror star and Bond villain Christopher Lee. However, Dehlavi's portrayal is mostly sympathetic and the film, based on Akbar Ahmed's research for Jinnah, Pakistan and Islamic Identity, represents an occasionally surreal but layered attempt at portraying the leader's life. Somewhat surprisingly, this movie from 1998 is more progressive than Gurinder Chadha's recent Viceroy's House in departing from the unremittingly negative line about Jinnah established in Gandhi.

It opens on an immediately humanizing note, with Jinnah gravely ill in 1948 and being transported to hospital by his devoted sister Fatima. Pale, thin Lee suits the part of dying, tubercular Jinnah. The next scene is oddly set in the afterlife, with Shashi Kapoor playing the Angel Gabriel or a heavenly guide, who uses an extremely dated 1990s computer to record Jinnah's answers to questions that will determine whether he goes to heaven or hell.

One of the marks in his favour, according to this liberal film, is that when Jinnah is challenged by a maulana about 'parading' his sister in public, he steadfastly claims that Islam stands for equality between men and women. Indeed, in a BBC World Service radio documentary to commemorate 70 years of Pakistan, Shahzeb Jillani makes a similar point about the feminist significance of Jinnah's taking Fatima everywhere. As such, in both historical and fictional accounts Jinnah gets plaudits for being progressive on gender, but in the process his sister Fatima is relegated to a secondary position. In the film, her portrayal is ambivalent. Viewers witness her pioneering work as a young female dental surgeon, as well as her resolve not to get married or have children so as to be fully involved when the Pakistani homeland is won. In later life, on the other hand, she is portrayed as humourless and harbouring some resentment towards Jinnah's 'pretty' wife, Ruttie, even after her death because Fatima feels that she didn't look after Jinnah properly.

In the Bombay of 1920, Jinnah calls for Hindu-Muslim unity, and Gandhi endorses his words in front of a mostly Muslim crowd, but proceeds to speak the Hindu-inflected language of ahimsa and satyagraha. Fatima views him with suspicion as patronizing her brother, while Jinnah is angered and alienated by Gandhi's 'imitation of the Hindu peasant', his populism, and bringing of religion into politics, which Jinnah sees as damaging for Muslims. Christopher Lee as Jinnah

Jinnah has contradictions of his own, and is not completely exonerated for Partition. A particularly moving scene is set on board of one of the notorious Partition death trains. Fatima rescues the only living person on board this unspeakable site of hatred, a baby crying in the arms of its dead mother. And almost as difficult to explain away is Jinnah's decision to disown his 19-year-old daughter Dina when she marries a Parsi (unlike Ruttie, Dina's fiancé refuses to convert to Islam).

Perhaps Jinnah's biggest contribution is the film's reminder that despite Nehru's fervent secularism and his efforts to outlaw the Hindu Right, Gandhi was assassinated less than a year after Partition by a former member of the RSS who felt he was too conciliatory towards Muslims. In the light of this, as well as the destruction of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya in 1992 a few years before the film was made, Jinnah's fears about Hindu fanaticism and the British Raj becoming Ram Rajya seem far more justifiable than a 'slogan' for political leverage, as Sarkar dismissively puts it.

Finally, in 2016 a retired Indian diplomat Kiran Doshi won the Hindu Literary Prize for his historical novel Jinnah Often Came to our House. The novel was commended by the judges Kiran Doshifor its 'unbiased wisdom', and for rectifying 'all kinds of prejudices about political leaders and religious communities'. Certainly, Doshi exhibits his detailed and open-minded knowledge of history. One of the important points he makes is that the British partition of Bengal in 1905, although it was short-lived, opened the 'Pandora's box' of communalism. This first partition pitted Muslims against Hindus, even though 'there were Hindus and Mohammedans in every town and village of India' and they had long lived together peacefully. As such Doshi sees the Bengal partition as an augury of the violence to come in the Partition of 1947.

The Indian author paints young Jinnah as implacably opposed to communalism and to the 'Mohammedans of Importance' – 'reactionaries' such as Aga Khan III – who are sympathetic to Jinnah Often Came to Our House the British and are accordingly regarded as spokesmen for the Muslims by the Raj authorities. Doshi's Jinnah is a whiskey-drinking secularist from a Shia background, who does not pray and knows little Urdu, but is an outstanding lawyer and staunch proponent of girls' education. The novel demonizes Fatima Jinnah, though, deflecting much of the blame for Jinnah's turn towards communalism onto her. She is presented as cold, obnoxious, and a corrupting influence on her brother.

Small wonder, then, that Yasser Latif Hamdani points to the novel's problematic 'good Muslim, bad Muslim' underpinnings in his round-up of portrayals of Jinnah for Pakistan's Daily Times. (Additionally, it seems improbable for Indian Muslims to call themselves 'Mohammedans', as they do in this text. 'Mohammedan' was an inaccurate nineteenth- and early twentieth-century European designation, and these Muslims would likely have self-identified as 'Musalmans'.) What Hamdany does not identify is that the text also presumes a split between 'good women', like the novel's educated but conventionally feminine protagonist Rehana Kowaishi, and 'bad women' such as the ambitious, possessive Fatima. Ultimately, for all its many achievements in bringing to life the early twentieth century and India's nationalists leaders, Doshi's novel does little to unsettle Islamophobic and misogynist ideas.

To recap, in this post I have examined four texts dealing with Pakistan's founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Richard Attenborough's Gandhi presents a blueprint for Jinnah's diabolization. Blind Men and ElephantBapsi Sidhwa's Ice-Candy Man tries to recuperate his reputation by showing his personal side. She suggests that Nehru's debonair whispering in Lady Mountbatten's ear was more responsible for violence than any manoeuvres on the part of sick, isolated Jinnah. Jamil Dehlavi's Jinnah continues in a similar vein to Sidhwa, highlighting the Quaid's enlightened views on gender. An implicit comparison is drawn with Gandhi's allegedly divisive spiritual trappings and his attempt to infuse politics with the diction of (Hindu) religion. Lastly, Kiran Doshi's Jinnah Often Came to our House is part of a well-meaning endeavour to encourage Indians to look more favourably on Jinnah. However, Doshi achieves this at the expense of Fatima and several other Muslims. From 'menac[ing]' to 'broken[-]heart[ed]', these films and novels illustrate a range of views of Jinnah. As with the Indian folk-tale of the blind men and the elephant, these are correct descriptions of the elephant according to the segment they are touching (tail, ear, trunk, body), but each view is limited by its particular perspective.