The Amritsar Massacre

On 13 April falls the 100th anniversary of the massacre at the Jallianwala Bagh. For the uninitiated, this is a garden in the Indian city of Amritsar. The garden is pretty close to the city’s famed Golden Temple, the holiest site in Sikhism.

On the day in question, British troops led by one Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer opened fire on the crowds in the garden. At least 379 people were killed. That number is the British estimate. The Indian estimates for the death toll are much higher.

It is depressingly easy to think of other incidents of British troops firing into harmless crowds. Think of Northern Ireland’s Bloody Sunday of 30 January 1972 with its 14 dead, or the Boston Massacre of 5 March 1770 where five people were killed.

Those incidents are separated by a total of 202 years and you should not mistake my meaning. I ascribe no special malice or talent for massacres to the British. Indeed, I lived in England for quite a few years and retain special fondness for the people of the United Kingdom.

It would be more accurate to repeat a piece of wisdom imparted to me by an old Spanish woman, who shocked me with her praise for Franco, the dictator who ruled Spain from 1936 to 1975. Every country, she told me, has bad things in its history. There are no exceptions to this rule.

She was blinkered in her praise for Franco but her remark was absolutely on the money. We all want to think good things about our own country’s past but there were always bad things that happened alongside the good. Every country that has ever been has produced bad men and psychopaths.

Anyway, given the sweep of history you might think it strange that the three incidents I’ve listed are remembered so clearly. India has suffered worse massacres than Amritsar; the United States has seen three school massacres in the past decade alone with higher body counts than Boston; and Northern Ireland’s Troubles saw multiple massacres that killed more people than Bloody Sunday.

In other words, on a statistical basis alone it makes no sense to remember these particular events.

But none of them were about sense or statistics. Each was about unarmed people getting killed, and each had an outsize impact on events that followed. That’s why they’re so important.

Legal proceedings over events associated with the Troubles will probably continue for many years to come. Likewise, I believe that every American child learns about the Boston massacre.

And so it is that every Indian child will probably learn about the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh. This 13 April, being the 100th anniversary it will be remembered to an extra degree. And for the impact it had on everything that came after, that’s how it should be.

The Melancholy Roman


Advertised on the side of a bus…

Being a long-standing lover of Indian cinema, it was inevitable that I would eventually write a blog post about it.

Let’s qualify that. When I say I’m a long-standing fan, I’m not talking about Satyajit Roy’s Apu trilogy. I haven’t seen any of those films. Nor am I talking about Deepa Mehta’s trilogy of Fire, Earth and Water. Nor do I refer to Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, or Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi, epic though that was.

No, I’m talking about full-on Bollywood. Those cheesy, melodramatic, cliched, three hour film spectacles complete with song-and-dance sequences.

I love them.

Which gets me to Padmavati.

The actress Deepika Padukone’s breakthrough role was, of course, 2007’s Om Shanti Om. As with 2008’s Rab Ne Bada Di Jodi, I cynically suspected that Shah Rukh Khan had decided to appear alongside a newcomer to ensure that his own star was not eclipsed.

Cynical me. Both Padukone, and Rab Ne Bada Di Jodi’s lead actress Anushka Sharma, are now established as film stars in their own right. Indeed, Padukone is one of Indian cinema’s biggest box office draws. And like Priyanka Chopra before her, she is trying to cross over into Hollywood and become an even bigger star.

Chopra tried it with the Baywatch movie and the Quantico tv series, and as far as I can tell it hasn’t really worked. Padukone has tried it with the film xXx: Return of Xander Cage and it doesn’t seem to have worked for her, either. Both women are very talented but they’re competing against other women who are also very talented.

But enough of that. The controversy of the moment is Padukone’s latest film, Padmavati. A firebrand Hindu nationalist politician, Suraj Pal Amu, made hay, offering 100,000,000 rupees to have Padukone beheaded. That amount of money is roughly equivalent to US$1.5 million.

Which goes to show that religious populism and politicians can happen everywhere. I’ll spare you examples of Christians, Muslims, Jews and Buddhists doing the same but examples are easy enough to find. Politicians in pursuit of power can be nasty pieces of work. There’s nothing new under the sun (as the Bible says).

Still, the so called controversy has been enough to have the release of Padmavati delayed in India so I was intrigued to have a bus go past with the advertising you see in the picture at the top of this post. That Padmavati had been filmed in 3D was itself a minor revelation. But a 1 December release date? I realised that the date had passed, that I had free time, and that I wanted to see the film!

I was baffled when I checked online and my local cinema wasn’t showing it. I was further baffled when there appeared to be no cinema in the whole of London showing it. And then I found the explanation.

Presumably for PR reasons, the film producers have decided not to let the film be shown anywhere in the world before it is released in India. Perhaps the publicity means the film will be a hit when it is finally released. I hope so. And heck, I hope it’s a really good film. But right now I just want to watch it and it’s frustrating that it’s being delayed for political reasons.

But sometimes, life is like that.

55 days later…

The Central Board of Film Classification in India made five recommendations for changes to the film. One was that the title be changed to Padmaavat, to emphasise the fact that the film is fictional. It was finally released in cinemas on 25 January.

I saw it on 28 January and here’s the truth of it: it’s just not very good. The fears of the hardline Hindu nationalists that the film might feature a secret romantic scene between Deepika Padukone and Ranveer Singh? Completely unfounded. Heck, one of the plot points is that Singh’s Alauddin Khilji never quite sees Padukone’s Padmavati.

More to the point, despite lavish production values and a three hour running time, none of Padukone, Singh, or Shahid Kapoor as Ratan Singh, are given much to do. Padmavati is beautiful and smart, Alauddin is a psychopath, and Ratan Singh is handsome, deeply honourable and not very smart. And that’s about it.

Now, I’m not totally averse to films that tell us nothing about their main characters – Lawrence of Arabia told us almost nothing about the titular Lawrence in four hours, and I love that film – but a bit of depth would have been handy. Just generally, the film lacks soul.

And then there’s the ending. The film ends with Padmavati and a bunch of other women committing jauhar, which is sati done en masse. Despite the best efforts of the director who I think was trying to make it look romantic, it is horrifying. We really don’t need multiple slow motion shots of Padukone moving purposely towards the fire. Nonetheless, that’s what we get.

The Melancholy Roman

The Taj Mahal

The Taj Mahal is the most beautiful building ever constructed. This is my opinion and you are welcome to disagree. But while it’s true to say that I’ve never physically set eyes on some other famous buildings like St Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow or Fallingwater in Pennsylvania, I nonetheless think my opinion is pretty easy to defend.

The story of the Taj is relatively well known. It was built on the orders of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in honour of his wife Mumtaz Mahal, who died in childbirth. Her tomb is at the centre of the monument. Shah Jahan’s is there as well but it’s off to one side.

The very image of the Taj is iconic but that image made me curious. We all know what it looks like but I wondered, what do you see if you turn your back to it and look the other way?

I satisfied my curiosity when I visited India several years ago. Below is the picture I took:

The view in the opposite direction: The great gate, or darwaza-i rauza.

It’s worth noting that in addition to the great gate there are a further two buildings in the complex that aren’t the Taj Mahal, that are nonetheless impressive in their own right. One is a small mosque to one side of the mausoleum. The other is a building quite similar to the mosque but on the other side of the mausoleum, built purely to maintain symmetry.

It’s well known that Shah Jahan was deposed by his son Aurangzeb. There is a story that Shah Jahan planned to build a second Taj Mahal in contrasting black marble on the other side of the Yamuna river. His overthrow by his son stopped him doing this.

I don’t believe the story. It’s an attractive myth in that it neatly explains why the emperor’s tomb is off-centre in contrast with the otherwise perfect symmetry of the central mausoleum. It also offers the tantalising suggestion that if only Shah Jahan had stayed in power, the Taj Mahal would be even more spectacular than it is.

But the reality? The offsetting of the second tomb was the normal custom.

Moreover, a black Taj just wouldn’t look as good. The white Makrana marble of the Taj has an unusual translucence, which tour guides demonstrate to visitors by literally shining torches through the stonework. I think this translucence contributes to the slight ethereality that the Taj possesses. Black marble just wouldn’t look the same.

Still not convinced? Then think on the availability of black marble in 17th century India. Surviving Mughal monuments tend to be of white marble or local sandstone. There’s a reason for that.

The Melancholy Roman