A young Pierce Brosnan is the hero in this elegantly odd period drama. The reason that I say that it is odd is because it is quite unusual to find a factually-baased film set in the pre-Raj India of the East India Company. The subject matter is also one that would normally pass most film companies by. So it is to their credit that Merchant Ivory went ahead and made such a film. This is not to say that the film does not have its limitations, but the mere fact that it was made at all means that it is a welcome addition to the Imperial repertoire.
The film revolves around a young company man who is running a district on behalf of the East India Company. It helps that William Savage, the character played by Pierce Brosnan, is such a liberal company man. He has plans to educate and improve the lives of his subjects, only to have these hopes dashed by the Company whose only interest is to make money.
The pace of the film speeds up when William Savage tries to intervene in a case of Suttee. This is where the widow of a man would be ritually burnt on a pyre. Whilst trying to convince a woman that her husband might not be dead after all, he stumbles across a group of thieves who seem to take particular pleasure in killing their victims. They ritually strangle their victims and then bury them. He is horrified at what he sees. His righteous indignation leads him to bend the rule of Company law as he pursues those he believes to be behind the ritual murders. Of course, the official company men are outraged that he broke any of the rules and he is relieved of his post. However, William Savage is one step ahead of his superiors as he goes undercover in a bid to discover the full extent of the activities of this sect. Naturally, adventures and intrigue comes thick and fast as he finds out more than he would like to know about Thuggeeism.
This film tackles two of the largest dilemmas that faced the British East India Company as it tried to govern the immensity of India. Sutteeism and Thuggeeism are the two principal targets, although Thuggeeism is by far the more central of the two themes. The instincts of the East India Company was always to leave the Indian way of life as intact as possible. This was not because the Company was a particularly enlightened institution, it is just that the Company felt that its primary task was merely to collect revenue. There was no need to unnecessarily upset any apple carts. However, both Suttee and Thuggee raised particular dilemmas to the Company. It was felt that both of these Indian customs were so abhorrent that they could not be ignored. It is estimated that Thuggees murdered over two million travellers throughout their period of operation. In many ways this is an interesting take on the theory of certain Universal rights as opposed to Cultural Imperialism. The Company was put under strong pressure from both internal and external sources. In the end, the actions of people like William Savage made it impossible for the Company to ignore these particularly nasty customs. Righteous Indignation over these customs is a term that could justifiably be used to describe the feelings felt by most British officials concerned with India. The Company was forced to dabble and alter Indian customs.
If the film has any faults, then it is only because of the film makers need or desire to create tension. Truth is generally stranger than fiction, hence the idea of the film in the first place. However, some of the coincidences and nick-of-time rescues are just too close to be believable. The film also gets a little tied down in some strange pseudo-religious mystical associations. Again, these are a little too far out of the scope of reality to be wholly believable. These are minor gripes in what is quite an acceptable but often overlooked imperial adventure. The fact that it is based on a true story, however loosely, makes this film even more of a useful film to watch.
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