Grand finale of Historic Films week! The Historic films I have written which are so much better than the historic films people in Hindi cinema are actually making. I didn’t get around to watching Panipat, but really, just read this instead of looking for a review of that.
I never thought I would say this, but I am so sick of big battles! With horses and swords and elephants. Okay, I tell a lie, I will never be sick of elephants. But the other stuff, yes. Let’s have more historical romances!
Edwina Mountbatten and Nehru’s Perfect Pure Love
(Miss Braganza, Filmikudhi, and Reflects on Life helped me with this)
Real story, Edwina Mountbatten was born into the British upper crust on her father’s side, and new money converted Jews on her mother’s side. Her mother died when she was 11 and her father remarried when she was 14. After a miserable time in boarding school, her grandfather (ethnically Jewish millionaire) invited her to live with him and be his hostess. By age 20, she was one of the leading hostesses in London. By 21, her grandfather had died and she became independent and one of the richest young women in England. She married at 22 to another 22 year old, a naval officer royal by birth (great grandson of Queen Victoria and nephew of the Empress of Russia), who had seen action in WWI at age 16. They had two daughters, the first a year and a half after marriage and the second 5 years later. Mountbatten continued as a Navy Officer with success after success in his career. Both Edwina and Mountbatten had long term affairs with other people, Edwina in particular spent her 30s traveling around European resorts, with a string of interesting lovers. And then WWII started and she found her calling, dedicating herself to organizing relief efforts and medical campaigns and raising funds. She and her husband became partners, both deeply serious about the work they were carrying out for the war effort which continued post-war into his diplomatic career. It was after the war, at a political conference in Singapore, that Edwina met Nehru.
Meanwhile, Nehru was married at 27 to a 16 year old young woman. As he put it “I almost overlooked her”. But Kamala, his wife, slowly brought herself to his attention. A quiet slightly built woman, she had enormous reserves of strength and bravery, helping her husband to organize protests and treating the poor and generally doing good. She slowly withered away of tuberculosis, finally dying in Germany. Nehru begged to be released from jail and flew to her side to be with her, and was devastated when she died. He never married again, although it is rumored that he had relationships with other women during his long period of widowhood. He always liked intelligent women, whether it was his sister or his wife or his (supposed) long term girlfriend and fellow freedom fighter Padmaja Naidu. That is part of why it isn’t clear what his relationships were with these women, he was a man who was capable of having deep respectful non-romantic relationships with women along with romantic ones. By the time he met Edwina, he was 57, his wife had been dead 21 years, and after years of devoting his heart to the freedom struggle he had aged from a passionate young man to a savvy politician who could take the long view of history.
Edwina and Nehru immediately felt something special between each other. It was noticed by everyone around them. After Singapore, they stayed in touch, and a year later Edwina’s husband was made the last Viceroy of India, and with Nehru the unofficial leader of free India the three of them were constantly in each others pockets. For a year and a half, they were in the same place and, although very busy, were able to see each other. It is unclear if they ever slept together, but again their connection (physical, spiritual, mental) was so obvious everyone around them could see it. After that year and a half, Edwina went back to England and took up again her life of service. Nehru went on to be the Father of India. They wrote to each other all those years, Edwina read his letters every night and kept them with her always. When she went in for surgery a few years before her death, she handed them over to her husband for safekeeping as her most prized possessions. Edwina died before Nehru, in 1960, 12 years after the time they lived in the same country. She died with Nehru’s letters spread out on the bed on top of her. Nehru sent an Indian battleship to follow her burial at sea and have a wreath cast after her body.
Now, my vision for this movie! I want to do it arty-style in two ways. First, since Edwina and Nehru both lived many lives and were many people, I want them each to be played by 3-4 different actors. Second, I want to consciously ignore the political and historical aspects. This is a love story that, against all odds and expectations, and unrelated to all the rest of what was happening, blossomed within a high pressure important situation. The feel I want is two people who lived separate lives on opposite sides of the world, and yet they have this brief impossible connection.
I want Alia as the young Edwina, vibrant and witty and confident. We can start on her wedding day, see her strained relationship with her stepmother and father and how she misses her grandfather, then her joy in being settled for life with this handsome intelligent young man of proper class. Only for us to return the day her daughter is born to find them carefully discussing the possibility of an open marriage, neither of them wants to tie the other down, his career takes him away for long periods, and so on.
Meanwhile, Vikrant Massay as the young Nehru, reluctantly agreeing to marriage although he would prefer to dedicate himself solely to the freedom struggle. He goes on a trip, without his wife, immediately after the wedding. But when he returns, he starts to notice her in a new way. By the time their daughter is born, they are devoted to each other and Nehru swears he will never marry anyone else, even if she is never able to have another child.
Edwina in her 30s is Kalki Koechlin. Sophisticated, smart, known through out Europe, and having a string of affairs. She and her husband are friends and friendly, but not true partners. She spends her time traveling for months at a go, and is always meeting and romancing (and being romanced by) new men. Maybe a song number? With a slinky 1930s ballgown? But there is a tinge of sorrow there, a sense of potential wasted and Edwina wishing she could do more. We end with a sudden jump forward to 1940, to see Edwina briefly as she was then, commander of an ambulance brigade, on the front lines saving lives and organizing massive endeavors.
Nehru in his 30s is Jim Sarbh, passionate and devoted to the cause of India, but hiding a terrible sorrow as he watches his beloved wife fade away. He is torn between two masters, reaching the peak when he chooses to walk away from jail, from the struggle, from India herself in order to be by his wife’s side in Germany as she dies over months. After her death, he vows he will never again open his heart that much, will never allow a woman to come between him and his country. And then a sudden jump for him, working long hours for the country, and then returning to an empty house to write and work more.
And finally, Nehru in his 50s and Edwina in her 40s and the meeting in Singapore. Nehru is Naseeruddin Shah and Edwina is Ratna Pathak (indulge me, it makes me smile). They notice each other immediately and ask their respective aids who the other one is, and then manouver to be introduced. They talk like they have known each other their whole lives, stay up all night sharing stories, by the next day they are casually lighting each other’s cigarettes, sitting close together, everyone notices. Nehru’s aid tries to talk to him about it, Mountbatten tries to talk to Edwina, they both dismiss the concerns. For a brief time, they live in a little bubble of love. Although they never sleep together, or even kiss. Song. They say good-bye, but acknowledge it will never really be good-bye, once they have met they cannot be fully separated again.
And then the period together in India. We see the massive changes only in a distance, because as soon as Nehru and Edwina are together, the world fades away. They stroll on the veranda, they sit together, they smile at each other, it is enough. And then they say good-bye again, this time with a solemn handshake.
And the final era. Edwina is Shabana Azmi now, Nehru is still Naseerji. Edwina returns to her charity work and takes on new projects. Nehru tries to hold his country together. They both have confrontations with their daughters over how they were not present during their childhoods and find the strength in their love for each other and the letters they share to build a better relationship. Edwina and her husband respect each other now and are partners, he is sent on a series of diplomatic missions with her by his side. But there is no hint of romantic love. When she has to have emergency surgery, she hands Mountbatten her stack of letters from “him” and begs him to take care of them for her. She keeps them always on her bedside or under her pillow, and one night dies suddenly clutching the letters. Nehru gets the word in India, from Indira who breaks it gently (although she did not approve of this relationship for her father, she still knows how much this will hurt him). He pulls out a faded rose that Edwina gave him the night they met and puts it in a diplomatic pouch. The rose ends up being received and woven into a funeral wreath, thrown by an Indian Navy ship after Edwina’s burial at sea. Final poetic image, the body and the wreath gently floating down under the water together, hidden from all the pomp above, just as their love story was hidden away, oooooooo.
Nur Jahan and Jahinger
Nur Jahan was Jahinger’s last and most beloved wife, married when he was 42 and she was 35. She was a widow, he had 20 other wives. After marriage, she was elevated to be his co-royal, even riding an elephant into battle (ooo, elephant!) at one point. So it’s a love story between two mature adults who have Seen Stuff, and they love each other and also respect each other. Also, elephants. It’s the perfect movie.
I want to make this the story of Nur Jahan more than Jahinger. Her life and young womanhood before she became Empress. I vote we start with Aditi Rao Hydari as a teenager, very very smart, very sophisticated (her father was an adviser to the emperor), being told that she will be married off to a powerful successful soldier. It’s a good marriage in that she will have a lot of honor and freedom in her husband’s household, but she is a little frustrated at the idea of stopping all her schooling and going off to a semi-backwater kingdom. On the wedding night though, her husband is kind and respectful and acknowledges that she has seen a lot and knows a lot more than him, and she is won over by his niceness.
Years pass, and she is more or less happy in her marriage, and ages into being Tabu. Her husband isn’t cruel, she has a daughter she loves, but she is still bored. She craves news from the capital. And as her husband ages, he becomes more and more set in his ways, while she can see more clearly what should happen. He is not willing to take her advice, and she is more frustrated that he is not taking it. Which means they fight all the time, to the point that their daughter notices it. It all peaks at high drama when he decides to go against his governor, is arrested for treason, and fights his way out. Nur is grief stricken and also furious when she hears, furious that he did not follow her advice and yet still sad that he is dead. In this confused state, she receives word that the Emperor wants her and her daughter to come and live under his protection at the palace. She arrives, scared and grieving, and is surprised to find herself flourishing. The women of the palace are intelligent and interesting, she has all kinds of interesting information to learn and things to discuss, in the end she puts her grief and anger at her husband to bed by acknowledging that he was not her soulmate, they were not right for each other, but he was a good man and she was happy she had that time with him. And only then, after she has made a new happy life for herself, do we see her good friend in the harem repeating something Tabu said to her that was wise and witty and we see a shadowy figure and hear a familiar voice saying “who is this woman?” It’s Shahrukh! And also, Jahengir! One of his wives is Tabu’s good friend in the harem and, after hearing stories of her wit and wisdom, he wants to meet her. His wife helps arrange an “accidental” meeting in the marketplace and Shahrukh is immediately struck by Tabu. He asks permission to court her.
Tabu is conflicted. This is the man who ordered her husband’s death. But then, he also forgave her husband years earlier when he first rebelled. And he made sure she and her daughter lived a life of safety and comfort for all these years. And he’s hot. And smart, which is really the same thing. They have a long slow courtship of intellectual connection, he starts bringing her legal issues and government questions and having debates with her about them. She thinks he is just being polite, but is finally won over to loving him when she secretly observes his open court and hears him repeating and using her logic in his decisions. He wasn’t just being polite, he truly respected and appreciated her opinions.
They marry, and on their wedding night have an awkward conversation about how this is far from the first time for both of them. But that brings its own strangeness, Tabu sleeping with someone new after years of marriage, Shahrukh sleeping with a non-virginal bride. They laugh a little, and talk a little, and finally kiss. It is magical and wonderful and the next day Shahrukh declares he will call her “Nur Mahal” (light of the palace). Marriage is always an adjustment of course, Tabu has advice from her best friend and fellow wife, but she also resents the time Shahrukh must spend away from her, and wants to be with him more. They fight and make-up and fight and make-up, she is the one person with no fear of the Emperor. In time he offers to let her sit in court with him, go hunting with him, be his true partner in every way. Until rebellion threatens, and Shahrukh is defeated in battle and captured. Tabu, in one long dark night, realizes that she has come to love him with all her heart, he is the true love of her life and she cannot continue without him. So she armors up and gets her elephant and goes out and rescues him. Although at first it looks like the rescue has failed when they are thrown into a cell together long enough for Shahrukh to say that all he wished for in captivity was to see her one last time. But then her plan works out and they are rescued. They return to the palace and Shahrukh declares that from now on she will no longer be “Nur Mahal” but will now be “Nur Jahan” (light of the world). BAM! End credit screen with the title, “NUR JAHAN”.
What do you think? Both pretty great, right? Casting, plot idea? Which do you want more?
Okay, one more! Just for those of us who have seen Mohenjo Daro! (I know, there aren’t a lot of us)
In the original version, Hrithik is an innocent young farm boy who comes to the city for the first time and meets Pooja Hegde, daughter of the high priest of the city and the high priestess herself. The leader of the city is doing Bad Things and scheming and trying to marry Pooja, Hrithik notices injustices like high prices and high taxes. And he eventually learns that his father was the last democratically elected leader who was killed by Bad Leader and Hrithik was hidden away in the country. And then all of that, the romance and secret heritage and stuff, ends up not mattering because an enormous flood comes and threatens the city, Hrithik leads the rescue effort and helps save everyone including Pooja, The End.
So, that is a mess! For one thing, how can Hrithik have some magical connection to the city if the whole point is that his father was the last elected leader? Elected leaders don’t have magical connections, they are chosen! Also, how can we have this whole tragic romance that just gets dumped, plus why combine the romance with the Priestess of the city with Hrithik also being the son of the dead leader of the city, you don’t need both mystical connections and once. And then Ashutosh Gowariker himself must not have known how to end it, because he just threw water on the whole thing and forget about it.
I can make this SO MUCH better! First, Hrithik shouldn’t be a farm boy because he is clearly 40 years old. And making him a young country innocent just makes him come off as stupid. I would make Hrithik a mature established farmer. He is happy with his land and has never felt the need to go into the city, or marry, or change his life in any way. But this one harvest season, his neighbor can’t go to town for him with the crops, so Hrithik reluctantly agrees to do it himself.
Meanwhile, Pooja’s backstory is already perfect. There was a prophecy at her birth designating her as the “spirit” of the city. She is a combination of enjoying the power and privilege she has, and also feeling weighted down by the expectations she has to live up to, and finally being just a little lonely because she never gets to interact with anyone as a “normal” person. Enter straightforward farmer Hrithik!
We don’t need the elaborate scheming for the rest of it. Let’s keep that simple too, and directly related to the love story. There has been the same elected leader for years now, he has lied and cheated to remain in power. And now he wants to get his sleazy son married to Pooja, once his son is married to the High Priestess, he will be able to argue that power should always remain with his family.
Pooja has to go out as a commoner to gather supplies for the annual religious ceremony. While she is out in the city, the First Horse arrives and threatens her (have to admit, I love the horse sequence). Brave calm unflappable farmer Hrithik saves her and tames the horse. He is immediately in love with her (maybe we had a scene earlier where he talked to his friend from back home about how when he falls in love, it will be all at once). Pooja is intrigued by this man who just treats her as a person, but also as someone special because he loves her and not because she is a Priestess. She lets Hrithik show her the city, but then disappears on him. Hrithik is sad and his friend insists on taking him to the first night of the ceremonies to distract him, where Hrithik sees Pooja as the high priestess and learns that she is the one destined to stay always with the city and blah blah. He sneaks into the central city the next day to find her, and tries to convince her to leave with him. He argues that the city doesn’t matter, the land matters, that is where food and life is. She argues for the city, that people need to come together and support each other. He has to hide when someone comes in, and Hrithik ends up overhearing Plotting between Evil People and realizes that there is an elaborate plan in place to fake a sign which will force Pooja to marry someone. INTERVAL
Hrithik and Pooja both go about their day, and so does Evil Plotter Man. That night, Hrithik sneaks into the secret second night ceremony and finds Pooja. He tells her that people are trying to trick her into marriage, she doesn’t believe it, and explains that she can only marry if certain magical signs happen and they can’t be faked.
It all comes together in a final sequence when the elaborate signs are being faked, Hrithik is fighting people and using his farmer intelligence to foil their plans, Pooja is then taken hostage by Evil People, Hrithik rescues her, and as he embraces her and they kiss, the star lights up with shooting stars, the rain starts, and the white horse (who was Hrithik’s little pal in defeating the Evil People) rears up, and Pooja’s father the priest realizes it is the signs, and Hrithik must be her husband.
Hrithik and Pooja have a grand marriage with both city and farm people included, symbolically bringing together the two communities. And as a little tag, we see Pooja’s father the priest talking to the horse, and confessing the truth. The only “sign” he needed was the love in his daughter’s eyes. He invented that whole prophecy (“bright light in the sky, water falling, a white flash”) as something that could be anything he wanted. He invented all the prophecies, Pooja was only special because she was his daughter, and he wanted to raise her himself after her mother died in childbirth instead of having her sent away to her mother’s people, so he claimed she was special and could be trained like a male priest. And then when it started to get out of control, he added on the marriage prophecy so he knew no one could force her into marriage or anything else. And then the horse nods and whinnies and the priest feeds him carrots. THE END.