Colonialism, Nationalism and Thugs: Amitabh Bachchan and Aamir Khan’s Forthcoming Film Has the Opportunity to Get It Right (But It Probably Won’t)

The Mumbai film industry is finally making a film about Thugs. Starring Aamir Khan the film, Thugs of Hindostan, is slated to be released around Diwali (November), 2018.

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As I and others have written, the British invented—yes, that’s the right word— a group of people called “Thugs” as they were completing their conquest of India (the Hindostan, complete with archaic spelling, of the film title). In that time of war and tremendous social chaos (the 1830s), robber gangs roamed parts of Central, Northern and Western India. Out of the actual depredations of these gangs and the folklore surrounding them, the British, starting with an ambitious young officer named William Henry Sleeman, fashioned a vast and complex discourse asserting that these “Thugs” were conspiratorial members of a secret and ancient cult of Kali worshippers called “Thuggee.” Never mind that the evidence for these assertions was weak and circumstantial—the claim was crucial in allowing the British to justify an authoritarian colonial state in India focused on violent “pacification” of brutal and evil “natives.”

A key text in this process of invention and justification—later the word thug itself moved into the English language in the form we now know it—was the bestselling 1839 novel Confessions of a Thug by Philip Meadows Taylor. Taylor claims in a preface that the novel is based on true people and events. This is the novel that the Mumbai masala film industry is planning to adapt as Thugs of Hindostan.

Of course, Thugs of Hindostan will not be the first appearance of Thugs on the screen. Famously, they are depicted in Stephen Spielberg’s deplorable Indiana Jones and the Temple Doom, where they present a formidable but demonic challenge to the ever-virtuous whip-wielding Jones (who of course triumphs at the end). Before Spielberg came Nicholas Meyer’s The Deceivers (1988), itself based on John Masters’ Christianly motivated 1952 novel of the same name. The cinematic adaptation departs from Masters’ ultimate expression of confidence in a Christian god without abandoning his colonialist perspective. At the end of the movie, we are shown William Savage flinging away his wooden cross. Christianity may be questioned in such a film, however, but not the civilizing mission of the West. The movie ends with the following text on the screen—“It took 20 years to eradicate thuggee. 400 thugs strangled themselves rather than betray the cult. Thuggee over time had caused almost 2 million murders.”

Two million murders? Really? Sounds like fake news to me. Or rather, colonialist discourse. Not surprisingly, the movie was protested even as it was being filmed in India.

I suspect Thugs of Hindostan, though adapted from the Taylor novel, will not reproduce the sensationalist fakery of Spielberg and Meyer. I would not be surprised however if it engages in its own form of mythologizing and fabrication. Early press indicates the Thugs of the film are now nationalist heroes fighting the British. Never mind that the evidence for this assertion is also as weak and circumstantial as the evidence for the British narrative of a bloodthirsty, human sacrificing cult.

Why is it so hard to narrate filmically what is likely the simple truth about the so-called Thugs—that they were in all likelihood robber gangs drawn from social groups facing economic decline and destitution that targeted whoever had money, whether British soldiers or Indian seths? The turn to crime to feed oneself and one’s family—haven’t countless films told that story in the past? Would that be such a hard story for the Mumbai film industry, which has made classics in this vein like Mother India and Deewaar, to tell?

I look forward to reviewing Thugs of Hindostan here in my blog a little over a year from now. Who knows, I might be proven wrong about the film despite the early press. In the meantime, we are left to consider the overwhelming power of binaries (colonialism vs nationalism)—and to contemplate how much easier it is to flip the narrative than tell the real, nuanced story.

[For more extended analyses see my essay Thugs and Bandits: Life and Law in Colonial and Epicolonial India and chapter 1 of my book Textual Traffic: Colonialism, Modernity and the Economy of the Text.]


Srinivasa Ramanujan and G. H. Hardy: Notes on the 100th Anniversary of their Friendship at the Height of Empire

Sometimes communion is harder to parse than antagonism. What leads people to take risks and violate taboos to express solidarity and friendship? This is a central question for E. M. Forster in Passage to India, which I am teaching right now. It is also the central question in the fascinating real-life story of the friendship between the British mathematician G. H. Hardy and his Indian counterpart Srinivasa Ramanujan, who went to England to collaborate with Hardy a few short years before Forster wrote Passage to India. (An Indian film about Ramanujan in Tamil and English has been released this year to mixed reviews.)

Srinivasa Ramanujan was, I am told, one of the great mathematicians of the twentieth century—I have no expertise in mathematics, and so I rely on the testimony of others here. But, mathematics aside, how do we evaluate the personal dimension—not to be understood as separate from the ideological—in Ramanujan’s relationship with Hardy? For five years following his arrival in England in 1914, Ramanujan formed an unlikely friendship with Hardy—one that Hardy called “the one romantic incident in my life.” Against all odds in that great age of empire and racism, Ramanujan and Hardy, so different in backgrounds, managed to regard each other with respect.

It might be tempting to conclude that in the Ramanujan-Hardy episode we have evidence of the objectivity of science—of the capacity of scientists to recognize worth regardless of background. But Hardy was not the first British mathematician to whom Ramanujan wrote. E. W. Hobson and H. F. Baker, also renowned Oxbridge mathematicians, had already rejected Ramanujan by the time Ramanujan’s famous letter introducing himself reached Hardy. Ramanujan’s biographer Robert Kanigel recounts too the prejudice that got in the way of Ramanujan’s success once he was in Cambridge.

How then do we account for the Ramanujan-Hardy relationship, so contrary to its times? Kanigel in his biography emphasizes how much at a tangent Hardy’s character was to the mainstream. He was a militant atheist, a pacifist, possibly homosexual, who routinely espoused sympathy for unions and labor agitations. In short, Hardy was all at the same time a feted insider to British privilege and a queer fellow at the margins of this privilege. Is it that privilege enabled his successful advocacy of Ramanujan, while queerness impelled him to attempt the advocacy in the first place? And what about Ramanujan? Was there anything more than ambition in the way he searched out Hardy and formed a friendship with him? We can only speculate about some of this. The paucity of the archive when it comes to Ramanujan ensures that some of the answers in the Ramanujan-Hardy relationship will never be known to us.

Because of trends in scholarship since Edward Said’s Orientalism (published in 1978), we know much about the antagonisms of colonialism. But what of the unlikely and romantic—to echo Hardy’s language—solidarities? A fuller understanding of how these came to be sustained despite contrary ideological currents remains an ongoing scholarly project, one that presents us with the knotty theoretical problem of having to read against, and often without, the public record. History is not only little help in this regard, it is a formidable obstacle.