Gunga Din (1939)

Inspired by Rudyard Kipling’s poem, the movie is set in the mid-1800s when the British regiment had made a settlement in India. There were quite a few rebellious groups formed to eliminate the British rule, with resistance coming from all quarters.

This movie had one such group who revered Goddess Kali (an important deity in Hindu mythology, Goddess of Blood) dedicated their lives to destroy the British army.

The movie is about a Hindu water carrier called ‘Gunga Din.’ Since childhood, he always wanted to be in the army. He was not allowed, which never bothered him as he learned the military’s tricks by observing the soldiers.

He gets friendly with Sgt Cutter and also tells him about the gold which can be taken back from a Kali temple. Parallely, there is an uprising of a religious group under the leadership of Swami, played by Eduardo Ciannelli.

The group had previously attacked many such regiments at different villages, and now they had made arrangements to eliminate the British army in that area.

I am not comfortable using the technical word for such groups. Although in English and the movie, they are referred to as ‘Thuggees’, I will not use the name. During the British rule, it was the perception, and often such groups were branded as enemies and not seen as patriots.

From a movie’s point of view, I can only talk about performances on screen. The film talks about three army sergeants and the rapport they shared working together. Sgt Archibald Cutter (Cary Grant), Sgt Mac Chesney (Victor Mc Laglen), and Sgt Ballantine (Douglas Fairbank Jr) are fun-loving army personnel who love going on adventures together.

All was fine until one of them decides to leave the service to get married. In what is called a final mission, the two trick the soon to be groom to be a part of the troop.

In search of gold, Sgt Cutter and Gunga Din get trapped in a massive religious group gathering. As a part of the plan, Sgt Cutter surrenders to the group while instructing Gunga Din to inform his army troop about the place and situation.

Call it miscommunication; the two friends, along with Gunga Din, turn up at the temple. All are caught, and Gunga Din is branded as a traitor for helping the British. While in the temple, the three musketeers get to know the master plan of the rebellion to eliminate the entire British army.

The last part of the movie talks about Gunga Din’s gallantry, who risks his life to warn the British troops and manages to convey the message of the traps set by the rebellion.

On the other hand, it talks about the patriotism of Swami and his men, who are fighting for their freedom, for their country.

Although, the methods employed are violent, it wasn’t for fun. They had a purpose, and they went about in their way.

In a periodic movie to some extent, George Stevens displays his taste for humour showcases army staff enjoying a good laugh as they went about waging wars. Joan Fontaine plays the sole female in few scenes and fails to capture the audience in a bland role. Sam Jaffe in the title role impresses with his tailor-made acting of a Hindu water carrier.

“Tho’ I’ve belted you and flayed you, by the livin’ Gawd that made you, you’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!” – Rudyard Kipling, last line of his highly acclaimed poem of the same name.

Released in 1939, RKO productions made this movie, which was the costliest at that time. Considering the war scenes and sets resembling rural India, the film was aptly nominated for an Oscar in the Best Cinematography Black and White category.

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