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When Hollywood came to Chitral

Fatehul Mulk Ali Nasir

To the former North West Frontier was in a way colonial British India’s answer to the Wild West of North America – with the local inhabitants taking the place of the Native Americans as a savage yet honorable people.

The Siege of Chitral in 1895 was considered one of the last great swashbuckling events of the Victorian era and in many ways the culmination of “The Great Game” between the British Empire and Czarist Russia for control of Central Asia. It was this event that inspired Zoltan Korda to make The Drum, a blatant piece of imperial propaganda but an entertaining film nonetheless – which also gives us a glimpse of what Chitral State was like under the British Raj.

Zoltan Korda was a Hungarian-born film maker famous for portraying the British Empire in a romanticized way and The Drum is no exception. It is interesting to note though that by 1938 the world had changed and thus this film is not as blatantly racist and biased as older Victorian literature on the topic of British imperialism. It examines issues like friendship between the British and the locals on somewhat equal terms and seemingly shows the locals to be as brave and magnanimous as the British viewed themselves.

The British characters are all rather stereotypical “Pip-Pip Cheerio, God Save the King” caricatures with names like Captain Carruthers but the natives are more fleshed out especially the main protagonist Prince Azim, played by Sabu Dastagir, and the villain Prince Ghul, magnificently portrayed by the Canadian actor Raymond Massey. The story is basically about a kingdom high up in the Hindu Kush which had been friendly with the British but now a pro-Russian prince has assassinated the old ruler and wants to start a holy war to drive the British out of India. This new ruler is Prince Ghul, a First World War veteran of the British Indian Army and a worldly fellow who has seen the ballrooms of Paris and the streets of London.

The fact that this Hill Raja dreams of replacing the Viceroy and becoming Emperor of India is stupendous but given the strength of Raymond Massey’s performance, believable! The rightful heir to the throne Prince Azim flees the state, a fictionalized version of Chitral called Tokot, and goes to Peshawar where he befriends several Englishmen. The character of Azim is also interesting in that despite being a British ally he is ready to kill any Englishman who disrespects him yet pledges loyalty to those who support him, so rather than a “Gunga-Din” he is shown to be a noble savage.

Zoltan Korda

The thing that sets Korda’s film apart is that it was the first Hollywood production to be filmed in not only Chitral but Central/Inner Asia as a whole. The sequences shot in Chitral include an ambush of a British military convoy, a polo match at the Chitral Town polo ground and aerial footage of the vicinity of Lower Chitral and Chitral Town. This aerial footage was reused by Korda in his 1940 hit The Thief of Bagdad, where it is shown as the backdrop to a giant genie flying over what is supposed to be “The Roof of the World.”

The ambush scene is particularly interesting as it features live fire by Chitrali musketeers decked out in the traditional woolen garments and firing antique jezails. The polo match too includes both British players and Chitrali noblemen wearing fancy turbans. Another scenic portrayal is a company of Indian Sepoys marching through the oak forests below Birmoghlasht. The time of year when this footage was shot appears to be the end of July or the beginning of August when Lower Chitral is probably in its least photogenic phase of the year during the dry, dusty, blisteringly hot summer.

This would be expected as that was the only time of the year when Chitral was somewhat easily accessible from British India. The details of how the crew got to Chitral are unknown but the leading stars probably flew in on a small aircraft from either Peshawar or Rawalpindi as Chitral had had an operational airstrip for over a decade by the time this film was shot. The airstrip was in Drosh, not Chitral town so the aircraft would have had to fly northwards to get the aerial panoramic footage of Chitral Town and Tirich Mir. As a motorable road then existed from the Chitrali side of the Lowari Pass to Chitral Town the cast of the movie would have probably been picked up by the Mehtar’s vehicles for the onwards journey.

Raymond Massey as Prince Ghul together with Captain Carruthers

The Drum also gives us a look into Chitral State as it existed in the twilight
of the British Raj

The Drum also gives us a look into Chitral State as it existed in the twilight of the British Raj. Chitral was a poor, backwards and feudalistic country but compared to its neighbours in Dir, Gilgit and even Swat at the time it was quite modern with schools, hospitals and roads. In fact, to get the same standard of development as Chitral Town you had to go as far south as Mardan.

Thus despite its remoteness it is this relative level of development and the security provided by the state administration that probably resulted in Chitral being chosen as the filming location. In the British version of The Drum the credits feature a note of thanks to H.H. the Mehtar of Chitral (at the time the intelligent and forward thinking Nasir-ul-Mulk) for his cooperation, this together with a brief account of Surgeon-Major Robertson and the Siege of Chitral by one of the British Officers towards the end of the film are the only times Chitral is explicitly mentioned.

Prince Azim with British officers

Some scenes were also shot in Peshawar. The colonial bungalows and manicured lawns being the setting for imperial intrigue over gin & tonics as well glimpses of domestic harmony centered on the memsahibs. A hilarious scene is when a British officer disguised as a fakir in a bazaar in the old city approaches a colleague who at first does not recognize him and explains that he needs alms to buy a train ticket as “Some very bad men from Jandul robbed me!” For some reason I found this line conveyed in an Etonian accent to be particularly funny!

The Drum is an excellent work of cinema and was well received by audiences in America, Europe and the British Commonwealth. In India, though, it was not so popular and several cinemas in various cities were attacked by nationalist mobs who were not pleased with the unapologetic pro-imperialist nature of the film! Released right before the Second World War, it is in a way an homage to The Great Game which had by then been played out.

The way in which it portrays the British Raj is both exaggerated and romanticized. By then Britain knew that the world had changed and Indian independence would be a reality in the near future. It was as if Zoltan Korda knowingly made this film as a way to preserve the story of British imperialism in this part of the world.


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1 Comment
  1. Shah Karez says

    Intellectual sum up and interesting.

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