Hollywood is never one for letting blockbuster film franchises die. The latest set of adventures to be exhumed concerns Indiana Jones, the scruffy rule-breaking archaeologist and treasure hunter who has headlined four movies by Steven Spielberg and is scheduled for a comeback in 2019. Harrison Ford will return as Jones, which he first played in Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1981.
The second in the series, Temple of Doom (1984) was banned in India at the time of its release. It’s not hard to see why local censors were horrified at a movie set in colonial-era India that stereotyped nearly every single character who had the misfortune of having brown skin. Chief among the dastardly Indians is the occult priest Mola Ram, played with nostril-flaring gusto by Amrish Puri. The burly actor with the tonsured pate, rumbling voice and piercing gaze pulls beating hearts out of his victims and oversees an underground mine where underfed children are put to work. Thank heavens for the British.
Mola Ram is the head of a thuggee cult that has possessed the young prince of Pankot Palace, named Zalim Singh. Mola Ram has been stealing magically endowed shivlings from around the region to harvest their powers and become a supreme overlord. He worships the goddess Kali, made here to look like a cadaverous demon of unspecified gender.
Before sneaking into Mola Ram’s lair, Jones, accompanied by the underclad and easily frightened Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw) and a Chinese boy named Short Round (Jonathon Ke Quan), journeys to Pankot, where they are entertained by dancing girls and the Received Pronunciation of the kingdom’s malevolent minister (Roshan Seth) before dinner is served. Since this is a barbaric corner of India, which hasn’t yet been introduced to table manners and the delights of Western cuisine, the menu includes snakes and spiders, which are slurped up with relish by the local gentry, and the piece de resistance, monkey brain soup.
The setting of the plot, based on a story by George Lucas, and the sequences of Mola Ram’s sacrificial rituals, bathed in blood red and pitch black and played out to the chant of “Rise and kill, kill for the love of Kali... kill kill kill” were inspired by older adventure movies set in exotic lands and featuring top-drawer Hollywood talent as white saviours. The strongest inspiration for Temple of Doom is George Stevens’s Gunga Din (1931). Based on Rudyard Kipling’s poem of the same name (the writer makes a brief appearance in the extended version) and featuring the dashing Cary Grant as a member of a battalion of British soldiers who stumbles upon a thugee cult, Gunga Din has its share of Oriental moments. Chief among them is black-faced American actors playing Indians, including Eduardo Ciannelli as the evil cult leader and Sam Jaffe as Gunga Din, the bishti (or water carrier) whose biggest dream is to enroll in the British Army and play the bugle for his masters. “Bugle only pleasure for poor bishti,” pleads the dhoti-wearing gent.
The scenes of Kali worship in Temple of Doom are a direct tribute to Gunga Din, down to the mesmerised mass of men who bow down before their bug-eyed master.
Both films, despite their flagrant racism and depictions of Indian culture as savage and obscurantist, remain watchable. Gunga Din is filled with wit and superbly staged action scenes, including a memorable stand-off with an elephant on a rope bridge (the celebrity pachyderm Anna Mae) and another climactic fight on the same bridge, which has been referenced in Temple of Doom.
Spielberg’s skills with action and atmospherics serve him well in Temple of Doom, especially in the scenes set in the chamber in which Mola Ram is planning world domination. The sets, mood lighting and inventive stunts involving a Catherine’s wheel create unrelenting suspense and dread. The movie was criticised upon its release in the United States of America for its frightening and child-unfriendly visuals of sacrifice and violence.
Satyajit Ray hated the movie. He watched it in London in the mid-1980s with his future biographer Andrew Robinson. In The Inner Eye, Robinson writes that Ray watched the film impassively “except for when some particularly grotesque ‘Indian’ priests appeared – ‘A brown sacred thread,’ he [Ray] said quizzically with perhaps a tough of disgust”. The master filmmaker later said that “all but the first ten minutes of the film were ‘absolutely haywire, unbelievably bad’”.
Denied shooting permission in India, Spielberg created Temple of Doom in Macau, Sri Lanka and studio lots in London. He cast Amrish Puri on the recommendation of Dolly Thakore and Shama Habibullah, who were working for producer Lucasfilm as casting directors. Puri writes in his autobiography The Act of Life that he was initially disinterested in the part. However, Thakore sent stills of Puri in the horror film Gehrayee (1980), in which Puri played a tantric priest, to Lucasfilm. A group of American casting directors arrived in Mumbai, but Puri refused to audition for them, asking them to instead visit the set of the film he was working in at the time. To his surprise, they did. Puri also refused to read out a page of text in English. “How does Spielberg know what language do I speak? He would know me as an actor,” the actor told the casting agents.
Despite his display of attitude, Puri was chosen as Mola Ram, and he travelled to London and Sri Lanka for the shoot. Once again, Puri was not impressed with his dialogue, although he did warm to Spielberg, whom he described as “very boyish, an unassuming kind of person”. Puri even went to the extent of calling Gandhi director Richard Attenborough for advice (Puri had played a small role in the biopic).
Once the production got underway, however, Puri was full of praise for the professionalism and meticulousness of Spielberg’s crew. “None of them had any ego, problems or reservations about my being an Indian,” Puri writes. He details the minute preparations that went into crucial sequences, such as the one involving heart extraction and the climactic rope bridge sequence, shot in Kandy. “Unlike many of our actors in Indian films, there was expertise at all levels, and you couldn’t just do anything and get away with it,” Puri writes.
The actor was disappointed that Temple of Doom wasn’t released in India, and that the local press criticised him and Roshan Seth for being “anti-national” for appearing in the movie. “It was a chance of a lifetime working with Spielberg, and I don’t regret it even for a moment,” Puri writes. “I don’t think I did anything anti-national; it’s really foolish to take it so seriously and get worked up over it.”
Puri says he got a hand-written note from Spielberg, calling him “my best villain” and several offers from Hollywood, but none of the roles were on par with Temple of Doom. “I was always being asked to play the Red Indian chief,” he writes. The unfortunate elision of Indian and Native American in Mola Ram’s character is best seen in his cattle skull head-gear.
Puri’s brush with the best of Hollywood resulted in an uptick in his career back home. Mola Ram cast a shadow on many of Puri’s subsequent roles¸including Mogambo in Mr India. Spielberg made two more Indiana Jones films, The Last Crusade (1989) and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), which featured stereotyped Nazi and Russian agents, respectively. Nobody does franchises, or ethnic stereotyping, like Hollywood.