American writer Louis Bromfield set his 1938 novel The Rains Came in the fictitious princely state of Ranchipur, somewhere in western India, famous for its “Kathiawar horses” and whose people speak Hindustani and Gujarati. Ranchipur, as Bromfield intended, was a microcosm for India of the 1930s, where men and a few women, of different castes and races, worked in some amity to make a modern state.

As with Albert Camus’s The Plague written a decade later, The Rains Came tests the impact of calamity on human behaviour, on how the sense of imminent doom can drive choice and make one question the meaning of life and existence. In Bromfield’s novel, the plague is just one of many calamities that Ranchipur experiences one terrible rainy night.

The two films – The Rains Came (1939) and The Rains of Ranchipur (1955) – based on Bromfield’s novel featured these disasters in elaborate detail. In fact, the reenactment on celluloid of these calamities were, as evident in impressive special effects and set creations, the chief selling point of both films, as was the theme of forbidden love between its two principal characters.

The Rains Came (1939).

Bromfield’s novel, however, had other intentions. A book that took him four years to write, it came from his experiences from a visit to India in the early 1930s, where he spent time largely in the princely state of Cooch Behar in north Bengal. He was already a best-selling novelist by this time and had won the Pulitzer for his 1927 novel, Early Autumn.

For Bromfield, Ranchipur was a kind of laboratory where a new resurgent India, peopled by a diverse cast of characters troubled and tormented by their very human dilemmas, was taking shape. Over nearly 600 pages, Bromfield lingers on every character, major and minor, detailing their confusions – about being out of place, out of love, and for some, experiencing total disillusionment. Things change for Ranchipur and its people when a series of catastrophes descend. It begins with a downpour followed by an earthquake. A dam, the state’s chief source of pride, breaks and the subsequent floods sweep away many. That isn’t all, for what follows next is an outbreak of the plague and cholera.

The Rains Came (1939). Courtesy 20th Century Fox.

These catastrophes break halfway through the novel, and in the film versions as well. To recreate these calamities on the screen made Clarence Brown’s The Rains Came, one of the most expensive movies ever made in 1939, and also radically innovative. The first film version reportedly cost $2,500,000, of which $500,000 was expended on creating special sets and effects for the calamities. It won the Oscar for special effects that year, the first time such an award was instituted.

That spectacle of calamitous destruction – best exemplified in the trembling and shattering of a “$4000 chandelier” that included “50,000 separate pieces of glass” – so impressed audiences that 20th Century Fox made another remake in 1955, using the then popular widescreen CinemaScope technology. Directed by Jean Negulesco, The Rains of Ranchipur was nominated for special effects once again – its only nomination – but did not win. Parts of the later film were also shot in Pakistan, near Lahore. The Indian government denied filming permission.

The Rains Of Ranchipur (1955).

The catastrophes so devastating of human life were for Bromfield, a way to offer detailed, thoughtful and very engaging expositions on existence and choice, on the part of every character. Bromfield intended his novel as a social commentary, an attempt to understand India. It was his deliberate attempt, as he said later, to present a counterview to Katherine Mayo’s harshly critical and condescending 1927 work, Mother India.

The novel bubbles over with other secret loves and intrigues: the nurse Miss MacDaid’s secret love for the doctor Major Rama Safti; the love, the Russian Maria Lishinskaia, the maharani’s companion, has for the Swiss Harry Bauer, the maharaja’s valet. There’s politics too, that in Ranchipur, ensures a fine balance between Rashid Ali Khan, the police chief, Mr Banerjee, the maharaja’s personal secretary, and Jobnekar, the representative of the “Depressed Classes”.

The visit of the aristocratic Eskeths almost 200 pages into the book, in search of prized horses will do little to dent the state’s even political situation but Tom Ransome, the English painter (he’s an engineer in the later film) senses danger when he realizes Edwina Esketh, an old love, has her eye on Major Rama Safti. What is unusual in the book and the 1939 film is that it is left to the disillusioned, cynical Tom to remind Safti of his duty, to exhort him to be strong to choose the former over love. In The Rains of Ranchipur, the dowager maharani takes on this role.

In the film versions, the calamities – as one newspaper put it, every natural disaster was present in the film bar a snowstorm – test the resolve and love of the two main characters, leaving largely in the shadows everything else, even the other minor love affair between Tom Ransome and the young Fern Simon, who longs for excitement in the otherwise staid Ranchipur.

The Rains Came (1939). Courtesy 20th Century Fox.

The other characters in the 1939 version who do remain are reduced to caricatures. The Indian characters are played by Western actors: the Austrian emigre Joseph Schildkraut plays Mr Banerjee, suave in elegant company but reduced to wailing in supplication as the deluge breaks. William Edmunds is Mr Das, the director of the music school, who speaks in a high falsetto, while H B Warner and William Boyle played the maharaja and Rashid Ali Khan respectively.

Both movie versions also upend the narrative flow. Instead these begin with the Eskeths visit and Lady Edwina’s falling in love with Major Safti, the doctor, setting off a scandal that will soon be dwarfed by the successive catastrophes that befall Ranchipur. The movie versions – the second more than the first – also focus on this love story, a forbidden daring love that crosses the racial divide and is put to the most difficult test following the disasters. Indeed, 20th Century Fox played up the racial angle in its publicity stills: “Shattering All Barriers of Race and Time!” appeared as a recurring thread in the trailer, quite ironical since miscegenation laws were still in place across several American states and would only be overturned in the landmark Loving vs Loving case in 1967.

To make the love angle a radical one, movie makers also took liberties with Safti’s background. Major Rama Safti in Bromfield’s book is a “handsome Pune brahmin”, in whose future the Ranchipur royals remain deeply invested. He is willing for them to find him a suitable bride, equable in every way. In the first film, he remains a protege of the Ranchipur royals, and is their adopted son and successor. He remains so in The Rains of Ranchipur except that this time he’s an “untouchable” as he describes himself to Edwina Esketh. He’s other things too, and had served prison time for his part in the freedom struggle.

It was perhaps only the second time that a South Asian (‘Hindus’ being the early American misnomer for them) played the lead role in a Hollywood film. In the 1919 noir film, The Man Beneath, the Japanese American actor Sessue Hayakawa played a doctor who goes to India to work in a plague-stricken area. Since then, apart from Sabu Dastagir who starred in the quintessential Oriental-themed movies, Asian actors were always allotted the exotic extra role, as stewards, footmen and natives, as and when required.

Both Tyrone Power and Richard Burton, who play Safti in the two versions, appear in brownface, complete with turban and for Power, a thin moustache. 20th Century Fox did make attempts towards authenticity by engaging several technical advisors. The Rains Came had six of them, including Lal Chand Mehra, who also appeared as Jama Singh, the Rajput singer. The Rains of Ranchipur had three turban-wrappers, including Husain Nasri.

The film versions, for all their grandness of scale and ambition, seem much like the doomed love story between Safti and Edwina. It isn’t merely the call of duty, or the force of one too many disasters that hold up love, but the fact of multiple differences between them, differences that even celluloid fluff found hard to overcome. Bromfield, on the other hand, spread his canvas wide, and made this novel via its many stories an earnest study in sympathetic understanding.

The Rains Came (1939). Courtesy 20th Century Fox.