Christopher Lee lived a remarkable life. Mainly known for his feats as a screen actor, Lee performed in over 100 films spanning half of the 20th century. Of all the films of his career, Lee considered this one his crowning achievement – and it just happened to be banned in cinemas worldwide.
In 1997, Lee played Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the first prime minister of Pakistan who, with Mahatma Gandhi, helped India gain independence and championed the formation of a separate Muslim nation in 1947. Hated by radical Hindus for his partition of India and radical Muslims for his reformist stances, Mohammad Ali Jinnah became a legendary figure of the 20th century for his refusal to compromise with malevolent forces.
The 1998 biopic Jinnah, directed by Jamil Dehlavi, follows his career from an affluent lawyer to the first prime minister of Pakistan. In the same tradition of It’s A Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol, Jinnah is escorted through key moments of his life that forged his character and affected those around him.
Dehlavi takes a unique approach with two settings. In the present, the deceased Jinnah travels through a quasi-Purgatory in the form of a library. His guide (Shashi Kapoor) makes him witness joyful and bitter moments throughout his career. Jinnah has the rare opportunity to interact with his past self, but only to atone for a misdeed or say something his younger self needs to hear.
The film is filled with speeches and political meetings, but this past-present approach keeps it from becoming monotonous. Every scene in Purgatory creates an appropriate beat for us to prepare for the next scene, they also help us understand the subject better. One does not need to know the history of India or Pakistan beforehand, and one can easily watch and learn a ton from viewing this film.
Jinnah captures the man’s struggles as he battles political intrigue, religious fanaticism, and gender repression all at once. Jinnah becomes an everyman figure as he navigates through so much turmoil. He is the father of a nation that supports women and religious minorities, but his refusal to allow his Muslim daughter to marry a Hindu man shows he’s still a human capable of making poor decisions.
On that note, Christopher Lee nails it as Mohammad Ali Jinnah. Many in Pakistan reportedly took issue with the choice of Lee as the nation’s founder, and this was no doubt a considerable risk for him. As with his character’s role as the founder of a nation, Lee poured his heart into this project, giving us moments of passion laced with softer moments of introspection and joy.
The remaining cast is equally fantastic, with Richard Lintern delivering a humbling performance as a younger Jinnah. From Mahatma Gandhi to Jawaharlal Nehru, we’re introduced to several influential people that contributed much to history. Time and again, Jinnah has to determine who is a friend or foe among these people. We get a sense of the cutthroat nature of political life and how it sometimes tears friends and families apart.
Unfortunately, Jinnah remains an obscure film for a few reasons.
The film’s topic proved quite controversial in India, where it was banned as “pro-Indian” propaganda. The Pakistani government also withdrew funding for the film after learning Christopher Lee had been cast as Jinnah. Moreover, both former Bharatiya Janata Party leader Madhu Deolekar and Christopher Lee contended that the film’s protagonist – a reform-minded Muslim – was the main reason for its banning.
Nevertheless, Lee personally fought for the film’s creation and wrote to the press and government officials defending the endeavor. Despite being “undermanned, understaffed, underbudgeted,” as Lee vigorously stated in a 1997 interview, the creators and Lee pressed on with the project. Dehlavi’s film did not enjoy significant distribution, but it received significant praise in Pakistan.
Jinnah remains largely overlooked today, but its viewers will easily understand why Christopher Lee fought for its existence, and why he considered it his best performance. Two decades later, Jinnah remains a powerful film, and viewers will be humbled by two remarkable men – one who founded a nation and another who brought his story to life.
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