ACHIEVING CULT STATUS: MASSEY SAHIBby O.P. Srivastava January 10 2024, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 5 mins, 58 secs
O.P. Srivastav brings Raghubir Yadav and Arundhati Roy's celebrated debut Massey Sahib, a 1985 Hindi drama, adaptation of Joyce Cary’s 1939 novel Mister Johnson, this time.
In 1980, Pradip Krishen won the first prize in a script-writing competition organized by the NFDC. He then converted the script into a film, with support from the NFDC. The budget for the film approved by NFDC was Rs 9.2 lakh, a small one for a period film like Massey Sahib. Nevertheless, Krishen made the film. For it, the Indian Director’s Association honoured him with the Best Director’s Award.
Massey Sahib is a 1985 Hindi drama film starring Raghubir Yadav. It was Krishen’s first film, an adaption of Joyce Cary’s 1939 novel Mister Johnson, set in an African town during the British colonial rule. Massey Sahib is based in a rural Indian setting. However, like Mister Johnson, it also depicts the period of British colonial rule.
The film follows a young Indian man, a government clerk who has recently converted to Christianity and carries the high expectations of his colonial employers. Yadav’s performance as this young man garnered him two international awards (including the critics’ award at the Venice Film Festival). The film also stars Virendra Saxena, Arundhati Roy – yet to write her first novel The God of Small Things, dedicated to Krishen, and win the Man Booker Prize – and Barry John, a British-born Indian theatre director, teacher and actor (Shatranj Ke Khiladi, Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi, Bin Laden). RK Bose did the cinematography and Vanraj Bhatia provided the music for this film. It is 124 minutes long.
Originally, Siddhartha Basu was supposed to play the lead role and a sample scene was shot with him. Then Basu went abroad and Krishen chose Yadav, an unknown young theatre actor at the time. The NFDC urged Krishen to get ‘known names’ for the cast, but Krishen stuck to his guns, hiring theatre actors from Delhi as well as the debutante Roy. The choice of Yadav, who hails from Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh, turned out to be doubly beneficial. Not only did his performance win him accolades, but his knowledge of Hindi and the local dialect also came in handy in developing the film’s dialogues – Yadav wrote his own dialogues.
The film is set in the pre-independent era of 1929, in a remote town in Central India. Francis Massey (Raghubir Yadav) is a clerk in the district collector’s office. He aspires to be like his colonial rulers and thinks of himself as different from his Indian compatriots. He falls in love with a tribal girl, Saila (Arundhati Roy), and browbeats her family into agreeing to their marriage. They have a church wedding (where ‘Here Comes the Bride’ is played at his insistence and Arundhati speaks the only dialogue in the entire film, ‘I do’), with Saila’s brother Pasa (Virendra Saxena) as the bemused witness.
In his enthusiasm to help his rulers, particularly his immediate boss District Collector Charles Adam (Barry John), Massey resorts to ‘adjusting’ the accounting to arrange money for his boss’s pet project of road construction. Using various means, including threats to the villagers, Massey manages to get the road construction completed. However, to his surprise, the same boss who had on previous occasions condoned his transgressions accuses him of corruption on discovering the accounting fraud. His in-laws also forcefully take his wife back, so he turns to his old friend Banaji (Madan Lal) to get her back. Banaji refuses to help him as Massey has already lost his job in the collectorate. In an act of frustration and rage, Massey kills Banaji and is arrested for the murder. His boss advises that he plead guilty to the accidental homicide. Massey refuses, believing that his boss will find a way to help him. Unfortunately, this refusal leads to a tragic ending.
The film was shot on location in and around Pachmarhi in Madhya Pradesh during the winter of 1982–1983. Yadav admits that he was very nervous about facing the camera for the first time but was reassured by John, who he had worked with on stage. ‘Till we reached Pachmarhi for the shoot, I was not clear how I would play this character. One week before the shooting I saw an old man on the road in an outfit similar to what Massey was expected to wear. He seemed to belong to that era. I followed his mannerisms’, he recalled.
As Yadav was an unknown face at that time, the crew would introduce the good-looking clap boy as the film’s protagonist to the villagers who came to see the shoot. However, one day, somebody pointed Yadav out as the actual protagonist, and he still remembers what the villagers said. ‘Are ye hero hai? Aise to humare gaon main chavvani main milte hain (Really, he is the hero? There are a dime a dozen like him in our village)’, he says, laughing.
Although the film had no commercial success, it did receive widespread critical acclaim, eventually achieving cult status. Yadav’s characterization of a vacillating yet aspirational native Indian is a performance of rare calibre. He brings alive the clerk, who tries to emulate the mannerisms of his ‘gora sahibs’ to make himself acceptable in their society and vividly simulates his intense desire to go to any extent to please them and gain their admiration. His body language, a fake layer of cockiness, ambiguous mannerisms, and his dialogue delivery with a smirk make him resemble a real Massey Sahib, who could have lived in Central India in 1929. Viewers may find the film a little slow-paced, but think of pre-independent India of the 1930’s: a small town in Madhya Pradesh, without roads and surrounded by forests full of wild animals, life must have moved at a much slower pace than we are used to. The film smoothly transports you to that era.
It is said that the chairman of Indian Panorama 1986, MF Hussain, fell in love with this film and painted Roy working in the field. The painting was used by the director of Film Festivals Urmila Gupta as the cover page of the booklet for Indian Panorama 1986.
Krishen (born in 1949) has directed three films: Massey Sahib (1985), In Which Annie Gives It Those Ones (1989), a TV film starring Roshan Seth and Arundhati Roy, and Electric Moon (starring Roshan Seth, Naseeruddin Shah, Leela Naidu, Gerson da Cunha and Raghubir Yadav). His films have won significant Indian and international awards. In Which Annie Gives It Those Ones won the National Award for Best Feature Film in English and Best Screenplay in 1989, and acquired cult status in the years after it was made. Electric Moon won the National Award for Best Feature Film in English in 1992. Krishen was married to Roy. He eventually gave up filmmaking. He has worked as a naturalist and environmentalist based in Delhi since 1995. In more recent times, he advised the design committee of the Central Vista development project on tree planting.