With the Oscars barely a month away, I began watching the films nominated in the Best Picture category last week, and unfortunately, the one I began with is Darkest Hour. It has been nominated in six categories, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Gary Oldman who plays Britain’s wartime prime minister Winston Churchill. At the BAFTAs, scheduled later this month, the film is nominated in nine categories, including Best Picture, Best Actor in a Leading Role, and Best Actress in a Leading Role (Kristin Scott Thomas), and is quite likely to sweep it. Oldman’s performance has already been felicitated with a Golden Globe.
The reviews, too, have been superlative about Oldman’s craft and the film. The Atlantic gushed: “John Wright (the director)... is happy to celebrate the theatricality of the man, the thundering bulldog who became emblematic of the British blitz spirit, and an international symbol of resistance to Nazi rule.” The reviewer, David Sims, adds, “It’s a performance practically designed... to win an Academy Award (and I’m sure it will).” Anthony Lane in The New Yorker questions the necessity for another Churchill film, but that’s it. Writing for The New York Times, A O Scott questions whether the self-congratulatory spirit of Britain in the film is worth applauding in these Brexit times, but adds a laudatory appraisal of the former British PM: “Churchill himself is among the most revered and studied figures of 20th-century history: a synonym for leadership; a great man in an age of monsters”
For me, however, Churchill, who served as a second lieutenant of the Fourth Hussars in 1896 in India and described the jewel in the crown as a “Godless land of snobs and bores”, has no special appeal. In 1943, he starved three million people in my native Bengal. But, the Churchill industry has managed to create a political behemoth and protector of democracy, and conceal his war crimes. Take for instance another piece by Lane (“Why Actors Love to Play Churchill”) in The New Yorker, where he gives a list of famous actors to play the role: Albert Finney, Richard Burton, Michael Gambon, Robert Hardy, Brendan Gleeson, Brian Cox, John Lithgow, Timothy Spall and Viktor Stanitsyn (four times). Lane describes the enterprise as the “noble sport of Churchill-playing”.
There is nothing noble about it though. In Darkest Hour, the first time we see Churchill, he is having breakfast: eggs, bacon, champagne, scotch — all on a silver tray, with shining cutlery. Repeated references are made throughout the film of his chronic drinking and there are more scenes where he polishes off large meals. The New York Times describes this as a portrayal of a man with a large appetite, the man hungry enough to get the job done. For him, this war is a sort of sport indeed, and even the Germans knocking on the door can hardly dent his legendary wit. Yet those bankrolling Churchill’s war against the Nazis and Fascists were starving Indians.
The facts of the famine in 1943 are not unknown; Satyajit Ray made a film (Ashani Sanket) on it in 1973. However, in recent times, the matter was hotly debated following the publication of Madhusree Mukherjee’s Churchill’s Secret War (2010). Historian Mukherjee places the engineered calamity within the context of British imperialism and the attitudes of Churchill and his Cabinet with regards to Mahatma Gandhi’s Quit India movement. The marvellous book establishes beyond doubt how Churchill and his associates could have easily prevented the famine, but refused to do so, despite repeated appeals of the Indian government and even the US president.
So while in Calcutta (now Kolkata), British officials — and it must be said, rich urban Indians — were carrying on with their lives in their fancy clubs, rural Bengal was left to the wolves. Australian and Canadian ships offering to bring food were redirected to Britain, which already had a surfeit, or were kept in reserve to be taken to Italy when it would fall to the Allies. Subhas Chandra Bose, then fighting along with the Axis powers, offered to send food from Burma (Myanmar), but British censor did not even allow his message to be conveyed. Hundreds of thousands perished in villages; those who managed to reach Calcutta, died begging for food in front of well-to-do homes or lavish restaurants.
Churchill’s response? “Is Gandhi dead yet?” Advised by Frederick Alexander Lindemann, a firm believer in the Malthusian theory of population, Churchill was quoted as saying that the famine served Indians right for “breeding like rabbits”. A film like Darkest Hour — like the whitewashed Dunkirk earlier last year — only extends the colonial project, which did not give a penny for the lives of the people in the colonies. Of course, it is no surprise that in the times of Brexit, both films revolve around the historical event of the evacuation of British soldiers from the French coastal town on the English Channel. It’s a metaphorical, cinematic Brexit, without the inconvenient questions hanging over it like the famous London rain.
If this was not bad enough, Churchill — whom most Indians recall as the denier of their Independence — is shown to be a great democrat. In a completely fictional scene towards the end of the movie, Oldman’s Churchill takes a ride in the London underground and consults fellow passengers about what Britain should do in the war. The Atlantic claims the “glorious silliness” of the scene is irresistible; the NYT describes it as “populist and ridiculous” — but that’s it. The truth is Churchill was a racist and an anti-semite; his endeavours against Hitler were only to protect British imperial interests. Showing him high-fiving with a black man is beyond ridiculous; it is obscene, a denial of history.
The writer would like to thank Bedatri D Choudhury for conversations on this film and for allowing him to borrow from her excellent essay on it