Appealing to inviolable Roman law, Jewish jeweller Ezra (Sohrab Modi) seeks justice for his daughter Hannah (Meena Kumari) from the Emperor (Murad), accusing the young prince Marcus (Dilip Kumar) of infidelity, for which the punishment is death. “Why are there two laws in Rome?” he demands, in open court where Marcus is to be married to Princess Octavia (Nigar Sultana). “One for you and one for us.” In a melodramatic speech somewhat reminiscent of Shylock, the Jewish moneylender in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, Erza cries out: “Your sorrows are painful, and our sorrows are tall tales? Your blood is blood, and our blood is water?”
Yahudi, adapted from Agha Hashar Kashmiri’s Urdu play Yahudi ki Ladki, is unlike any other Bimal Roy film. Set in ancient Rome, it abandons social realism and historical accuracy for histrionics and melodrama, in the style of Cecil B DeMille. It was panned by critics for inaccuracies but was a box office success, with its music (Shankar Jaikishan) becoming instantly popular. One of the songs, Yeh mera deewanapan, has been remixed and covered several times since then.
To someone watching the film now, it might seem too alien, even funny. But in 1958, when it was released, the horrors of holocaust would have been fresh in everyone’s mind, as would have been the sectarian genocides of Partition. The themes of love — especially between people from two different religions — as well as vengeance and forgiveness is likely to appeal to us even now, and perhaps even more poignantly so. Incidentally, Yahudi ki Ladki was adapted for the big screen in 1933 as well, the same year Adolf Hitler became the chancellor of Germany and passed the Enabling Act, effectively abolishing the Weimar Republic and establishing the Nazi dictatorship.
Earlier this month, the central government pushed through the contentious Citizenship (Amendment) Act, or CAA, through Parliament, prompting widespread protests across the country. The Act aims to fast-track the process of granting citizenship to people belonging to non-Muslim minority communities in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh who have illegally come to India before December 31, 2014. Its detractors, however, claim that combined with the National Register of Citizens, this will target Muslims in India. There is, of course, widespread confusion over whether the Centre will push through the NRC, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Sunday, 22 December, claiming his government had never said it would, contradicting his home minister and closest ally Amit Shah.
The protests against the CAA has turned violent in many places (some claim the violence is concentrated in Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-ruled states), with the police action to contain it often excessive. For instance, at Jamia Millia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University, where the police reportedly entered the campuses without permission and brutally attacked students, many of whom were not even part of the protests. In Uttar Pradesh, the authorities have shut down the internet at several places, and reports have emerged of violence against Muslims in various towns such as Kanpur, Bijnor and Muzaffarnagar, the site of communal riots in late 2013. According to one report in Huffpost, the police did not even spare children who had been detained during the protests.
Early in Yahudi, Ezra’s son, Elijah (Romi) is arrested after a stone he dislodges from the balcony of his home hits the Roman Governor Brutus (Nazir Hussain), who is passing below. (The scene is similar to one in Ben-Hur, 1959.) Despite Ezra’s pleadings, Brutus refuses to forgive Elijah, who is thrown to hungry lions. Ezra’s slave Emmanuel (Ramayan Tiwari) kidnaps Brutus’s daughter Lydia (Baby Naaz) and brings her to Ezra. Emmanuel wants Ezra to avenge Elijah’s death by killing Lydia. But Ezra refuses to punish the child for the sins of her father. “What wrong has she done?” he says. Ezra adopts her and brings her up as his own daughter, naming her Hannah. His act of mercy, early in the film, remind one of Portia’s Quality of Mercy speech from The Merchant of Venice:
On December 19, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath threatened “revenge” to those involved in violence over the amended citizenship law. Two days before that PM Modi had said those involved in arson could be identified by their clothes — in other words, Muslims. This sort of dog-whistle politics is not alien to Modi or Adityanath at all. In 2017, while campaigning in Uttar Pradesh, Modi had said: “If land is given for a cemetery in a village, it should be given for a cremation ground also. If electricity is supplied during Ramzan, it should be supplied during Diwali also. There should not be any discrimination on the basis of religion or caste.” The marginal returns on such divisive speeches, however, seem to be diminishing. In the 2017 Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections, the BJP had swept to power, winning 325 of 403 seats. In Jharkhand this month, despite Modi, Shah and Adityanath campaigning, the party failed to hold on to power in the state.
In the climax of Yahudi, the lovers try to save each other from the unrelenting law. Hannah withdraws her accusations, but this means she and Ezra are now up for capital punishment. In an Oedipal sequence, Marcus blinds himself, overcome with guilt at having deceived Hannah. The only one who sticks to the word of the law is Brutus. He is only too happy to throw Ezra and Hannah into hot oil. He is unaware that Hannah is his daughter Lydia. When he learn of this, he cancels her execution and tries to reconcile with her.
But, she rejects him, and the lovers walk away into the ruins of the Roman capital. Perhaps much like large swathes of the country have rejected the CAA of the government. The CAA is law now, but in the face of such widespread protests and criticism — within the country and abroad — the government might find it prudent to reconsider it, amend it. An overwhelming majority in Parliament is helpful in getting Bills passes, but it does not give a government monopoly over justice or law or wisdom.