It was a rainy London afternoon in 1985 when I first saw Black Narcissus, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1947 masterpiece – this beautiful, troubling movie that I love, admire and doubt.
My impressions of the film have evolved since that first viewing as a seven-year-old girl in her great-aunt’s East Finchley lounge. I have learned more – about the Archers (as Powell and Pressburger branded themselves and their team of collaborators), about colonialism and about movies. Black Narcissus territory is in my storyteller’s DNA: India as an absent presence and women living without men are where I began. But I am pulled between my love and admiration for the film and discomfort with its version of India and Indians.
Set in the remote, fictional – probably Assamese – hill station of Mopu, Black Narcissus tells the story (adapted from Rumer Godden’s novel of the same title) of a sisterhood of Anglo-Catholic nuns who are given the dubious task of setting up a school and infirmary in a ‘palace’ that was once the local prince’s harem.
The unfolding drama takes as its principal subjects female sexuality and desire: their force, their containment and their brutality as well as the price they incur. It is a theme the Archers come back to in film after film, from I Know Where I’m Going (1945) and The Red Shoes (1948) to Gone to Earth (1950).
For a movie about nuns, Black Narcissus is unapologetically erotic (and was thus hacked to pieces by American censors). In his memoir A Life in Movies, Powell acknowledged this with pride, calling it “the most erotic film [he] ever made. It is all done by suggestion but eroticism is in every frame and image from beginning to end.”
In one flashback, Sister Clodagh and her meaningfully named beau Con (Con by name, con by nature) stand knee deep in a lake, fishing – water and fishing being time-honoured symbols/euphemisms for sexuality and sex. Godden’s original has the same conversation unfold during a walk, but how much more arresting is the Archers’ vision: the short-lived but memorable image of Deborah Kerr in waders, her red tresses revealed (until now we have largely seen her in her oatmeal wimple). Later when Clodagh tells Mr Dean (the movie’s delicious and strong-thighed love interest) that she had “shown” that she loved Con, we suspect all too well what she means. It is this frank and knowing gaze at individual human lives that gives the Archers’ films some of their power for me.
A heightened elsewhere
I grew up in London, almost-but-not-quite British. Holidays happened in Pakistan, mainly in Lahore. It is a city in the plains of the Punjab, about as far within South Asia from the fictional Mopu of Black Narcissus as you can get – but a place equally haunted by ghosts of the Raj and of women destroyed by desire (Anarkali, the legendary 16th-century paramour of Mughal Prince Salim, being the most famous example).
Knowing the subcontinent, I knew before the end credits rolled that caretaker Ayah (May Hallatt) and local girl Kanchi (Jean Simmons) were not desi, but had been ‘blacked up’ for the film. I sensed that the film’s setting was not the subcontinent I knew, but a heightened elsewhere. Only in my twenties did I read about how production designer Alfred Junge and cinematographer Jack Cardiff worked with their teams to recreate the Himalayas in Buckinghamshire – at Pinewood Studios. None of this mattered. I was hooked. I returned to a battered VHS tape many times and in different places, including Lahore – during winter mists and summer downpours.
Black Narcissus has been referred to as a “colonizer’s fever dream”, but I don’t think that is the whole truth. I didn’t mind that the film was not shot on location. I did not switch the television off in response to Esmond Knight hamming it up in a churidar pyjama as the general or Ayah’s caricature of a desi working-class accent.
Powell was adamant that Ayah’s casting worked and was excited about working with Sabu – his Indian friend – again. But May Hallatt’s voice as Ayah disappoints me, and Sabu’s voice (while he had the advantage of at least being Indian) is also unconvincing as a Cambridge-bound princeling. Sure, casting white people in non-white roles was something we accepted, even as recently as the 1980s, in a way that is difficult to believe now. But even in 1947, during a tussle over Jean Simmons’ availability, Larry Olivier (who was shooting Hamlet with Simmons as Ophelia) wrote to Powell pointedly, “…how you could imagine that a typical English teenager straight from the vicarage, can play a piece of Indian tail [sic] beats me.”
Somehow the Archers pulled it off, largely thanks to their incredible command of choreography, pattern and costume. The film draws on the long tradition of Company Painting portraiture and Anglo/Indian encounter to create a believable world visually. The extras, and the way they are shot (which harks back to the documentary-style of shooting in 1937’s The Edge of the World and 1945’s I Know Where I’m Going), also help give the film a feeling of authenticity. At times the film seems aware of its stereotypes, and the Indian characters are there to deepen the conflict between Sister Clodagh and Sister Ruth.
There is more to my love of this film than de-colonial denial. I can acknowledge its orientalist shortcomings at the same time as I see all the things I love about it. I love that it is a movie full of female characters. All the principal players are women. There are male characters who frame this female world, but there is little doubt that Deborah Kerr’s Sister Clodagh is the film’s moral anchor, and Kathleen Byron’s almost radioactive Sister Ruth is her antagonist.
Both stars had been Powell’s lovers, and one can only imagine that the off-screen relationships fed the film. Kerr was anxious that Byron would “steal the picture”, but they are well matched. Both on and off screen, men come and go and make things happen, whether in the form of Mr Dean, the general or the young general. The rivalries and alliances between the women, their begrudging dependence on the men, are all so believable, even if they present some less flattering and uncomfortable aspects of female companionship. It is the film’s capacity to make us uncomfortable that is one of its strengths.
Images of brown femininity
My imaginarium of screen women was fed by Black Narcissus. At the time I first watched it, my movie diet consisted of mid-century Hindi musical dramas by Guru Dutt, Raj Kapoor and Mehboob Khan. How could I not make a connection between Jean Simmons as Kanchi and Waheeda Rehman in Guru Dutt’s 1957 Pyaasa? The facial resemblance is striking, but so is the analogue between their characters, who engender different aspects of problematic female sexuality. Waheeda Rehman plays a reformed prostitute/nautch girl in Dutt’s film.
Kanchi also has echoes of Nimmi in Mehboob Khan’s 1952 Aan or Nargis at Raj Kapoor’s feet in Khan’s 1949 Andaz. These were the images of brown femininity circling around my seven-year-old head. The Archers did a good job visually, and looking again, even Hindi films such as Khan’s Aan (1952) orientalise and project sexual fantasies onto brown women in general and ‘tribal’ women in particular. Even more recently, the tribal costumes and choreography in the ‘Choli Ke Peeche Kya Hai’ number in Khal Nayak (1993) present such women as untamed tricksters to be desired, feared and reckoned with. This is not miles from how Kanchi is depicted.
The real difference between how the Archers imagine brown women in Black Narcissus and the heroines of contemporaneous Hindi films like Andaz, Raj Kapoor’s Awaara (1951) and Pyaasa is not visual, but aural. It’s the voices and voicelessness of the Indian women in Black Narcissus that are striking. Perhaps it’s a mercy that Jean Simmons’ Kanchi says very little; I’ve mentioned my misgivings about Ayah’s voice. Conversely, the female characters in the Hindi films I was watching had voices. Characters like Rita (Nargis) in Awaara used their voices to speak out for what they believed in, in dialogue and in song. Even when they are punished for being outspoken and their stories end tragically, Nargis and Waheeda Rehman represent articulate protagonists.
As a child, and long before reading Edward Said (who laid out meticulously in Orientalism (1978) and Culture and Imperialism (1993), how the books, operas and movies produced under imperial capitalism reinforce ideas and stories that make colonial exploitation possible), I knew I didn’t need to take Kanchi’s orientalised femininity for real; it was a kind of simulacra, like the jumbled calligraphy tiles that otherwise look so convincing in the Arab Hall at Leighton House in Kensington.
Knowing how white feminism struggles to encompass the interests of non-white women, how can we not pause to think about the nexus between Kanchi, Sister Clodagh and Sister Ruth? Kanchi as a cypher in the struggle between the two nuns and Mr Dean takes on new meanings in this context. The film encourages us to make these connections.
In the exchange between Clodagh and Dean when Kanchi first arrives at the palace, Dean explains that Kanchi needs to be kept out of trouble as she is of marriageable age but is unmanageable. He teases Sister Clodagh to save the girl’s soul. Kanchi has a physical presence that bursts forth in contrast to the sisters shrouded in their off-white robes. Both she and Dean wear naturally occurring blue and brown. Her costume also contains red. His brown limbs and hairy chest match her skin tone and his flashing signet ring echoes the mirror work on her choli/top.
Thanks to these visual signs, we connect them subliminally and we add to this our memory of his “reputation”, mentioned early in the film. When the camera tracks towards Dean as both he and the musical score smirk, he asks Sister Clodagh: “You’re sure there’s no question you’re dying to ask me?” We wonder what might have gone on between him and young Kanchi.
Sister Briony’s (Judith Furse) reaction helps us read the awkwardness of the moment. But characteristically, Sister Clodagh doesn’t give in to her curiosity (or ours), shutting him (and us) down with a single word: “None”. So Kanchi/Jean Simmons, the ersatz native woman, enters the convent as a problem. She is the ‘native woman’ par excellence: passed from man to man yet adept at using her sexual capital with calculation. She represents abandon to the very desires that both Sister Clodagh and Sister Ruth will have to contend with, and the red in her clothes comes back memorably as the lipstick that gets weaponised in the film’s denouement.
A battle for the soul
While I can’t help but wonder what Black Narcissus would have been like with Prithviraj Kapoor as the old general and Nimmi as Kanchi (we had to wait for Merchant Ivory to make Bombay Talkie and Heat and Dust for that kind of ‘crossover’ casting), I go back to this film because of another kind of truth pulsing through it.
Some critics talk about the Archers (and Michael Powell in particular) as tricksters. The brilliant Geoffrey O’Brien talks about Powell’s “absolute fakery” and the Archers are ranked within a tradition of cinematic illusionists. But I go to their work not for tricks but for truth. I go to their movies for a dose of rare frankness and insight in the face of complex and uncomfortable human behaviour. This truthfulness may sometimes be achieved with the help of trickery, but it is never phoney.
Black Narcissus is a film about interior and spiritual lives, it is not a study in cultural difference, so who cares if it gets details like Ayah’s accent wrong? In this heightened world – where the battle is a battle for the soul – cultural difference is just one of many ways of talking about desire, ambition and mastery.
The Archers knew this, and Powell’s unconventional choice of shooting entirely at a studio was a master stroke. He understood that this most spectacular of stories is not about exteriors, it is about interiors, and perhaps more significantly it is about interiority. It is about the existence of the soul. And for all its surface glory – for it never ceases to be a beautiful movie – its capacity to look beneath the surface is why I love Black Narcissus so much. It is a movie where surface always has significance. Where the curls of Sister Ruth’s head when her back is turned say as much about her spiritual and mental state as Renaissance depictions of Judas Escariot say of his.
Mr Dean: Don’t you like children?
Deborah Kerr looks at him and changes the subject.
So much is hidden in one sharp question. The undercurrent of everything Clodagh has foresworn and which Dean might represent to her.
Sister Clodagh and Sister Ruth are tied together in their precipitous struggle with their desires and romantic passions. What’s happening inside for Sister Clodagh is happening on the surface for Sister Ruth, and Sister Ruth is a perverse inversion of Sister Clodagh. The same forces whirl around both redheads. This makes the film deeply unsettling to watch and it renders both their struggles more easy to grasp.
The graphic, dramatic and psychic tie between the two nuns make their famous showdown all the more powerful. And Mr Dean, who seems to precipitate the denouement, is like a tuning fork by which each woman’s pitch is taken. But perhaps most heartwrenchingly for me, Black Narcissus is a poignant and impossible love story between Mr Dean and Sister Clodagh. In this moral tale, Clodagh loses the man and her worldly status, but she keeps her soul. By the end she has nevertheless been brought down to earth: in the final scene she wears a brown rain cape over her white robes, a sign of how she has been humbled and changed.
Questions of morality
Even after all the work done by Martin Scorsese or the BFI to revive the reputation of their films, I often find myself defending Powell and Pressburger’s work against people who find them uncomfortable, conservative, un-serious or ‘camp’. There is a dreary conflation in people’s minds that ‘grittiness’ and truth travel hand in hand. Such beautiful movies must be suspect.
There is also a discomfort around the real hybridity of genre, perspective and culture that the Archers’ movies embody. They aren’t easy to categorise, and it is particularly easy to patronise a film that is about women and what they want, and one that does it all in Technicolor.
But I would argue for Black Narcissus as a serious and moral movie, seeing it alongside Emeric Pressburger’s astonishing and underestimated 1960 novel The Glass Pearls, which tells the story of Reitmuller aka Karl Braun, a Nazi doctor and war criminal who hides in 1960s London hoping for a way out. Given that Pressburger’s whole family perished in concentration camps, it shows admirable moral courage as a writer to put himself inside a Nazi doctor’s mind. Critics at the time found the whole enterprise unsettling.
Both Black Narcissus and The Glass Pearls use narrative point of view to play with questions of moral judgement. I see both as cautionary tales about the dangers of vanity, professional and personal. Both give us insights into different kinds of murderous depravity.
While Rumer Godden’s original novel does give us access to Sister Ruth’s inner dialogues, Powell and Pressburger favour Sister Clodagh through a series of flashbacks. Meanwhile, they give us access to Sister Ruth through points of view and closeups. In The Glass Pearls we work through Karl Braun’s personas, stories and case notes, and he is set up to be cultured and authoritative, only to be exposed as ruthless and empty as the novel races to its conclusion.
It is in this sleight of hand and the allegory of the glass pearls that the reader’s moral education begins. Just as the famous operatic sequence at the climax of Black Narcissus plays a cat and mouse game with points of view, so The Glass Pearls plays with narrative voice and reliability to bring home its gruelling revelations. I don’t believe that the writer behind The Glass Pearls could write a straightforwardly colonialist or racist film.
Till the rains break
Black Narcissus has the burden of being a product of colonial times and relations. The British loss of India and giving up of Empire and aspiration seems to echo through the halls at Mopu. Here is a film that concerns itself more with the British mind – or soul – than the Indian; set in ‘India’, it is about white women and how they navigate their own desires in a world that opposes almost everything they know and cherish.
Yet I often think about the moment that the Archers made this film. 1947 was the year of Indian independence but also of Partition, of great upheavals, migrations and violence. And here is a film about inadequate leadership. The kind of leadership that led to the carnage of 1947. Throughout, we see gods, rulers and managers who are inadequate or irresponsible in the face of the events they set in motion (Sister Clodagh has the distinction of being the only leader in the movie to take responsibility for her actions).
There is a sort of prophecy in the film’s last shot, of a ragtag band of nuns turning their backs on the corpse they have left behind (Indeed the Partition displaced an estimated 20 million people and lead to the deaths of somewhere between 200,000 and 2 million individuals, including my own great aunt and an uncle). It is no simple account of Empire, faith or sexuality that we get in Black Narcissus. As always with Powell and Pressburger, the human factor wins out and the landscape endures. We are left with a sense of how mysterious other people are, and an urgency to know them better or deal with the repercussions.
Cinema Unbound: The Creative Worlds of Powell + Pressburger runs from 16 October to 31 December on the big screen at venues across the country, on BFI Player and with the free, major exhibition The Red Shoes: Behind the Mirror (from 10 November, BFI Southbank).
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