Nicholas Meyer’s ‘other’ fantastic film project was ignored for all the wrong reasons; Pierce Brosnan fills a heroic leading role in a revisit of The Stranglers of Bombay, but filmed on location with great attention to authentic details. An officer of the East India Company detects an incredibly murderous cult of Kali-worshipping Thugs, a criminal underclass of thieves that practice ritual mass murder. The story has roots in history, snarled in colonial injustice and xenophobia. It’s a period picture unafraid to be controversial. Also starring Saeed Jaffrey and Helena Mitchell.
The Cohen Film Collection / Kino
1988 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 103 min. / Street Date November 16, 2021 / Available from Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: Pierce Brosnan, Saeed Jaffrey, Shashi Kapoor, Helena Michell, Keith Michell, David Robb.
Cinematography: Walter Lassally
Art Directors: Gianfranco Fumagalli, Ram Yedekar
Film Editor: Richard Trevor
Original Music: John Scott
Written by Michael Hirst from the novel by John Masters
Produced by Ismail Merchant, Tim Van Rellim, Michael White
Directed by Nicholas Meyer
One of the most notorious of all Hammer Horror films is 1959’s The Stranglers of Bombay a thrilling, openly sadistic account of the near-legendary plague of Thug killings in India early in the 19th century. Hammer’s film stuck fairly close to recorded history, yet outraged the censors with depictions of branding, tongue slashing, eye gouging and other ritual mutilations perpetrated by a Kali-worshipping death cult on its own members. Although not suppressed, the ‘dark adventure’ thriller never enjoyed a wider rediscovery, likely over PC concerns about the depiction of India under British rule. The show endorses Colonial rule as the only sane choice in a ‘barbaric’ land where such things could occur . . . not exactly a positive attitude in the first years of Indian independence.
‘Thug’ means Deceiver.
Yet Ismael Merchant, taking a break from his partner James Ivory, took on the subject matter for his 1988 mini-epic The Deceivers, filmed on location with high production values. Part adventure and part horror film, The Deceivers has at least five or six chilling moments in which one wants to nod in approval: the movie that brings the story to life without a political bias. Based on a novel by John Masters, Michael Hirst’s script embellishes historical truth with some wonderfully weird touches. One drug-induced lovemaking scene successfully transposes psychedelics back to the first half of the nineteenth century — a wrinkle that apparently has a historical justification as well.
The able writer and director Nicholas Meyer earned plenty of positive attention with his contributions to The Seven-Per-Cent Solution and Time After Time, not to mention The Day After and the best of the Star Trek movies. The film’s second big plus is the presence of actor Pierce Brosnan, pre- 007. He cuts a fine form as a dedicated Englishman who goes undercover to expose a fiendish death cult. Brosnan has the acting skill to make us believe his British officer could pass for an Indian, take the Kali cult’s mind-bending drug and enter the kill-crazy cultist dreamscape.
It’s 1825. Great Britain has essentially privatized big pieces of India. The for-profit East India Tea Company rules as a colonial power, officiating over all civil affairs. Supervising Colonel Wilson (Keith Mitchell of All Night Long) cynically tells officer William Savage (Pierce Brosnan) that he is only supposed to ‘do as little as possible,’ to just collect duties and taxes and stay out of ‘native’ issues. Savage marries Wilson’s daughter Sarah (Helena Mitchell) but continues to disobey orders, using his language skills and cultural knowledge to help the citizens of the area he oversees.
Then Savage uncovers evidence of a massive conspiracy of murderers, a British officer among them. When he refuses to look the other way he is demoted. Rather than obey orders and leave, Savage disguises himself as a native and journeys in search of the Thuggee cult. With his cooperative local friend Hussein (Saeed Jaffrey of The Man Who Would Be King) to show him the ropes, Savage learns the ways of the Deceivers, including killing with a knotted garotte. It is said that the Thugs have been murdering thousands of Indian citizens each year … for centuries.
The concept of Thugs has become more racist-cultural than historical, through its depiction in literature and film. Movies have been using variations on the mysterious Thuggee cult of India as a catch-all for evil Eastern doings at least since George Stevens’ Gunga Din, with the result that Arab or Hindu villains are still frequently portrayed as murderous glassy-eyed fanatics, killing at the behest of profane gods. For instance, when Our Man Flint wants to empty a nightclub, he simply puts a turban on his head, shoots a pistol in the air and screams “Kali!” Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom also attracted criticism for perpetrating the same malign cultural stereotype, of religious fanatics with profane, sadistic appetites, killing in the name of an ‘evil’ goddess.
The prominent film previous to The Deceivers with the same central subject was The Stranglers of Bombay, directed with relish by Terence Fisher. The gory Hammer horror dwells on torture and mutilation: branding, eye-gouging and tongue-cutting. Fisher’s Thugs do everything with an obscene bloodlust: even a simple threat message is delivered in a box with a severed hand. As did Gunga Din, Stranglers distorts the Thuggee into a conspiracy of political terrorists, dedicated to driving the infidel Englishmen out of India.
The Deceivers appears to portray the Thugs more accurately, as a murderous organization of thieves, ‘inspired’ by Kali to slaughter large numbers of their countrymen for pure profit. Like the Mafia, they enforce absolute secrecy by inducing fear in their own members, dealing out horrible tortures to members suspected of disloyalty. According to the historical record the cult prospered for six centuries. It was finally exposed and eradicated after an investigation by a courageous British officer named Sleeman. Pierce Brosnan’s William Savage takes on this role, obtaining his evidence by dyeing his skin and living among the Thugs.
The expertise of the Merchant producing team creates a convincing colonial world with authentic costumes and unlimited cultural detail. A grieving Indian woman (Neena Gupta) plans to immolate herself over a missing husband that Savage suspects has been murdered by the cult. He finds out differently later. Savage partners with the reluctant Hussein by convincing him that a Christian crucifix will neutralize the vengeance of Kali. “My God is stronger than yours,” declares Savage, a boast that will soon be put to the test.
Hussein and Savage join the evil band led by depraved nobleman Feringea (Tariq Yunus) and we see how the Thugs operate. When a caravan of merchants passes they pretend to be beggars and join it for protection. Feringea’s men entertain their hosts; his own beautiful son dances to distract the merchant leader. At a predetermined signal the Thugs whip out hidden cloth sashes and strangle the entire party simultaneously.
Savage is understandably horrified. He discovers that some provincial governors seem to know about the Thugs, but prefer to shake them down for extortion money instead of exposing them. There’s a growing unease when we realize that the Thugs have a potent spy organization of their own that reaches into the police force and the personal staffs of the English overlords. Savage’s deception can’t last indefinitely.
Savage tries to limit his complicity to digging graves but is forced to kill along with the rest of the band. A horrible death awaits anyone who betrays Kali, the Hindu god-being warped by the Thugee leaders into a jealous and bloodthirsty monster.
As part of a Thug ritual, William Savage partakes of a sugar cube laced with some unknown substance that produces terrifyingly vivid hallucinations. This leads to the film’s most unique sequence, whch tiptoes into supernatural territory, with the drug functioning like a sacramental communion wafer. Savage’s reality warps to turn one harlot into three women: herself, the widow seen earlier and his own wife Sarah, who has been left behind to provide cover for his activities.
The sequence makes Sarah seem to transform into the prostitute and back again, as in the delirious Edgar Allan Poe movie The Tomb of Ligeia. Savage hallucinates his lover as having six arms like Kali herself, while Sarah and the widow share a telepathic vision of William falling into danger. Hussein has warned that the ritual cube will make its partaker the property of Kali forever, a vision of drug-possession that could come out of Philip K. Dick’s books, with their drugs that alter reality.
The conspiracy and its enablers are seemingly everywhere. Sarah Savage’s main servant behaves with a culturally ‘unreadable’ attitude, that convinces us he must be a Thug as well. An added subplot involves one of William Savage’s Company colleagues, officer George Anglesmith (David Robb of Downton Abbey), who covets Savage’s wife while he is away, and has his own underhanded connection to the Thugee Cult.
Pierce Brosnan’s dashing hero goes way out on a limb doing things he’d never dream of doing, including murder. Some of his escapes resemble King & Country pulp adventures from an earlier age, and at one point producer Merchant even manages an opportune cavalry charge, which momentarily evokes outdated visions, of “Errol Flynn versus The Non-White Heathens.”
But 90% of the movie is new territory, investigating a colonial reality that flourished three hundred years ago. Frankly, it all seems like it could happen today: we almost expect the British East India Company uniforms to bear corporate logos. With exciting locales, well-directed action scenes and a number of chilling jolts worthy of the best horror movies, The Deceivers is an adventure thriller with a heady message about religious fanaticism and secret empires of crime.
An addendum: I repeat here a letter I received when I reviewed a DVD of The Deceivers in 2004. I myself have not researched the subject, and decided to not relate the content of some websites that claimed that the ‘historical’ Thugee debacle was nothing less than a fraud floated by the East India Company to cover their own mismanagement and thievery, and to terrorize the subjugated Indians into believing that only their English masters could provide security. Frankly, the claims seemed too well aimed at my own biases; if all that were true, why isn’t it common knowledge?
The letter came from then- DVD Savant correspondent Michael Kulikowski, Assistant Professor of History, University of Tennessee, on January 13, 2005. I have not edited it:
Dear Glenn, Thanks for the review of the very good (and rather spooky) The Deceivers. But a couple of historical/literary points may be of interest to other readers. First, most scholars would now reject Sleeman’s account of Thuggee as exaggerated, both in terms of the historical longevity of the cult and — more importantly — the extent of its prevalence in the Indian subcontinent. Sleeman’s discovery of Thuggee was instrumental in distracting British attention away from scandals in the East India Company and the zealous policing which he and his contemporaries encouraged shifted domestic scrutiny from the colonial government and onto the colonized population.
Secondly, the real origins of the Thuggee myth in literature — and thus film — lie in Philip Meadows Taylor’s Confessions of a Thug, a work now little known even to afficionados of the nineteenth-century novel. Taylor was a police superindent in India and his massive Victorian potboiler (still a good read) was published in 1839. It purported to record the true confessions of a Thug named Ameer Ali, and thus became a massive bestseller at mid-century, acting as a major influence on both the colonial genre fiction of H. Rider Haggard (of King Solomon’s Mines fame) and more consciously literary works like Kipling’s Kim. Most of the stereotypes of Hindu fanatics that made the transition from late Victorian and Edwardian pulp fiction into early cinema were first delineated in a fictional context by Taylor. Best wishes, Michael Kulikowski
The Cohen Film Collection / Kino’s Blu-ray of The Deceivers is a beauty that accurately represents Walter Lassaly’s color cinematography, and shows off Ken Adam’s production design to good advantage. Compared to the relatively threadbare The Stranglers of Bombay this is a sumptuous epic. It has the authenticity of the other Merchant-Ivory films set in India. Although most of the Indian dialogue is in English, I felt transported into a completely different place, a sensual world beyond the fantasy images of India we’re usually given. The show’s lack of popularity has a lot to do with its refusal to put conflicting cultural issues through a ‘nice-nice’ filter: the weird and troubling events here have nothing in common with shows like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel or The Darjeerling Limited.
The Cohen disc comes with no extras. On my LG Blu-ray player the English subtitles could only be summoned from the disc menu, not the remote.
Fifteen years ago, curiosity prompted me to buy Ismail Merchant’s making-of book about The Deceivers, Hullabaloo in Old Jeypore. The slight book is almost exclusively about the difficulties of filming in India, mainly getting official permission and wooing necessary local authorities. That’s fair enough, but I learned little more about the Thuggee Cult or the actual filming process.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Movie: Excellent if not for everybody
Supplements: Cohen-produced promo trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: November 6, 2021
Text © Copyright 2021 Glenn Erickson