1998’s Jinnah has that rare ability to be timeless, not simply for its link to our fabric and history, but also for its masterful performances and storytelling. Rather than be a numbers biopic, the feature film uses the ruse of a guide taking Muhammad Ali Jinnah to the afterlife, to go over the main events in his life.
What at first glance seems like a clever workaround to weave in and out of his life without worrying too much about a linear structure, also proves fruitful in how it uses the fictional Guide to answer the questions about Jinnah himself. For many, this flight of fancy may be too far a stretch for a film that is supposed to be a true account of a person’s life, but it is able to be more efficient in making Jinnah a more transparent figure.
The best thing about the Jamil Dehlavi film, that separates it from movies on a pantheon of other historical figures that have been the subject of biopics is the uncompromising way it takes on its titular character. Despite establishing Jinnah’s struggles and heroic spirit, it is not afraid to delve into the murkier waters that were his personal life.
Where the film underlines his unrelenting commitment to Pakistan, it also addresses his own personal follies, such as his failed relationship with his daughter and volatile marriage to his wife, Rattanbai Jinnah. Even though it is almost expected of genre films such as this, screenwriter Akbar S. Ahmed and director Jamil Dehlavi ensure that Jinnah is not a flowery portrait of an iconic man but rather a fascinating look into what made him the leader that we know.
Like all films, Jinnah is not without its flaws; the few action scenes that are sprinkled in the film demonstrating the plight of the Partition on the common people aren’t particularly well done. There is also the big dilemma of casting a white actor as the brown main lead. While it is fair to give Christopher Lee a pass in playing the role considering the physical similarity between Lee and Jinnah himself.
Richard Lintern’s turn as a younger version of the leader seems rather awkward. Unlike Lee, Lintern does come across as a white man playing a part and doesn’t quite have Christopher Lee’s intangible ability to slip on the skin of any character he played. There is also the decision to have every person in the film speak in English which works for a large majority of the characters, but seems strange coming from civilians.
The actors all are commendable. James Fox and Maria Atiken’s take on the Mountbattens remains refreshing. Robert Ashby’s performance as Nehru and Shireen Shah as Fatime Bhutto are two other standouts, despite not being given large roles. Shah, in particular, is so well cast that one wishes that the film had taken a few more minutes to expand on her story.
Then there is Christopher Lee himself, who really steps up to the task of playing Jinnah. It is a shame that a lifetime of being typecast as the man who played Dracula prevented him from nabbing a well-deserved nomination for his memorable turn as Muhammad Ali Jinnah.
Jinnah’s beauty lies not just in its faithful depiction of the events of the Partition and the life of the founder of Pakistan, but in also how it recognizes the toll it has taken on the man. Muhammad Ali Jinnah was a symbol for the creation of a Muslim homeland and Dehlavi’s movie demystifies him showing different facets of the founder of Pakistan.
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The movie is also respectful in its portrayal of other historical figures such as Gandhi, not unfairly maligning their names. The ones it paints in harsher strokes are historically deemed as the troublemakers, namely Mountbatten who unfairly distributed the land when dividing the countries.
By blurring the lines of fiction and truth, Jinnah is a wholly original and provocative look into one of the fascinating historical figures. Decades after it released, the film’s intelligent script, superb direction and Lee’s brilliant performance are as powerful as ever, making Jinnah a classic in every sense of the word.