Bhowani Junction: Cukor’s Epic Melodrama Starring Ava Gardner

Set against India’s shifting political contexts, George Cukor’s tragic melodrama “Bhowani Junction” is one of his few on-location productions: The exteriors of the picture were shot in Pakistan’s Lahore, and the interiors at London’s Elstree studio.

Ava Gardner, then MGM’s most popular star, plays Victoria, an Anglo-Indian woman who has affairs with three men: Patrick, a young Anglo-Indian (Bill Travers); Ranjit, an Indian prince (Francis Matthews) who wants to marry her; and Savage, a British Colonel (Stuart Granger). Cukor’s portrait emphasizes the genuinely moving and tragic elements of his heroine’s life; she’s a woman deemed immoral, or at least promiscuous by society.

In January 1955, a rough draft of the screenplay for “Bhowani Junction” was submitted for the approval of the PCA. The censors complained there was too much emphasis on Victoria in girdle, bra, and panties, and not enough on her conflicted persona. They also reminded that the love scenes could not be played with the couple in a prone position. Hence, the censors asked for rewrites of Victoria’s description of her attempted rape to stress the rapist’s insanity and homicidal intent rather than its sexual contents. Even a line like, “I jabbed him hard with my elbow, he moaned and bent forward,” was considered too suggestive (of a blow to the groin).

The British John Mills was disappointed when Cukor informed him that the role of Patrick had already been cast. Cukor was disappointed too, because Mills would have been a wonderful Patrick, but the part had been offered to another Britisher, Bill Travers. MGM was excited about Travers, hoping he would become an international star; he did not.

Due to time pressures, Sonya and Ivan Moffat were forced to write the script out of continuity. The scribes first worked on the outdoor sequences, then, once the pressure eased, they wrote the more intimate scenes. This was not the most satisfactory method of preparing a script, but there was no choice.

Cukor sent the working script to John Masters “under the table,” strictly on his own, for some corrections. He knew of no better way of capturing the book’s quality other than taking advantage of the author’s advice. For some mysterious reason, it was considered heresy in Hollywood to have anything to do with the author of the original work. But Cukor disliked the script since it trivialized and conventionalized the characters and missed the book’s humor.

On “Bhowani Junction,” Cukor worked for the second time with cinematographer Freddie Young, for whom he had the highest regard, recalling happy times on the set of their first effort, the 1949 melodrama, “Edward, My Son.” Young was in complete control of the cinematography; Cukor had assured him that his art consultant and friend George Huene would not encroach on his work.

Ever since the debacle of Gone With the Wind, Cukor had been waiting for the opportunity to show David O. Selznick (who had fired him), and his other critics, that he could handle an epic spectacle, an outdoor film with plenty of action, crowd scenes, and thousands of extras. The Indian press and film industry were against the production from the start. The Indian government refused to grant permission to shoot in India, basing their objection on one line in the script that described Indian politicians in a disparaging way. Afraid that this procrastination could continue indefinitely, producer Pandro Berman switched the movie to Pakistan.

Perceiving India as the film’s lead character, Cukor devoted a lot of time to the look of the production. The on-location shooting contributed to the film’s authenticity. Using the dominant color of a brownish tone, Cukor hoped it would make the audience see the country in a new light. Cukor became quickly aware of the unexpected, often contradictory sights. On the one hand, he saw exposed electric wires and utter poverty, but on the other, there was the grandeur of a great palace like the Taj Mahal.

A strenuous picture, it took a great deal of effort to execute. But Bhowani Junction contains impressive sequences that are unique in Cukor’s work, such as the verisimilitude of the Indian atmosphere, the staging of crowd scenes, people caught up in social upheaval, the whole way in which Cukor convey a restless country on the move. The film reflects Cukor’s impression of India at the time as a country of “thousands of people swarming around. People, people, people!”

In the scene where the passive resisters lie down in front of the train, Cukor wanted to show the army pissing and pouring buckets of shit over the protestors. He saw much that regrettably he couldn’t use on screen, due to the studio’s sanitizing approach based on fear of censorship.

Bhowani Junction was also one of the few films in Cukor’s career in which he was defeated by the casting. In the past, he was always in control of his ensembles, considering one of his greatest specialties. But in this picture, Stewart Granger had been selected before Cukor was signed as director. Cukor felt that Granger was miscast, and worse, that he brought out the movie queen out of Ava Gardner. Gardner would have been better with an actor like Trevor Howard, who was Cukor’s first choice.

Despite the frustrations of this production, for Cukor, the major reward was creating a climate where Ava Gardner did her best work to date, giving a “full-bodied and original” performance. The more he saw Gardner’s work, the more depth, dignity and feeling he found in it.

As noted, due to censorship, Gardner was discreetly dressed, and very careful with the cleavages. But she was the kind of actress who exuded sex appeal effortlessly–Cukor said Ava could think “untrammeled things” and the audience would understand it without one word of dialogue, just by looking at her eyes. There was a kind of electricity when Gardner came on the screen, which went beyond her dazzling beauty.

During postproduction, novelist John Masters kept reminding Cukor that he hadn’t gone to Pakistan to make a “large” Hollywood picture, but to turn his book into a “real and gritty story.” Masters advised to maintain the strong underlying sexual tension, whenever possible. Hence, when people talk under the shadow of a platform, the glare of the sun should hurt their eyes. In India, people do not stand still; they shift constantlyand uncomfortably.

To Cukor’s disappointment, the preview audiences seemed unsympathetic to Victoria’s tragic tale, and MGM forced him to change the focus of “Bhowani Junction” into the colonel’s story. As a result, the picture had to be rearranged, setting the story in flashback, with the colonel’s voice-over, even if his narration contained a lot of unnecessary exposition and created further distance between the viewers and the screen. In the end, “Bhowani Junction” was turned into a compromisingly sentimental yarn, shallow as a tragic portrait and oversimplified as a political melodrama.

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