Released a few months before the Indian Independence, this drama about tensions at a nunnery in the Himalayas was remarkable for a number of reasons. It’s the directorial work of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger — a rare pairing in such a role not seen much till the Coen brothers in recent times. The film courted controversy too. Some scenes depicting the early years of Sister Clodagh, a role for which Deborah Kerr collected a critics’ choice award, were banned in the US on charges of indecency. But despite the controversy, it went on to win two statuettes — for art direction and colour cinematography — at the 1948 Oscars.
Sister Clodagh is sent from a Calcutta school to the valley of Mopu as the youngest sister superior of the Saint Faith nunnery. There are some awkward Orientalisms towards the very beginning of this Rumer Godden story — the tallest mountain in view is called “Nanga Devi, the bare goddess”, possibly a conflation of Nanda Devi and Nanga Parbat. Actor Sabu, born Sabu Dastagir near Mysore, plays imperiously the elder and unnamed general who tells his ayah to be prepared for foreigners who “will eat sausages”. Trouble starts when Mr Dean — an agent of the general who’s often dressed in shorts even in the cold — moves in with actor David Farrar’s languorous gait.
Predating Fritz Lang’s The Indian Tomb or Jean Renoir’s The River, this film is not to be seen for its authentic portrayals. But as a slow-but-gripping drama that lets us a peek into how our country was popularly represented at the time of its birth in Europe. And for that alone, this rare re-issue is welcome.