‘And Lahore was never the same again…’ – When Ava Gardner shot Bhowani Junction in Pakistan

2017-04-11T02:00:45+05:00 Aamir Butt

In 1955 MGM studios decided to make a film based on a novel by John Masters called Bhowani Junction (published 1954). The story is about a young Anglo-Indian girl called Victoria Jones who works for the British army and is being simultaneously wooed by three suitors, a native Indian Sikh named Ranjit Kesal, a fellow Anglo-Indian called Patrick Taylor and a puka gora army officer Colonel Rodney Savage. The story is set in pre-Partition India with the independence looming just over the horizon. As Victoria's father is in charge of a railway station a lot of the action take place around the tracks. No one knows where this junction is but based on the description it was thought that it is Jhansi and so the production team approached the Indian government to have permission to shoot the film there. Now India under Nehru was vigorously following the line of non-alignment and the Indian government looked at such a request by an American company with some suspicion. After much deliberation they decided that the project can go ahead provided the script is thoroughly scrutinised by the  Indian authorities (a fee for that) and a bunch of tariffs and taxes are paid by MGM to Indian exchequer. Not happy with this, MGM looked towards India's new neighbour to the west. Pakistan in those days was at the early stages of her own eventually disastrous courtship with Uncle Sam. The Pakistani authorities spent no time in approving the project with Lahore and its railway station as the location, not only that they offered all co-operation from the local police and military units including the Lahore based 1/13 Frontier Force battalion of which Col Savage was to be the commandant rather than the 1/13 Gurkha battalion in the novel.

For the female lead, Victoria, MGM cast the actress Ava Gardner . 33-year-old Ava was one of the top heroines of Hollywood at that time. In the bevy of blond actresses, Ava stood out with her raven hair and thus was more suited to play an Anglo-Indian. Ava's hair was not the only feature that separated her from other Hollywood beauties for she was the archetypal wild child. For women the tinsel town in those days was not as permissive as today, while the male leads were able to sow their wild oats the female actresses were supposed to be chaste and pure. Ava, however, did not care about such qualms, she lived her life as she pleased, drinking and smoking like the men and having love affairs like the male icons did. Eva was then on her third husband, the legendary old blue eyes Frank Sinatra (Mickey Mouse is named after her first husband Mickey Rooney!) and the relationship was as rocky as it can be.


Ava Gardner in Barefoot Contessa


Ava Gardner and Stewart Granger arrive at Lahore Airport, 1954

Just before Ava started working in Bhowani Junction her film Barefoot Contessa was released. Here she played the role of a night club dancer who stuns Humphrey Bogart when he sees her dancing barefoot (probably that was the extent of bare you can go in those days) and promptly loses his heart and his head. The film had graced the cinemas in Pakistan a few months before Ava Gardner arrived in Lahore to shoot her new project.

She was indeed given a red carpet reception at the airport and the national press gave this front page coverage. The film stars were housed in Faletti's Hotel, then the best in the town located a stones through away from the Mall Road, Lahore's answer to Champs-Élysées in those days. Alas now the Mall is a madcap of bumper to bumper traffic but Faletti's still has a Ava Gardner suite complete with a life size portrait of the beautiful starlet. Ava stayed in Lahore for over two months and her stay created quite a bit of excitement and some stories for later consumption. Ava was often seen walking on the Mall Road in the evenings, with her shoes on of course.

 


Ava Gardner and Stewart Granger shooting in Lahore

One such story by the writer Mustansar Tarrar is about four young boys (one of whom was probably him) who cannot believe their eyes when they see Ava dressed in mid-thigh shorts arm in arm with a gora strolling on the Mall Road. They follow her and eventually confront her in a restaurant demanding autographs. As the story goes she takes a long look at them, blows a ton of cigarette smoke on their expectant faces, and signs their autograph books. For one of the boys (the alter ego of the writer) when she signs his book she puts it against her thigh while he is still holding it so his fingers, for that brief moment, are in contact with her bare thigh sending waves of electric shocks up his spine. Later they all shake hands with her and decide not to wash their hands ever so her perfume stays there. All four are convinced from the way she looked at them that she is in love with him.

Looks like young boys were not the only ones so smitten by Ava, some years later she had a relationship with the writer Earnest Hemmingway and while staying at his villa in Havana one day she decided to have a swim in the pool without bothering with a swim suit! Watching her from his window Hemmingway told the staff never to change the water in the pool!

Another story is narrated by a chap whose father ran an alcohol business in Lahore (alcohol was  freely available in Pakistan then!). Barely 18 years old he was told by his dad to look after the esteemed guests during a party. Starry eyed he was disappointed to see Ava not baring anything while dressed in full length trousers and shoes, but was astonished to see her match the male company in drink and cigarettes. Halfway through the evening the alcohol ran out and he ran to get more. Ava wanted to visit the toilet and he escorted her there and as she went in she shouted, 'God, this place smells f*****g s**t' to his utter disbelief.

 

Several locals had a role in the movie, mostly as extras. As the scene was India many of them had to wear Nehru caps during the shooting and although they did not like Pandit sahib at all they had no problems wearing his trademark cap as long as they got some dollars at the end of the day. The film was completed and Ava Gardner left Lahore, and as Tarrar says in his story, Lahore was never the same again.

So who gets the girl in the end? As I said Victoria had three suitors, in the novel she marries her fellow Anglo-Indian Patrick, but in the film this was changed. You see the native Indian Ranjit was at the bottom of the pecking order and was fobbed off easily; Patrick, a bit higher was killed off in a heroic way allowing Victoria to marry the dashing British Colonel and live happily ever after.

And what about Ava Gardner herself? Well her real life love story did not have a happy ending. Although Sinatra later confessed that she was the only true love of his life they were unable to stay together. Partly because Sinatra thought that it was OK for him to chase other actresses while she should confine herself to his bed, and Ava thought it should be the other way around. They divorced in 1957, Ava went on in her merry way smoking, drinking and having fun till her lungs gave up and she died aged 67. Her last words were, 'I am so tired'.

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