Thugs of Hindostan's representation of the cult of 'Thuggee' may make for good cinema, but is bad history

If the fracas over Padmaavat in January of this year told us anything — and it did, more than is conveyable — it is that India, far from being an ahistorical nation, treats its history with a reverence second only to its cinema and its cricket.

The relationship between cinema and history is an enduring one, inaugurated for India by the iconic Mughal-e-Azam (1960). Over the years, Hindi cinema has treated history with similar sacrality but later, some disregard — becoming more pronounced with the rise of commercial cinema for which viewership was truly sacred and historical veracity just by-the-way. This is a disjuncture that ‘Bollywood’ has found very difficult to negotiate — for every historical film, there is now a counter-public claiming that histories have been cruelly distorted and memories gruesomely tampered with.

Thugs of Hindostan (releasing today) is another of Bollywood’s many, many attempts at history and this article, too, will locate itself in the counter-publics of historical cinema. Starring Amitabh Bachchan, Aamir Khan, and Katrina Kaif, the film reportedly had a production budget of Rs 201 crore, making it Yash Raj Films’ (YRF) costliest project after the haphazard but occasionally thrilling Tiger Zinda Hai (2017). Thugs of Hindostan claims to be based, somewhat loosely, on Philip Meadows Taylor’s memorable novel Confessions of a Thug (1839). The film, although identified in the genre of history, is a veritable assertion towards moving beyond the histories of battles and wars between kings, kingdoms, and empires, privileging narratives emanating from beyond the reach of the state. There is perhaps no better illustration of this assertion than the thrilling theme of the film — Thuggee, or the fable of the ‘Thugs’ of modern India infamous for their frequently heinous acts of robbery and pillage on highways and strategic outposts. This was, of course, until the very existence of such groups was declared criminal by the Governor General of India, William Bentinck.

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An artist's depiction of thugs robbing a traveller. Wikimedia Commons

Meadows Taylor’s Confessions of a Thug — from which the movie derives its cinematic inspiration — was an event in the literary history of modern Britain and empire. For one, it attempted an ethnography of the so-called Thugs of British India and fictionalised the group into a work of thrill revolving around crime. That Thuggee gave the English language the term ‘thug’ is well-known; what is less well-known is that the readership of Meadows Taylor’s tantalising novel stretched from the high to the low, within and beyond the empire and its colonies. Meadows Taylor featured in his own novel as the familial ‘Englishman’ whose literary objective was to introduce his English audience to the life and world of Ameer Ali, the novel’s protagonist, while functioning as an interlocutor between Western gaze and peculiarly Indian reality.

Ameer Ali is a Pathan initiated into the life of Thuggee by his adoptive father Ismail, a thug of considerable prestige with whom he travels to Jhalone and successfully acquires the patronage of the local raja. Ali is, as many descriptions of the novel state, an ‘anti-hero’ whose life is spent in thievery, criminality, and violence. The novel uses Ali as only an example to unravel, through the deft elocution of the Englishman, the world of the thugs — what we encounter is a group frozen in time even as it traces its origins to the development of Shaktism and the percolation of Islamic politics in India. While peopled predominantly by Muslims, the thugs worship Kali and use their worship as the legitimising ideology behind their activity as they travel across stretches as far as the sovereignty of their patron can take them, robbing gullible travellers and fellowmen who dare to cross their paths, often by murdering them in their sleep or asphyxiating them to death, an act that earns them the title of phansigars.

The Englishman, in explaining their presence, paints a picture of a lament premised on disgust, for it is no secret in the period that the thugs have become a political menace to colonial rule which had established itself on the rhetoric of bringing peace, security, and the famed rule of law to the dustplains of India. In the novel, and certainly in the film, the thugs behind Thuggee never cease to be thugs and therefore criminal — they are allowed no life but criminality, no activity but thievery and murder. There are no rationalisations offered to historically place or explain their existence — they just are, and are happy to be, appearing only when the interlocutor so desires. Their first and last act of appearance is the thrilling life of Kali-worshipping, asset-seizing, inexplicably murderous hordes, as if waiting to be discovered.

The film appears to follow after the novel in such a depiction, decontextualising Thuggee and sacrificing the historical complexity of its subjects at the altar of the pleasure of thrill.

The historian’s intervention, as trifling as unglamorous, will reveal that Thuggee was a complicated and deeply contextual phenomenon – the so-called ‘thugs’ of colonial India lived, but not as excitingly as crime thrillers such as Meadows Taylor’s novel and the Thugs of Hindostan would like them to have lived. The imagination of Thuggee as an exoticism of and from India owed considerably to William Bentinck’s Thuggee Act XXX of 1836 which held that “whoever shall be proved to have belonged, either before or after the passing of this Act, to any gang of Thugs, either within or without the Territories of the East India Company, shall be punished with imprisonment for life, with hard labour.” The act was unprecedented in so far as it made criminal judgement retrospective and dislocated the British jurist tradition of individual responsibility, for it made the very existence of a group criminal; any discovered participant, whether or not held culpable for individual acts of criminality, was always already criminal and culpable.

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An artist's depiction of Thugs distracting a man. Wikimedia Commons

Such a difficult act undoubtedly reflected the gravity of the Company’s concern – an impulse that Meadows Taylor drew on to fictionalise and ‘present’ the life of the thugs before his audience – and could have accrued to the need to preserve the monopoly of the government on opium and the movement of remittances from, to, and within the western Indian region. This frame, however, was itself a work of fiction. As Radhika Singha has convincingly suggested, Thuggee was not a structured phenomenon with clearly intelligible actors and participants – it was constituted in petty acts of highway robbery committed by mercenary groups moving towards central India in search of employment or by nomadic, pre-state communities with intricate links to cultivation or circuits of mendicancy. The phenomenon may have been developed into a legend, but the so-called thugs did not see themselves as figures of a clear phenomenon and had, to the contrary, a prominent concept of chakri (work) elsewhere.

Meadows Taylor approached the theme with a marked agenda, but even within the contours of his text is evidence to the oppositional – he presented Thuggee as enigmatic and hitherto unknown, but confessed that landlords and chiefs had had connections with thugs for decades and centuries. Ameer Ali takes service with a Pindari chief but memorably states that he had, after all, been a soldier who had later taken the aforesaid service for adventure and in the paucity of other avenues. Official accounts, however, make distinctions between ‘thugs’ and the Pindaris, which appear patently misconceived if the cover of mystique were to be taken off the so-called thugs.

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An artist's depiction of thugs worshiping Kali. Wikimedia Commons

Thugs of Hindostan may stay faithful to the literary joys and historical problems of the novel, but it reiterates the same clichés and aphorisms about Thuggee, presenting India as an oriental space where even marauding gangs of robbers can be exotically exciting. It is good cinema but bad history, excusable only in invoking that elusive ideal of creative liberty. Where else, after all, is thrill but in the ahistorical unknown?


Updated Date: Nov 13, 2018 09:44 AM

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