Part 2: The Nobel laureate showed himself capable of meticulous screenwriting in his very first attempt
(Part 1: How Hollywood signed on Rudyard Kipling)
Rudyard Kipling’s story Without Benefit of Clergy was already 30 years old when Hollywood became interested in it. India had changed a lot in that time. Gandhi was a student in London when the story first appeared in 1890; he was leading the Non-Cooperation Movement at the time Kipling was writing his first screenplay based on the romance.
Yet, Without Benefit of Clergy was a good choice for the silent cinema of the 1920s. Almost everything in the story happens within the walls of a native house where an English engineer lives with his teenage Muslim ‘wife’. There are only a few characters and locations. The story is heavy with emotion that a capable cast might convey through expressions and gestures in the absence of words.
To make it work, what the producers needed was a meticulous screenplay. They asked Kipling himself to write it, and although he was 55 at the time, and a complete novice in the art of screenwriting, he wrote a screenplay so detailed the film’s cast and crew 5,500 miles away from him in Los Angeles did not have to guess at anything.
Raising Lahore from memory
“So accurately were the life and environment of India reproduced in Kipling’s Without Benefit of Clergy that the Hindus and Mohammedans from the Oriental quarter of Los Angeles, who played as natives in the picture, asked permission to send photographs of the settings to their friends in India,” reported The Arizona Republican of October 25, 1921.
Kipling noted every detail of the ‘movie’ Lahore, down to the way a native cot maker ought to hold his chisel:
“In the bazaar street, beneath the light of modern gas lamps is seen the native charpoy-maker carving bed logs with a chisel held between his toes, and turning the wood with the type of bow and string that has been in use for hundreds of years,” says the paper. Even the turbans of the natives in the bazaar were varied realistically to create the feel of an Indian metropolis. “One who knows his Lahore can easily distinguish the Bengali or Sikh from the Afghan or Punjabi. At the same time the turbans affected by the Madrasi, Rajput, or hill men, are not shown because these types do not enter into the action of the story.”
Attention to detail
Altogether, Kipling wrote 340 scenes, and his instructions and descriptive comments added up to “72 closely typed pages”. There were also five pages of “final suggestions” to director James Young.
Attention to detail and an understanding of native ways is evident in the original story as well. Here’s a description of the heroine Ameera’s dress from the book:
“She was dressed in jade-green muslin, as befitted a daughter of the Faith, and from shoulder to elbow and elbow to wrist ran bracelets of silver tied with floss silk, frail glass bangles slipped over the wrist in proof of the slenderness of the hand, and certain heavy gold bracelets that had no part in her country’s ornaments but, since they were Holden’s gift and fastened with a cunning European snap, delighted her immensely.”
When he thought words alone would not do, Kipling sketched out an idea in ink. For instance, the scene in which the hero’s butler Ahmed Khan delivers Ameera’s dowry to her greedy mother is explained thus:
“Scene 43: At a price that bought heaven. Note here that, if possible, do away with the whole business of counting single coins into the mother’s hand. A. K. (the hero’s native servant) should bring a heavy white linen belt of coined rupees and swish them out on the ground before the woman. She to appraise, count, and now and then bite, the coins.”
To this was attached an illustration of the scene Kipling had in mind:
The description of Ameera’s movements — vital to build her character in a silent movie — is most interesting:
“All Ameera’s movements, except when she is running toward or actually embracing Holden, are slow and supple. When she feels it in herself to move, she is as quick as a flash, but without any sort of fuss, as conveying the idea of rapid, flurried movement to the eye. Most of the time, while in her man’s presence, she keeps her eyes down; but when she lifts them or looks directly at him they burn slowly.”
It is so minutely detailed that even the turn of the palm while beckoning is described:
“In caressing Holden, take special note that she never uses the left hand but keeps it, as a rule, behind her man’s neck or around his waist. It should never fall upon his face. When she has occasion to beckon, she does so with the palm of her hand downwards, not upwards as is the western habit. The fingers then double back into the palm, all four together. This appeal — if done in slow time, suppose she is beckoning to Tota (the child) — is very touching.”
You get an idea of a writer who is living every moment, every breath, of his characters, as he writes the movie script.
When his own memory failed him, Kipling turned to his father John Lockwood Kipling’s collection at the Kensington Museum in London, to write exact scenes and situations. The elder Kipling had been “principal of Mayo School of Arts, Lahore, British India (present day National College of Arts, Pakistan) and also became curator of the old original Lahore Museum which figured as the Wonder House or Ajaib Ghar in Kim (from Wikipedia).”
Far removed from the shoot though he was, Kipling remained involved in it to ensure the movie did not turn into a caricature of his story. No, Navajo blankets and paisley shawls would not do for Ameera, so he sent Indian shawls for her from his own collection. The water wheel in the courtyard of the ‘love house’ had to be of the Lahore pattern, so carpenters made one based on his detailed drawings. And the bullock to turn it could not be an English longhorn either. Phew, they got a befitting specimen of Bos indicus too!
This article is the second in a series about Kipling and his first film, Without Benefit of Clergy, that released in 1921. Follow my blog to stay updated about the rest of this story.
(Read Part 1: How Hollywood signed on Rudyard Kipling)