Jinnah (1998): Jamil Dehlavi's controversial biopic on Muhammad Ali Jinnah starring Sir Christopher Lee in the titular role

An extraordinary tale of a man who did what he felt was right for the greater good

By Murtaza Ali

Featured in IMDb Critic Reviews

Jinnah, Directed by Jamil Dehlvi, Movie Poster
Jinnah (1998) By Jamil Dehlavi
Our Rating: 8.0
IMDb Ratings: 8.1
Genre: Biography | Drama | War
Cast: Christopher Lee, Richard Lintern, Shashi Kapoor
Country: UK Pakistan
Runtime: 110 min

SummaryBiography of Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the founder of modern Pakistan is told through flashbacks as his soul tries to find eternal rest. The flashbacks start in 1947 as Jinnah pleads for a separate nation from the Muslim regime, infuriating Lord Mountbatten. Mountbatten then tries to enlist Gandhi & Nehru to persuade Jinnah to stop his efforts. Gandhi sides with Jinnah, which upsets Nehru. However, Jinnah turns down the offer to become prime minister and the film takes another slide back to 1916, which reveals all of the political implications that have occurred.

Jinnah, directed by Jamil Dehlavi, is a 1998 controversial biopic about the founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Renowned Islamic scholar Akbar Salahuddin Ahmed wrote the movie’s screenplay. Jinnah stars the legendary English actor Sir Christopher Lee in the titular role. The movie costars Shashi Kapoor, Richard Lintern, James Fox, Indira Verma, Maria Aitken, and Talat Hussain. Dehlavi, a London-based filmmaker of Pakistani-French origin, is best known for The Blood of Hussain (1980)—a highly contentious, critically acclaimed film banned by the Pakistani military dictator at the time, Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, as he believed the movie purposefully took digs at his tyrannical regime. Dehlavi effectively got relegated to the status of a persona non grata in Pakistan. Dejected and heartbroken, he later moved to the UK in want of creative freedom. Unfortunately, Dehlavi’s controversial past would come back to haunt him two decades later during the filming of Jinnah.

Sir Christopher Lee as Muhammad Ali Jinnah in Jinnah, Directed by Jamil Dehlavi
Sir Christopher Lee as Muhammad Ali Jinnah
Dehlavi’s contentious choice of making a western Christian—that too someone whose most famous portrayal hitherto had been that of Count Dracula—to portray the part of Muhammad Ali Jinnah didn’t go well with the extremist elements in Pakistan. The government of Pakistan withdrew its funding halfway through the film. Christopher Lee received death threats and the activists demanded for his arrest and deportation; Lee had to be surrounded by armed bodyguards throughout the shoot. As a result, Jinnah was never really afforded a proper theatrical release in Pakistan. Christopher Lee considers Jinnah to be the greatest achievement of his long and illustrious career. “The most important film I made, in terms of its subject and the great responsibility I had as an actor was a film I did about the founder of Pakistan, called Jinnah,” Lee once said in an interview. “It had the best reviews I've ever had in my entire career - as a film and as a performance. But ultimately it was never shown at the cinemas,” he added regretfully.

James Fox as Lord Mountbatten in Jinnah, Directed by Jamil Dehlavi
James Fox as Lord Mountbatten
Richard Lintern as Muhammad Ali Jinnah (younger) in Jinnah, Directed by Jamil Dehlavi
Richard Lintern as young Muhammad Ali Jinnah
The cinematic importance of Dehlavi’s film can be easily gauged by the fact that till date it has been cinema’s first and only major attempt at capturing in essence the philosophies and principles that underlined Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s life. But, what of the movie’s cinematic quality from this critic’s point of view? Well, before venturing to critically examine this eponymous film, it’s essential to first try and demystify the enigma that was its subject: Muhammad Ali Jinnah. And, in order to fully grasp that, one needs to take the cognizance of the stature that Mr. Jinnah enjoyed at the time of independence. In many ways, he was Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s arch nemesis, if ever there is one. In fact, it wouldn’t be a hyperbole that, at the time, among Mr. Gandhi, Mr. Jinnah and Lord Mountbatten the future of India hung in the balance. If Mr. Gandhi was called the “Mahatma” (meaning, a great soul) then what does it make of his greatest adversary? A monster or a messiah? Was Mr. Jinnah stubborn or determined? Did he a have a vision or did he lack one? It may sound like a cliché, but, none of these questions has got an objective answer to it. After all, truth is subjective! Remember Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950)? But, why watch Jinnah then? Because, it will certainly help us find our own answers. The picture may still not look complete but it would surely appear clearer than before.

Lord Mountbatten (played by James Fox), Mahatma Gandhi (played by Sam Dastor) and Jawahalal Nehru (played by Robert Ashby) in Jinnah, Directed by Jamil Dehlavi
A Still from Jamil Dehlavi's Jinnah
Christopher Lee as Muhammad Ali Jinnah, addressing a mass rally, in Jinnah, Directed by Jamil Dehlavi
A Still from Jamil Dehlavi's Jinnah
The official announcement of the Partition of India, as per the Mountbatten Plan, triggered a chaos on both sides of the newly established border as massive population exchanges started occurring between the two newly formed states in the months that immediately followed. The newly formed governments of these two states were in no way equipped to deal with exoduses of such staggering magnitude and simultaneously curb the discontentment and anger of those who were opposed to partition. The circumstances paved the way for riots and mass bloodshed. The end result was a massacre of humongous proportions that claimed hundreds of thousands of innocent lives (mostly Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs) on both sides of the border. Jinnah being the grand architect behind the partition of British India into two separate states based on religion, a Hindu state and a Muslim state, was hailed as a hero in the newly formed state of Pakistan and was bestowed with titles like Quaid-i-Azam (meaning, Great Leader) and Baba-i-Qaum (meaning, Father of the Nation). But, in India, he was dubbed as a villain, a master perpetrator who was held responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent people. More than six decades have past but very little has changed. Mr. Jinnah continues to remain one of the most enigmatic, controversial and misunderstood figures in History. While Mr. Jinnah has attained apotheosis in Pakistan, his name is still a taboo in India. National leaders of great repute either get expelled or are relegated into oblivion even at the slightest mention of Mr. Jinnah’s name in a favorable light.

Ravishing Indira Varma as Ruttie Jinnah, in Jinnah, Directed by Jamil Dehlavi
Indira Varma as Ruttie Jinnah
Christopher Lee as Muhammad Ali Jinnah, addressing the National Assembly, Directed by Jamil Dehlavi
Muhammad Ali Jinnah addresses the National Assembly
The treatment that Dehlavi gives his movie is no less interesting than his subject. He chooses to present Mr. Jinnah’s tale in form of flashbacks. The opening scene of the movie shows a terminally ill Mr. Jinnah, accompanied by his sister and confidante Fatima Jinnah, being taken in an ambulance to some hospital. The next scene cuts to an anteroom situated somewhere between Heaven and Hell where Mr. Jinnah is greeted by a friendly, humanoid Angel (played by Shashi Kapoor) who has an hour and a half to prepare Mr. Jinnah’s case, the outcome of which would decide his fate. Will he be convicted or absolved? Will he go to Hell or Heaven? But the file on Mr. Jinnah’s life has gone missing, and the angel must question him about his life to fill in his story. The Angel tells Jinnah that he is accused of being ambitious, arrogant, humorless, stubborn—a man without charm, a bully who used people. The Angel poses direct questions in the most cutthroat manner. Why he wanted Pakistan? Was it his lust for power or his fear of obliteration? As Mr. Jinnah defends these accusations, the audience is treated to sumptuous vignettes from different junctures in History as the story follows important events in Mr. Jinnah's life (not necessary in a linear fashion): be it his early days as a love-struck lawyer who dotes on a beautiful Parsi girl named Ruttie (whom he eventually married); his later days as the greatest adversary of Mahatma Gandhi; or his brief stint as the 1st Governor General of Pakistan before finally succumbing to tuberculosis (Jinnah had kept it a secret that he was dying of consumption as he didn't want to appear weak to his supporters as well as his adversaries). 

Sir Christopher Lee as Muhammad Ali Jinnah, with his sister and confidante Fatima Jinnah (played by Shireen Shah), in Jinnah, Directed by Jamil Dehlavi
Muhammad Ali Jinnah with his sister and confidante Fatima Jinnah
Overall, Jinnah proves to be an important work of cinema that presents the caricature of a highly misunderstood man whose turbulent but celebrated life made his name a synonym for controversy. Like it or not, Mr. Jinnah’s exploits have been extraordinary! He was a charismatic leader gifted with great oratorical skills, and regarded the renowned Urdu poet and philosopher, Sir Muhammad Iqbal, as his mentor; Iqbal's philosophy and rhetoric formed the basis of his political ideology. He had the courage to do what he felt was right for the greater good of his people. As Stanley Wolpert writes in his book, Jinnah of Pakistan, “Few individuals significantly alter the course of history. Fewer still modify the map of the world. Hardly anyone can be credited with creating a nation-state. Muhammad Ali Jinnah did all three.” Dehlavi believed that the story of Mr. Jinnah’s life deserved to be told and despite all odds he did succeed in bringing it to life eventually. Although the movie is far from being flawless, it works well on the whole. The historical accuracy is undeniably questionable. But, unlike Richard Attenborough’s celebrated film Gandhi (1982), it portrays its subject as a flawed, mortal being and not as an embodiment of perfection. The movie might upset those who lack forbearance. While the movie scandalizes Lord Mountbatten for being biased towards India, it takes a rather playful swipe at Mr. Nehru and Lady Mountbatten. The movie’s greatest undoing—especially given that the conservative majority in Pakistan would never accept such a thing—is that Dehlavi uses British actors to play the major parts. But, the actors, none the less, deserve a lot of credit for giving convincing and worthy performances. While Christopher Lee plays the part of older Jinnah with scalpel-like precision, Richard Lintern deserves a special mention for his arresting portrayal of the young Jinnah. James Fox (who plays Lord Mountbatten) and Maria Aitken (who plays Lady Mountbatten) are nothing short of being brilliant. Shashi Kapoor is charming to watch in the role of an Angel. These major performances are well backed up by the movie’s support cast. On the technical front, the movie fares reasonably well: be it direction, cinematography or editing. But, Jinnah is not a movie for everyone. Only those with open minds should watch it, for it’s bound to hurt the sentiments of those who lack tolerance and empathy.

Readers, please feel free to share your opinion by leaving your comments. As always your valuable thoughts are highly appreciated!  


Jinnah (1998) Trailer

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  1. Well this certainly is a long review and it explains a lot of point . So thanks for writing such a great review if one of the most underappreciated movies of all times.


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