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The King and I

Cast: Yul Brynner, Deborah Kerr

Director: Walter Lang

Screenplay: Ernest Lehman

Music: Richard Rodgers

Lyrics: Oscar Hammerstein

There are some movies that can stand up to millennial readings and some that cannot. This 1956 film based on the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, which in turn was based on Margaret Landon’s “Anna and the King of Siam” falls in the latter category.

However much one watches the charismatic Yul Brynner stalk the corridors of his palace repeating etcetera and however much one wants to “Whistle a happy tune” and do a nifty polka to “Shall we Dance?”, there is this uncomfortable feeling of “King and I” being a white man’s film.

The natives are simple and superstitious, or cunning and cruel while the wise white man bravely carries his burden of civilising the world. Imperialism is oppression under any name.

“King and I” tells the story of Anna Leonowens, a widowed English school teacher who comes with her son Louis to teach the children of the children of King Mongkut of Siam in the early 1860s.

Mongkut wishes to modernise Siam and hiring the school teacher to inculcate in his children a scientific temper is the first step in that direction. Anna also instructs the King’s many wives. A young Burmese girl, Tuptim, is given to the King as a gift. However, Tuptim is a girl with a mind of her own. She is a voracious reader and loves Lun Tha.

The King decides to give a magnificent banquet in the honour of the British Ambassador to make a good impression on Queen Victoria. Tuptim writes and produces a Siamese version of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” which is well received, but earns the King’s wrath.

The film won Oscars for actor (Yul Brynner), art direction, costume design, music and sound and was also nominated for actress for Deborah Kerr, cinematography, director and picture.

At a time when all things oriental are rocking and when whites going to Bangkok are looked at with suspicion thanks to all the paedophiles running loose, it is difficult to look at the white man as the upholder of virtue and wisdom.

Making the natives out to be simple—consider the King’s pronunciation of Lincoln’s name, his suggestion to send elephants to aid in America’s war of independence and the translation of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” to the “Little House of Uncle Thomas” grates on the nerves.

Maybe the thing to do is to look at the film, as just a film. Be enchanted at the sight of Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner dancing to “Shall we Dance”? Watch and sigh at the doomed lovers Tuptim and Lun Tha sing “We Kiss in the Moonlight”, and let the magic of the movies overtake you.

It calls for a rather vigorous suspension of disbelief, but if you are able to overcome all the political incorrectness, the reward is an arresting performance by Yul Brynner, who flaunted his sleek, lithe body much before Daniel Craig made tiny blue swimming trunks so haute!

The DVD extras are nothing much. There is a special song menu and the lyrics. It would have been nice if there was a making of featurette which would tell all about the bruises that Ms. Kerr got thanks to her unwieldy outfits and the oxygen that Mr. Brynner was taking between the takes of the energetic “Shall we Dance”.

MINI ANTHIKAD-CHHIBBER

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