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In 1988, producer Ismail Merchant released a project he had labored for years to bring to the screen: The Deceivers, a historical thriller about the infiltration of the secret Thuggee Cult of nineteenth-century India. Although a Merchant-Ivory production, this film marked the first time that Merchant went outside his usual partnership with director James Ivory. The Deceivers, based on a 1952 novel by John Masters, was ultimately directed by Nicholas Meyer following that director's mainstream hits with the science-fiction projects Time After Time (1979), Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan (1982), and the TV movie The Day After (1983). Meyer brought punch and excitement to the suspense and action scenes even as the overall production bears the same attention to detail in costumes, sets, and photography that previous Merchant Ivory films were noted for. The Deceivers is introduced as based on fact, and yet the main story element that drives the plot is an unbelievable contrivance straight out of a young boy's adventure yarn. This melding of the sort of studied historical drama for which Merchant Ivory had become known with a pulpy adventure-thriller plot makes for a muddled but entertaining viewing experience.
Pre-credits text set up the film: "This is the story of a secret society of murderers ...and of the man who exposed their crimes. It is based on fact." In 1825 in colonial India, Captain William Savage (Pierce Brosnan) of the British East India Company arrives with his bride Sarah (Helena Michell) to collect taxes from a large district containing 35 villages. Savage displays a keen curiosity about the local people and their customs, so he is very concerned when he notices a young village woman (Neena Gupta) preparing herself for ritual immolation because she thinks she is a widow. The friendly Raja Chandra Singh (Shashi Kapoor) suggests that if she thought she saw he husband from a distance, she would "doubt her dream that he was dead." Savage stains his skin and wears appropriate garb and the deception works. While returning from his mission, Savage witnesses two men digging a large grave, followed by a horrible sight: a caravan of travelers being strangled and robbed by their campfire. Disobeying his father-in-law superior, Colonel Wilson (Keith Michell, the real-life father of actress Helena Michell), Savage chases down a band of thieves trying to escape his district. One member of the band, Hussein (Saeed Jaffrey) breaks down under questioning and tells Savage of the cult of the Thuggees -- murderous thieves who have operated in secret for nearly 300 years. Wilson orders Savage to ignore his findings and release the prisoners, which terrifies Hussein, who fears death by the goddess Kali. Savage tells him, "My God protects me against Kali - if you help me, He will protect you also." With Hussein's help, Savage again applies the stain on his skin and goes undercover into the Thuggee cult to gather proof of their deeds in order to stop them.
The cult of the Thuggees had been explored in movies only a scant few times over the years, despite the sensational possibilities inherent in the crimes. Tapped as an exotic source of menace, elaborate versions of the organization and activities have been seen in such adventure stories as Gunga Din (1939) and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984). Hammer Films gave the Thuggees center stage in The Stranglers of Bombay (1959), which added a political motivation while highlighting the sadistic and horrific. The Deceivers is probably the only accurate portrayal of the Cult and their methods. A loose band of thieves, the Thuggee mode of operation was to subtly and slowly mix among a group of travelers, gain their trust, and at an appointed signal, murder the entire convoy via strangulation.
Though based on a novel, the inspiration for The Deceivers comes from the British civil servant William Sleeman. Sleeman did not infiltrate a gang of Thuggees, but he did persuade a captured Thug named "Feringhea" to turn King's evidence and provide details of the tribe's methods, effectively breaking of code of silence that had been in effect for hundreds of years. Travelers became educated and wary of infiltrators, and the true death knell for the Thugs came with progress and new modes of public transportation such as trains.
In his book The Films of Merchant Ivory, Robert Emmet Long writes, "The movie was slow in getting into production...and once into that stage presented such an array of problems as to stagger even Merchant." Financing for the picture came from a variety of sources, such as distributors Orion Pictures, Cinecom, Channel 4 Television in England, and a variety of private investors. The final budget of $5.2 million was raised, and during the process Merchant went through several prospective directors (including Stephen Frears and Marek Kanievska) before Nicholas Meyer took on the project. For the lead role, Merchant first sought out American actors Christopher Reeve and Treat Williams, and ultimately hired Pierce Brosnan. Brosnan had just completed a long run on the television series Remington Steele (1982-1987), and was setting his sights on features (he would inherit the role of James Bond beginning with GoldenEye in 1995).
Most critics at the time of release noted the awkward juxtaposition of a fact-based story that saddled itself with a blatantly fictional adventure yarn conceit. Writing in the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert asks derisively, "Do you believe that an upper-class British military officer in the 19th century could successfully infiltrate a desperate Indian cult by using body makeup and occasionally drawing his scarf over his face? If you do, then there is nothing you will not believe, and this film will probably seem too plausible to be enjoyable. Despite the film's claims to be based on fact, I didn't believe it for a moment. I did, however, enjoy it at various moments. Brosnan disappears so completely into the leading role that he hardly seems present in the movie, and the film's portrait of Victorian India is a triumph..."
Janet Maslin of the New York Times called The Deceivers "oddly old-fashioned" and "slightly fussy," and wrote that the film "...has an enjoyably touristy flavor and a hint of GUNGA DIN, but it's too muddy to make good use of either the mysticism or historical interest inherent in its story." Maslin also noted that "the tinniness of Michael Hirst's screenplay (It's older than time and just as mysterious) hardly helps bring this material to life, any more than Mr. Brosnan's unconvincing and (despite several episodes in which he proves himself capable of violent killing) rather passive performance."
Producer: Ismail Merchant
Director: Nicholas Meyer
Screenplay: Michael Hirst (screenplay); John Masters (novel)
Cinematography: Walter Lassally
Art Direction: Gianfranco Fumagalli, Ram Yedekar
Music: John Scott
Film Editing: Richard Trevor
Cast: Pierce Brosnan (William Savage), Saeed Jaffrey (Hussein), Shashi Kapoor (Chandra Singh), Helena Michell (Sarah Wilson), Keith Michell (Colonel Wilson), David Robb (George Anglesmith), Tariq Yunus (Feringea), Jalal Agha (The Nawab), Gary Cady (Lt. Maunsell), Salim Ghouse (Piroo)
By John M. Miller