In 19th century India, an English collector for the British East India Company discovers the existence of a secret cult who rob, strangle, then bury wealthy people traveling on the road.
R P Sondhj
Dilip Singh Rathore
H N Kalla
Tim Van Rellim
Michael A Carter
Denny Martin Flinn
Graham V Hartstone
Lee Lighting Ltd
P K Patel
M A Sattar
R P Sondhi
Mani Lal Vaghela
Tim Van Rellim
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
The Deceivers on DVD
The able director is Nicholas Meyer of The Seven-Percent Solution and Time After Time, but the big draw here is Pierce Brosnan. He cuts a fine form as a dedicated Englishman who goes undercover to expose a fiendish death cult.
Synopsis: 1825. The India Tea Company rules as a colonial power, and officers like William Savage (Pierce Brosnan) are expected to do as little as possible beyond collecting taxes in their districts. While helping the citizens, Savage uncovers evidence of a massive conspiracy of murderers. When his superior (his father-in-law) orders him to ignore it, Savage goes in disguise as a native and journeys with Hussein (Saeed Jaffrey) in search of a cult that has been murdering thousands of Indian citizens each year ... for centuries.
Movies have been using variations on the mysterious Thuggee cult of India as a catch-all for evil Eastern doings at least since George Stevens' Gunga Din, with the result that Arab and Hindu villains are still portrayed as glassy-eyed fanatics, killing at the behest of some profane God. When Our Man Flint wants to empty a nightclub, he simply puts a turban on his head and screams "Kali!" while shooting a pistol in the air.
The only film on the subject previous to The Deceivers is Terence Fisher's 1959 The Stranglers of Bombay, a gory Hammer horror that dwelled on tortures and mutilations: Branding, eye-gouging and tongue-cutting. Like Gunga Din, it distorted the Thuggee into a political terror organization dedicated to driving the foreign infidels out of India.
The Deceivers portrays the Thugs for what they were, a murderous organization of thieves that survived by maintaining absolute secrecy. According to historians, the cult prospered for six centuries before being discovered and eradicated in the 1820s after an investigation by a British officer named Sleeman. Pierce Brosnan's William Savage takes on this role, obtaining his evidence by dyeing his skin and living among the Thugs.
The expertise of the Merchant producing team creates a convincing colonial world with authentic costumes and credible cultural detail. A grieving Indian woman (Neena Gupta) plans to immolate herself over a missing husband that Savage suspects has been murdered by the cult. Savage captures a Thug named Hussain (Saeed Jaffrey of The Man Who Would be King) and convinces him that he can survive the vengeance of Kali if protected by a Christian crucifix. "My God is stronger than yours," claims Savage, a boast that will soon be put to the test.
Hussain and Savage join the evil band led by depraved nobleman Feringea (Tariq Yunus) and we see how the cult operates. Pretending to be beggars, the Thugs join passing caravans for protection. Feringea's men entertain their hosts; his own beautiful son dances to distract the merchant leader. At a predetermined signal, the Thugs whip out hidden cloth sashes and strangle the entire party simultaneously.
Savage is understandably horrified. He also discovers that other provincial governors seem to know about the Thugs, but instead of doing anything prefer to shake them down for extortion money. There's a growing unease when we realize that the Thugs have a potent spy organization of their own that reaches into the police force and even the personal staffs of the English overlords. Savage's deception can't last indefinitely.
Savage tries to limit his complicity to digging graves but is forced to kill along with the rest of the band. Feringea runs a terror organization and his stranglers are devout fanatics convinced that a horrible death awaits anyone that betrays Kali, the Hindu god-being warped by the Thugee leaders into a jealous and bloodthirsty monster.
As part of a Thug ritual, Savage partakes of a sugar cube laced with some unknown substance that produces terrifyingly vivid hallucinations. In a masterfully written and directed sequence, the drug is compared to the sacramental wafer in communion, while Savage's reality warps to turn one harlot into three women: Herself, the widow seen earlier and Savage's own wife (Helena Mitchell) left behind to provide cover for his activities. Savage hallucinates his lover as having six arms, like Kali herself, while the two women far away share a common vision of him falling into danger. As Hussain has warned, the ritual cube will make its partaker the property of Kali forever.
With exciting locales, well-directed action scenes (there's even a cavalry charge) and a number of chilling jolts worthy of the best horror movies, The Deceivers is an adventure thriller with a heady message about religious fanaticism and secret empires of crime. It's highly recommended.
Home Vision's DVD of The Deceivers looks fine but is slightly more grainy overall than most of the other Merchant/Ivory releases, with a couple of nighttime shots having some real problems. Thankfully, they're very brief and the prevailing impression is an appreciation for the lush cinematography of Walter Lassally and the fine production design by Ken Adam. The disc has no extras save for an excellent original theatrical trailer.
For more information about The Deceivers, visit Home Vision Entertainment. To order The Deceivers, go to TCM Shopping.
by Glenn Erickson
The Deceivers on DVD
Released in United States Fall September 9, 1988
Released in United States 1988
Released in United States June 18, 1990
Shown at Montreal World Film Festival August 24-September 4, 1988.
Completed shooting November 25, 1987.
Began shooting September 21, 1987.
Released in United States Fall September 9, 1988
Released in United States 1988 (Shown at Montreal World Film Festival August 24-September 4, 1988.)
Released in United States June 18, 1990 (Shown as part of series "The Films of Merchant Ivory" Los Angeles, June 18, 1990.)