What Thugs of Hindostan is (not) about: A ‘breathtaking’ period of Indian history

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You want to watch Thugs of Hindostan. Admit it. You’ve sneered at the trailer and done your bit to spread the noble memes  but you’ll eventually head over to the theatre and watch it. Will you?

If you were to visit the Wikipedia page of the film any time in the past couple of years, you’d find mention of a book the film was supposedly based on. A rather obscure tome called Confessions of a Thug, authored by a certain Philip Meadows Taylor. Director Vijay Krishna Acharya vehemently denies any connection to a book. “Since there is the word thug in the title, it has been linked to a book”, he says. The film is a fantasy set in 1795, featuring the clash between Firangi (Aamir Khan) and Azaad (Amitabh Bachchan). Let’s indulge in a bit of fantasy of our own, shall we?

The aforesaid book is responsible for introducing the term ‘thug’ to the English lexicon. It is also the only work ever to contain the exact phrase ‘Thugs of Hindostan’ before the film came along. The protagonist Ameer Ali (cough, cough) – a “thug” – was fashioned after Feringhea (an anglicised version of Firangi) – the ‘prince of thieves’. But who were these Thugs?

A Doctor and a Frenchman in Aurangzeb’s India

John Fryer
John Fryer

In the late 1600s, John Fryer was one of the first to write about the cult of Thuggees for the first time. Fryer, after securing a degree in medicine from Trinity College, Cambridge, was offered a job as a surgeon at the British East India Company. He set sail for India. In the one year that took him to reach the shores of Bombay (or “Bombaim” as he called it, after the Portugese), Fryer wrote detailed accounts of his experiences in the Orient, including references to the “great Mogul”, Aurangzeb – who was ruling at the time.

In one of his “letters” dated 1675, he describes a band of thieves brought in for execution. An old man and his two sons – the youngest less than fourteen years old. It fascinated Fryer no end to see this group rather merry and cheerful going to the gallows, actually humming a song on their way, and smoking tobacco, “as if going to a wedding’. The young boy boasted that though he was barely fourteen, he’d killed fifteen men. Fryer was told these were a particular kind of bandits. Fryer explains – they used to lurk in dark pathways, throwing a piece of cloth weighed at one end by a ‘device’ around the neck of unsuspecting passengers, pinning them on the ground and strangling them, before looting their valuables.

Another traveller who recounted his journey through India was Jean De Thevenot, who writes, around 1666-67:

“The cunningest Robbers in the World are in that Countrey. They use a certain Slip with a running noose, which they can cast with so much slight about a Man’s Neck, when they are within reach of him, that they never fail; so that they strangle him in a trice.
They have another cunning trick also to catch Travellers with:
They send out a handsome Woman upon the road, who with her Hair dishevelled, seems to be all in Tears, sighing and complaining of some misfortune which she pretends has befallen her: Now as she takes the same way that the Traveller goes, he easily falls into Conversation with her, and finding her beautiful, oers her his assistance, which she accepts; but he hath no sooner taken her up behind him on his Horse-back, but she throws the snare about his Neck and strangles him, or at least stuns him, until the Robbers (who lie hid) come running to her assistance and compleat what she hath begun. But besides that, there are Men in those quarters so skilful in casting the Snare, that they succeed as well at a distance as near at had; and if an Ox or any other Beast belonging to a Caravan run away, as sometimes happens, they fail not to catch it by the Neck.”

The Raj and its vanishing men

Early 19th century. The Queen hadn’t taken over India’s reins yet. The British East India Company ruled the subcontinent. And people were disappearing, vanishing into thin air. It wasn’t just a handful of people who left home for work or the market and never came back. Whole troupes of travellers, wedding parties, groups of merchants, pilgrims, Hindu farmers, Muslim traders, rich noblemen, poor fakirs travelling together were disappearing without a trace, never to be heard from again. Even some ill-fated soldiers of The Company, travelling on leave from their posts never reached home. Nor did they come back ever again. Their senior officers would wait for a while and when there was no word, their names were scratched off with a red pencil, marked as “Deserter”.

The Company, with its few thousand-strong police force, was unable to deal with a complex and impossibly vast nation of millions. A few cases were reported, but those were dark times – murder, loot and arson were commonplace. With the Mughal dominion at its end and a confused bunch of traders taking their place, their was no central military power to hold the fort. A skeleton of a police force existed, but were inadequate to deal with these disappearances – and the absence of a robust media or communication infrastructure ensured that most of these cases were never heard about or forgotten soon. But the numbers were staggering. In 300 years preceding the 19th century, an average of 40,000 people were disappearing every year. EVERY YEAR, for 300 years. What happened to these multitudes of people?

Sleeman, Mowgli, Firangi and Hollywood

Mowgli_dosen't_want_Kaa_to_hypnotize_himSir William Henry Sleeman should have been affectionately known as the man who inspired the creation of Mowgli. Around 1852, Sleeman wrote An Account of Wolves Nurturing Children in Their Dens, narrating the story of a British trooper traveling to Sultanpur (now in UP) observing a she-wolf parading with her cubs, followed around by a man-child hopping along on all fours. The boy, apparently, was raised by her. Rudyard Kipling’s Mowgli (and some say, even Tarzan) was ostensibly based on this boy. But instead of being adored for this cutesy discovery, W.H. Sleeman has gone down in history as ‘Thuggee’ Sleeman, for his landmark contribution in crushing the ruthless cult.

It was Syed Amir Ali a.k.a. Feringhea (of course, “Firangi” to his Indian brethren) who first told him about the killings. How this band of marauders would strangulate travellers with their unique ‘roomal’ and bury their bodies in ways that they would never be discovered. They had been carrying out this practice for years. Centuries, actually. And for these people, this was their religion, a sacred tradition that they dare not defy. They will be known as Thuggees.

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Sleeman may very well have run a cold sweat when Feringhea told him, with his habitual charm and gentle disposition that the bodies of a Pandit and his six followers were buried under the very tent they were standing in right then. Sure enough, the bodies were recovered and Feringhea went on to tell him their story.

In the late 1830s, Queen Victoria was made aware of a an upcoming book that exposed a gruesome aspect of her Indian subjects. Deeply intrigued, she summoned her Man Friday and arranged for the proofs of the manuscript. What emerged from her reading was the stark image of a ruthless, violent but methodical killer named Ameer Ali, who narrates to a British officer the story of his brethren, a cult of ritualistic stranglers who went about their work with utmost devotion and religious intensity. The book was called Confessions of a Thug, and was written by Philip Meadows Taylor, son of a Liverpool merchant who was now employed with the Nizam of Hyderabad. Legend has it, the character of Ameer Ali was fashioned after Feringhea, while the British officer was none other than William ‘Thuggee’ Sleeman..

The book also talks about Ismail, an elderly and respected thug who adopts Ameer as his son and initiates him into their cult. There are details of their rituals, worship and procedures. They even had specific jargon they used (according to Sleeman, this special language was called Ramasi). They would eat a consecrated gur (jaggery) and wait for a sign from the Goddess. Once the desired omen presented itself, they would go for the kill. The book explains several stories (derived from real life accounts of Feringhea/ Firangi) of how Ameer and his gang would befriend travellers, sing and dance with them, and when time comes, they’d indulge in ‘Jhirni’ – some of the thuggees would distract the victims while the others would pounce upon them, strangling them with the roomal and breaking their neck. The ‘roomal’ was a sacred handkerchief/ scarf to which they tied a special, heavy coin on one end so that it ties around the victim’s neck neatly before they pull.

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Before Kipling’s Jungle Book, Confessions of a Thug was the most popular novel about ‘exotic India’ in the west. So much so that the word ‘thug’ made its way to English lexicon (Yup. ‘Thug life’ owes a debt or two to Philip M. Taylor. Or Feringhea. Or his Thuggee brothers).

Over the years, many have disputed the ritualistic details of the cult, and the very claim that it was indeed a ‘cult of killers’. It sure reeks of the imperial obsession with Exotic India. Hollywood films like The Stranglers of Bombay (1959) and Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom (1984) took this obsession to a whole different level, so much so that the latter film was banned in India, for its inaccurate depiction of the bloodthirsty Indian cult that sacrificed their prey to Kali.

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In the late 1980s, Ismail Merchant made a film on a novel called The Deceivers, an account of a swashbuckling English officer called William Savage who infiltrated a band of thugs (called ‘Deceivers’ here – a straight translation of ‘Thuggee’) and nearly lost his sanity to the evil goddess Kali and became rather adept at wielding the roomal. In the film, Savage was played by an early Pierce Brosnan (supported by an amazing Saeed Jaffrey and a bloated Shashi Kapoor), who smears himself with brown paint to go undercover and look like an Indian thug. His debut as James Bond was still seven years away.

Satyajit Ray and Sripantha

“‘Let me show you something. Can you tell me what this is?’ said Jeevanlal, opening a cupboard and taking out a square piece of cloth. What made it special was that one corner was knotted around a small stone.
Feluda frowned, then swung the cloth a few times in the air. ‘Topshe, stand up for a minute.’
I rose. Feluda stood a few feet away from me swinging the cloth once more. Then he threw it at me as though it was a fishing net. The end that was knotted around the stone wound itself round my neck instantly.
‘Thugee!’ I cried.
Feluda had told me about thugees. They were bandits who used to attack travellers in this fashion and then loot their possessions. One swift pull was usually enough to tighten the noose and kill their innocent victims.
Feluda nodded, took the cloth away and asked, ‘Where did you get something like this?’”

The above is a rather mundane translation of an electric passage from the adventures of Feluda, a detective created by eminent filmmaker Satyajit Ray (what! You haven’t read Feluda? Go get it. I’ll wait for you right here. No, seriously. Among Bengalis, his exploits are way more popular than Byomkesh Bakshi. So go. I’m here.)

A Bong kid growing up in the 70s-90s was spoilt for choice in terms of the rich array of content available to them. The volume of Bengali literature written for young adults was mind-boggling. Action-adventure was the most popular genre, obviously. And the word Thuggee (ঠগী) kept cropping up from time to time.

In 2004, The Telegraph reported a senior journalist named Nikhil Sarkar who passed away at his Salt Lake residence in Kolkata. Not many remember him today, but Bengali literature aficionados knew him by his pseudonym: Sripantha. In 1958, Sripantha wrote his seminal work ‘Thogi” (Thuggee) his impassioned but meticulously researched work on the bandits, their history, rituals and how their various strands spread across the length and breadth of India. He describes in elaborate detail the floating thugs of Bengal, who infested the waterways of Faridpur and Burdwan, the Bhaginas, the Pangus, the Makfansas, the Thyangares, the Dhutiriyas. All these were different orders of killing bandits, with rules and customs of their own. But the most dreaded among them were the true Thuggees, the ones who used the roomal to kill.

‘Thugs of Hindostan’

“The booty we were to possess, the tact with which the whole matter had been managed from the first, would mark it as an enterprise of a superior description, one that any one of us would be proud to mention, and which would cause a considerable sensation, not only in the country, but among the numerous bands of Thugs of Hindostan, more especially those we were to rejoin at the conclusion of our season.” – Ameer Ali, ‘Confessions of a Thug’

For the longest time, the Imdb page of the movie Thugs of Hindostan listed Aamir Khan as the dreaded Ameer Ali, and Amitabh Bachchan as the venerable Ismail, his mentor. And it all made sense. It would have been a spectacular adventure, with Aamir playing the brooding, ruthless but talented killer, and Amitabh Bachchan acing the role of the evil patriarch. One can only imagine what a splendid film it would have been!

Maybe the film was based on the book. Maybe someone along the way decided to tame it, tone it down and make it a ‘fantasy’ about rebels in the high seas. We’ll never know the truth. Only Aamir Khan’s character in the film is still called ‘Firangi’.

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