‘Murder – their religion!’
The Stranglers of Bombay is a 1959 British adventure horror feature film directed by Terence Fisher. The Hammer Films production stars Guy Rolfe (Dolls; Puppet Master films), Allan Cuthbertson, Andrew Cruickshank, George Pastell, Marne Maitland and Jan Holden.
The plots focuses on the British East India Company’s investigation of the cult of Thuggee stranglers in the 1830s.Unlike most Hammer films, Stranglers of Bombay is somewhat historically accurate in describing the religious cult of Kali and the deaths of thousands — some believe millions — at the hands of the Thugs (also known as thaga, pronounced “tahg”). Eventually, the British colonialists succeeded in eradicating the cult, which may have originated as far back as the 6th Century.
Captain Harry Lewis (Guy Rolfe), of the British East India Company, is investigating why over 2000 natives are missing but encounters a deaf ear from his superior, Colonel Henderson, who is more concerned with the local English merchants’ caravans which are disappearing without a trace.
To appease them, Henderson agrees to appoint a man to investigate and Lewis believes it will be him. However, he is sorely disappointed when Henderson gives the job to the newly arrived, oblivious Captain Connaught-Smith.
Lewis believes a gang is murdering both the men and animals of the caravans and then burying the bodies. He presents the haughty new man with his evidence, his theories, and later his personal experience of actually seeing the cult but the captain is antagonistic and derisive towards Lewis who eventually resigns his commission in frustration to investigate on his own.
Meanwhile, the merchants decide to band together and create a super-caravan whose size will discourage the bandits, they believe. Ram Das, Lewis’ houseboy, believes he has seen his brother, Gopali, who disappeared some years ago, and receives permission to search for him. Lewis learns that Ram Das has been captured by the Thugs when his severed hand is tossed through the window of his bungalow. Soon after, the Thugs compel Gopali Das, a new initiate of the cult, to kill his brother, the dismembered Ram. The hidebound Captain Connaught-Smith leads the caravan and foolishly allows the stranglers in the guise of innocent travellers to join them. That night, the Thugs strike with their usual success.
The Stranglers of Bombay may be somewhat based in fact, but that doesn’t stop it from being one hell of an exploitative film. Made in 1959 and with its politically and racially volatile setting, it would be difficult for it to not at least be a little offensive. I found it hard to judge exactly how racist The Stranglers of Bombay is. Sure, there are white actors in brown face thrown amongst the true Indians and the mixture of accents is careless, but this is not out of the norm in a film from the 50s. The racism in The Stranglers of Bombay is inconsistent and somewhat confusing.
The film’s protagonist – the white Captain Harry Lewis (Guy Rolfe – clearly filling in for Peter Cushing) – seems to love India and wants to save the locals from slaughter from the “strangling cult”. Yet, for every time he says something positive like “Indians never desert their families”, he’ll refer to an Indian as “boy” or aggressively interrogate a shopkeeper asking “are you not interested in what happens to your kind?” Every Indian character is either weak and needs the British helping hand or a murdering member of the Thuggee cult. While I don’t believe it was entirely deliberate, there is a underlying message that without Britain, India is screwed. At the same time, the British – other than our hero – aren’t shown in a good light either. The British in The Stranglers of Bombay are pompous and put business over human life.
It’s not the racism – I’ve seen far, far worse – in The Stranglers of Bombay that makes it the crass film that it is. It’s the violence – or, to be precise, the cruelty of the violence. There are gorier Hammer films than The Stranglers of Bombay, but none quite as brutal. The film starts innocently enough with the Thuggee cult – those that have seen Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) will see where Spielberg drew his influence from – in the middle of a ceremony where a cult member has his arm sliced and burnt with a branding iron. It’s nothing particularly alarming and certainly does not prepare us for the carnage to come.
The first moment of shocking cruelty comes when two Thuggees have their eyes burnt out and tongues removed for allowing “sacred silk to fall into the hands of an unbeliever”. (The silk, by the way, is for strangling.) The scene is horrific, without showing much on screen violence. Fisher cuts way before the iron penetrates the first man’s eye, we cut to Patel Shari (Marne Maitland), the man who condemned them to their punishment, listening to their screams and shivering. Shari then returns to see the men moaning and crawling on the ground, blood pouring from their empty eye sockets and mouths.
The torture doesn’t end there for these poor characters. In what is the film’s most disturbing scene, the now eyeless and tongueless ex-Thuggees are placed in a cage where a female Thuggee (Marie Devereaux) tosses them scraps of food and water. They scramble for the food, scoffing it down on their hands and knees like animals, the woman disturbingly smiles as she watches them suffer. The Stranglers of Bombay is still censored even to this day. The original cut omits a few more moments where Marie Devereaux smiles and laughs at the torture and death of prisoners. But the censors allowed one more moment of intense cruelty from Devereaux to remain intact. In a scene where our hero is tied to rocky ground in the terrible heat, Devereaux watches him, amused, while she happily drinks water. It’s a simple, but disturbing, act of evil.
The scene where Captain Lewis is taunted by Devereaux continues down a creatively cruel path. The Thuggee leader (The Mummy‘s George Pastell) slices open Lewis’s leg and lets a cobra loose to finish him off. The act is interrupted by a mongoose, and we then endure an obviously real fight between the mongoose and snake. The Thuggees engage in many more moments of shocking barbarity. A man is forced to strangle his own brother, an entire caravan of travelers are murdered, a gory severed hand is tossed through a window as a warning to Lewis and his wife and thirty corpses with broken necks are uncovered and revealed as victims of the Thuggees. A particular standout of madness is where a brainwashed Thuggee, arrested by the British, gleefully throws himself into the noose at a public hanging. But it is not only the Thuggees that provide the shocks, the British also engage in a few acts of nastiness. During interrogation, a British officer forces an old Indian man to close his eyes and walk around a room blindfolded to prove an obscure point. It’s quite an unpleasant moment.
Despite being obnoxious and politically incorrect movie, The Stranglers of Bombay is nonetheless entertaining. Just like Temple of Doom, it is an adventure movie with moments of surprising brutality. And those adventure elements make for an oddly enjoyable viewing. The sets and locations are fantastic and Fisher captures them with beautiful black and white photography. Early on, Fisher shows us the village where the majority of the film is set in with a series of excellent tracking shots. It’s obvious from this point that, despite its low budget, The Stranglers of Bombay is a technically well-made movie. Its visual slickness combined with its gritty storytelling make for an absurd and exciting blend.
The Stranglers of Bombay won’t please everyone and – even today – it will offend some, but it is a bizarrely captivating slice of Hammer history.
Dave Jackson, MOVIES and MANIA
“As befits its origins at a studio most strongly associated with horror, The Stranglers of Bombay is an atypically dark and morbid adventure movie, and remains well worth seeking out despite a few clunky performances and an ending that proves unsatisfying in bad ways as well as good.” 1000 Misspent Hours and Counting
“What is highly unusual about this film is not only its exotic set up (Thugees were rarely ever given centre stage in a movie before), but also its bleak approach to the subject matter. When Lewis gets stone walled he may ultimately be able to expose the cult, but fails to prevent a single attack and instead is faced with a freshly dug mass grave and a prime villain still at large.” Holger Haase, Hammer and Beyond