Fighting Indian stereotypes in 1934 Hollywood

based on a still from “Bombay Mail”

Lal Chand Mehra improved a movie with actors in brownface

Bombay Mail was a 1934 Hollywood murder mystery set on a train in India. Most of the characters were White, with a few Indian characters played by actors in brownface, but advisor Lal Chand Mehra did his best to keep the film as authentic as possible.

The Madera Tribune, a newspaper based in California’s Central Valley, ran an interview with Chand about his efforts to keep the film as authentic as possible:

One of the greatest problems in making motion pictures, according to Lal Chand Mehra, high caste Indian and noted technical advisor in Hollywood, is to make foreign motion pictures truly foreign.

Mehra, who has been technical man on a number of Hollywood successes, declares that there are thousands of natives of India in America, and that one false move on the screen destroys the illusion for them.

“On ‘Bombay Mail.’ a picture on which I recently worked,” declares Mehra, “it was necessary to build an entire Indian train — the ‘Imperial Indian Mail’ — to construct several stations and to see that each and every character, from brahmins to untouchables, were correctly costumed and correctly dressed.

“This was indeed a problem even for me, who has lived in India much of my life, and meant a great deal of research.

“The maharajahs are giving complete freedom as to color scheme and some of the cars which travel over the East Indian Railway, the Great Indian Penninsula Railway, the Bombay, Baroda and Central Indian Railway, and other lines, are riots of color.”

According to Mehra, maharajahs travel with as high as twenty or thirty servants and with another score as a retinue. This necessitates the use of an entire train, which looks like a cross between a barber pole and a candy cane. The stations were built of the same kind of stone as are Indian stations.