“Who is Brando’s bride?” – headline in the Tucson Daily Citizen, 1957
Identity: a construct comprising what you were, what you are and sometimes what you want to be. How you see yourself, and how others see you. Your ancestry is part of it but so is where you grew up - sometimes one, sometimes the other, has the edge.
I’ve long been interested in identity, and in people who change, fictionalise or otherwise monkey around with their identity, so this was a must-read for me. But this is not a simple case of making up a new identity or changing one for another. Rather, it is about highlighting one part and rejecting or minimising another.
Anna Kashfi became famous in 1957 when she had the bad judgement to marry Marlon Brando and the worse luck to attract the notice of the British tabloid press, as reptilian in the 50s as they are today. She was presenting as Anglo-Indian, with the accent firmly on the latter; she wore saris, which as she later admitted, Anglo-Indian women generally didn’t; they favoured English dress, and indeed the Anglo-Indian community in general played up their English side because it got them privileges in India, like jobs on the railway.
This all changed after independence, and many Anglo-Indian families took ship for what, despite never having seen the place, they still called “home”. The Ranchi, in 1948, brought among many others the Webb family, complete with 12-year-old Harry, who would later be renamed Cliff Richard, and another railway family, the O’Callaghans, with their 15-year-old daughter Joan or Johanna.
This family went to live in South Wales. When their daughter, now a Hollywood starlet who had taken (or been given by the studio) the name Anna Kashfi for a film in which she played an Indian woman, married Brando, the British press somehow got on to the fact that she had briefly worked in a Cardiff butcher’s shop. Her parents then declared loudly that though she had indeed been born in India (Darjeeling, according to her father, though in fact it was Calcutta), they themselves had been born in London (also untrue; both were India-born) and that, according to her mother, there was “no Indian blood either in my family or my husband’s family” – the biggest lie of all, for as Broughton's research demonstrates, there was plenty in both.
The O’Callaghans, in fact, were being even less accurate about their origins than their daughter was. She was embroidering her past and exaggerating the “Indian” side of her ancestry, but they were entirely denying the Indian side of theirs. At the time their story was accepted completely and Anna seen as a fantasist, which she naturally saw as betrayal on their part. They in turn felt betrayed by her implicit rejection of them; she asserted for a while that her father was in fact a stepfather and seems at one stage to have invented two new parents for herself. One of the saddest things in the book is the account of the author’s meeting with her in the final years of her life; when although she was no longer referring to these fictitious parents, she did not call her real parents by that name either, referring to them always as “the O’Callaghans”.
Broughton’s book is well researched and organised and she goes beyond the Kashfi story to discuss the question of identity in three other young female stars of the time, Pier Angeli, Belinda Lee and Gia Scala, all of whom were to some degree reconstructed and destroyed by the film industry. They were in a trade where their job was assuming different identities, but when their real lives began to diverge in any way from the identity the studios had constructed for them, they were ruthlessly dropped.
It would have been fascinating to have seen the author’s unpublished interview with Kashfi as an appendix, and I’d also have liked an index along with the notes, photos and bibliography. But it’s an engaging and thought-provoking study of one of my favourite topics. I do wonder if the interview touched on Kashfi’s childhood in India and her feelings about leaving the place where she had grown up. The history of the British in India is littered with primary source accounts from children who bitterly resented being exiled from the warmth, colour and lushness of India to a grey unfriendly island with vile food, where it always seemed to be freezing cold. Kashfi’s embracing of her Indian side, so unlike her parents’ rejection, may have been partly for professional reasons, but is it possible that her parents’ first “betrayal”, in her eyes, was taking her aboard the Ranchi?