It is 1947. Now that India is no longer a British colony, politician Mohammed Ali Jinnah (Christopher Lee) sets himself a simple task: "To carve out a country. But how and where to start?" The founding father of Pakistan is faced with a King Solomon conundrum, but errs on the side of partition, with a new country that will safeguard the rights of the Muslim minority by breaking free of Hindi-dominated India. An advocate of fair play and religious freedom, Jinnah militates for a separation of faith and state.
Jinnah falls in love with Ruttie (Indira Varma), a Parsee who when she reaches 18 converts to the Muslim faith and marries him, while Jinnah's devoted sister Fatima (Shireen Shah) - a political activist in her own right ("We don't want the English to be our rulers, but we do want them to remain our friends") - renounces marriage so as to accompany her brother on "the long road of his destiny". And it is a long and bloody struggle, with Jinnah demanding of an English officer, "Are we just cannon fodder?" and claiming of the internecine carnage visited on hundreds of thousands of his compatriots in the name of independence: "I died a million deaths myself."
"Jinnah" strays from the straight and narrow biopic path by having a figure called The Narrator (Shashi Kapoor) trying to access data stored on computers imported from the future and escorting the black-clad Jinnah back in time. These debates - between Jinnah the elder statesman and Jinnah the young, ambitious self-described "soldier in the service of the birthright of Pakistan" - leaven the conventional period-picture format. Chief among the convincing performances, archetypal vampire Christopher Lee shows a commanding, imperturbable presence.
Consummately well filmed, "Jinnah" pays painstaking attention to period detail - barring, perhaps, the supernatural cleanliness of even the marauding crowds - and prides itself on its historical accuracy. Extensive research using such primary sources as Lord and Lady Mountbatten's diaries and interviews with Jinnah's private secretary and his daughter affords the political discourse a sense of authority and authenticity. Still, the spectral interventions notwithstanding, "Jinnah" reads at times like unstirring stretches of history-book speechifying - but watching it is a palatable way to learn about the people behind the birth of a nation.