The heartbreaking story of childhood sweethearts from the slums of Mumbai whose upbringing in a Catholic orphanage sets them on divergent paths that will tear them apart.
Mumbai, India, 1945. Best friends KRISHNA (6) and RANI (6) scavenge the slum rubbish heaps for cola bottles they can sell. It’s a carefree, playful existence for these two childhood friends as everyone celebrates the Hindu festival of Holi, a vibrant spectacle of colour.
But everything is about to change. A deadly wave of Tuberculosis sweeps through their family’s make-shift dwellings killing Krishna’s father RAM. Kirshna’s mother VIDYA knows that she is not far behind. Desperate to ensure that her son is taken care of and educated, Vidya arranges for Krishna and Rani to be taken to the nearby Catholic Orphanage. Reluctant to leave his mother but reassured by her promises to visit, Krishna and Rani obey and are taken in by the Nuns at the Orphanage. Unbeknownst to Krishna, Vidya returns home, sets fire to her home and hangs herself as the flames take hold.
Krishna and Rani enter the alien world of the strict Catholic Orphanage and are immediately forced to convert from Hinduism to Catholicism. They are baptized and given the new names of CHRISTOPHER and SUSAN. The Nuns are tough, SISTER FABIAN and SISTER JOSEPHINE in particular, running the orphanage with chastisement and hard work. Only the kindly SISTER MARY really shows them any compassion as they struggle to adapt to this harsh new way of life. Susan (Rani) is grateful for the warmth, shelter, education and good food. Naturally obedient she quickly resigns herself to life in the orphanage. By contrast Chris (Krishna) is angry and resentful. He enjoys the PRIESTS teaching him football and boxing but it does little to counter the hatred he feels at his treatment at the hands of the Nuns. Slowly the childhood friendship between Chris and Susan becomes a first love and a sexual awakening. Chris and Susan try to steal moments together but for the most part the boys and girls are segregated.
Now aged 16 Chris is falling in love with Susan and the feeling is clearly mutual. Chris and Susan take leading roles in the Easter procession through the streets of the nearby shanty village, with Chris carrying the cross. The physical exertion in the stifling heat finally beats Chris who falls to the ground, dropping the cross. Limping and unable to carry on he is given permission to return to the Orphanage to be cared for by Susan. Finally alone together Chris admits to Susan that he has faked the limp. Chris and Susan vow to be together and finally give in to their desire for one another.
Whatever Chris’s dreams of his future, it is made clear to him that the Orphanage has other ideas. Soon he will be sent to Ireland to attend University and will then return to Mumbai to practice as a Priest. Chris is horrified and finally tells the Priest that he wants to leave the Orphanage and return to his mother. It is only now that he is told the truth; that his mother has long since passed away. Chris can’t bear the thought of having his life mapped out like this and tries desperately to persuade Susan to elope with him. Why can’t they run away together to a big city where he can get a job and she can work as a nurse? But Susan doesn’t have Chris’s desire to leave. Why would she give up a life of comfort, warmth and safety and risk ending up in the slums again?
Chris realises that Susan may love him but she doesn’t share his dream of leaving. If he’s to get out he will have to do it alone. A few months later Chris makes a dash for freedom, fleeing the Orphanage grounds as a bus arrives. Susan is almost tempted to leap aboard with him but Sister Mary holds her back, and she watches on sadly as Chris is driven away and out of her life.
Susan is punished for helping Chris escape. The Nuns force Susan to the ground and rub soap on her tongue for kissing him, chop off all her hair and parade her front of class. Susan’s humiliation removes any last flame of rebellion that might have been flickering and she resigns herself to her fate.
Chris uses his education to make a life for himself beyond the confines of Mumbai, eventually he finds himself having an affair with beautiful, newly-married housewife Nirmala. Like many women in her position, she is under enormous pressure to produce a son, fearing that if she does not she could be punished by having acid thrown in her face. Nirmala’s husband, as fearful as his wife, approves of the affair. Chris finally fathers a child for Nirmala and her husband who are delighted and grateful. Over the years other lovers come and go but Chris is never able to shake off his memories of his first love.
Mumbai 1961. A violent rainstorm darkens the skies above Chris as he tries to board a boat that will take him to England. But the boats are going nowhere in this storm so Chris is forced to stay in a rickety old hotel in the city. To his amazement he spots Susan who is wearing a long raincoat and her head is covered in the raincoats hood. He calls after her she clearly hears him but hurries away. He chases after her but outside in the pouring rain he loses her. He takes shelter in a nearby café and wistfully remembers his childhood with Susan as he watches children play outside the café in the pouring rain.
Chris finishes his drink and heads back to the riverbank to wait for the boat. Susan is there too and finally they see each other, but Susan remains reluctant to talk to Chris who is hurt and surprised by her coldness. When it becomes clear that no boats will leave tonight, Susan reluctantly agrees to go back and shelter with Chris at his hotel. Chris tries to rekindle their love for each other but she remains awkward and distant. He asks Susan for a valid explanation for not wanting to begin where they had left several years ago. She angrily removes her raincoat and throws it on the floor revealing her nun’s habit of pure white. She tells Chris that she is heading to Vishnu Island to work at the leprosy colony there. Chris is astonished and begs her not to go knowing that few people who go there ever come back. He tells her that the island has been cursed as Devil’s Island.
Chris reassures Susan he has always been in love with her but this only seems to trouble Susan more. She is clearly still in love with Chris but cannot give up her calling and duty and tells him that she remains resolute in her decision. The next morning Chris, in a desperate bid to get Susan to come with him, throws her nun’s habit out onto the muddy street below. A furious Susan slaps him but the rage turns to lust as the two childhood sweethearts tumble into bed together. They wake up and realise the time, rushing for the boat together, Susan finally agreeing to accompany Chris to England. They board the boat and Chris gets talking to a FRIEND. Susan hears the final calls from the boat leaving for Vishnu island and realises that she cannot abandon her religious calling. She quickly and quietly slips off the boat and boards the departing boat for the island. Chris realises and chases after her as her boat sets sail. A desperate Chris is left alone on the quayside.
It is 1970 and Chris is back in Mumbai, just in time for the extraordinary spectacle of the Festival of Lights. Searching for Susan once again, Chris boards a boat to Vishnu island but he finds only a ramshackle old convent still standing. An old nun answers his knock and tells him that Susan died four years ago after catching leprosy. A broken-hearted Chris visits Susan’s grave on the island as the old nun brings him Susan’s old suitcase and belongings. In it he finds his medallion that the nuns took from him at the convent and the photo he sent her after he left. Chris stands at her grave as a rainstorm breaks and Susan’s voice whispers to him on the wind.
Also featured in the story are:
15th August 1947: India’s Independent Day celebrations.
1947/8: Muslim refugees leaving India in droves for the newly formed Republic of East and West Pakistan.
31st January 1948: The grief in the streets after the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi.
1947/48: The British Military leaving for the UK and much more.