THE FURNACE: Film about Australia’s “Ghan” Muslim and Sikh Cameleers

THE FURNACE is an unlikely hero’s tale, navigating greed and the search for identity in a new land.

THE FURNACE: Film about Australia’s “Ghan” Muslim and Sikh Cameleers
(Gurmukh Singh OBE, UK)

“Since coming to Australia [in 1980] I have been intrigued by the number of non-Sikhs who carry the name “Singh”….I developed a habit of stopping in small towns in Australia on long journeys and checking the local telephone directories. I was never once disappointed, there were always a handful of “Singh” surnames. I wondered if they had Sikh connections.” (Dya Singh, The Sikhs: Putting the Record Straight, Introduction to his BA dissertation in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Administration, University of South Australia.)

 

I am reminded of Dya Singh’s project as I read the “Film Synopsis” of THE FURNACE (writer-director Roderick Mackay) to be released on 10 December this year. To quote, “ Set in the 1890s gold rush of Western Australia, THE FURNACE is an unlikely hero’s tale, navigating greed and the search for identity in a new land. This film illuminates the forgotten history of Australia’s ‘Ghan’ cameleers – predominantly Muslim and Sikh men from India, Afghanistan, and Persia – who traversed the nation’s vast desert interior, forming unique bonds with local Aboriginal people.”

Dya Singh, was most pleasantly surprised when invited to a special advance screening of the film on 26 November by Harjit Singh who introduced himself as the Sikh consultant over the last two and a half years in which he had the privilege of being consulted on the script, story, history, culture, costume and filming in Western Australia's beautiful rugged interior.  

In 1994, Dya started his research by gathering information on Sikhs in the early days of white settlement of South Australia and the hinterland. The result was his successful BA research project and dissertation submitted on 17 November 1994.  That pioneering research was probably the trigger for further research by many others.

The conclusion, in his well-documented 30 pages dissertation based on case studies, was, “I am therefore of the opinion that further research on Sikhs could prove conclusively the strong representation of Sikh input in the growth of the hinterland from South Australia and also the strong connections with Aboriginal people of this region.”  He was right.

To quote, community activist Baldev Singh Dhaliwal JP of South Australia, “This should be interesting! Australian Sikh Heritage Trail team have done excellent work. There is a website of their work.  Met Harjit Singh in Adelaide a few years back. The team had organised the 100th anniversary remembrance in Adelaide of a South Australian Sikh soldier Private Saran Singh.  For the evening, Harjit had also facilitated a presentation by a professor on early Sikhs in Australia.”

The Furnace - Mahesh Jadu.jpg

The impression gained from Dya Singh’s observation after watching the movie is that for the very first time, Sikhs are portrayed in the right spirit . Full keshadhari, unlike Muslims, with beards and moustaches intact. Though they have only minor roles,  two Sikhs play important parts.  Both portray leadership, service orientation and bravery - strong Sikh values.  

In the final credits,  for the first time,  Sikhs are mentioned for the first time besides the general term Afghans as being responsible for the opening of the hinterland of Australia as cameleers.

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The movie portrays the true rawness of the Australian hinterland, harsh conditions and lawlessness. Not a movie for children due to some violence. Otherwise an excellent period, end of 19th and beginning of 20th Century Australian  movie.  It was no place for women those days, so there are no women portrayed in the movie. 

Harjit Singh of Sikh Heritage Trail,  Australia must be commended as he was consultant in the movie for Sikh religion.

To quote Dya, “I just wish to highlight the movie from the Sikh angle. Refreshingly, for a change, Sikhs and Sikhi were represented in a good positive light inculcating Sikh values of kindness and bravery in defending the rights of others even at the loss of life. There are two Sikh characters in the movie. It was also heart-warming that Sikhs, for once, were mentioned alongside the Afghans (Muslims) as being responsible for the opening up of the hinterland of Australia. I enjoyed it very much. I recommend all Sikhs to watch. I must warn though that it is not a movie for kids. There is violence as that period was,  in the history of Australia.”

Harjit Singh is to be congratulated for an excellent job as consultant on Sikhism in the movie. 

THE FURNACE film story summary: “To escape a harsh existence and return home, a young Afghan cameleer (Ahmed Malek, Clash) partners with a mysterious bushman on the run with two 400oz Crown-marked gold bars (David Wenham, Dirt Music). Together the unlikely pair must outwit a zealous police sergeant (Jay Ryan, IT Chapter Two) and his troopers in a race to reach a secret furnace – the one place where they can safely reset the bars to remove the mark of the Crown.”

A must watch for Sikhs.

THE FURNACE - Umbrella Entertainment (umbrellaentfilms.com.au)

A list of the cinemas showing the film near you can be found here https://www.umbrellaentfilms.com.au/movie/the-furnace/ 

THE FURNACE (2020) Trailer | In Cinemas December 10 - YouTube
(Best trailer)

 

Gurmukh Singh OBE
Ret’d Principal Civil Servant, UK
E-mail: [email protected]
5 December 2020

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