The film takes place in 1825 India. The country is being ravaged by Thuggees, a Kali-worshiping cult also known as "Deceivers," who commit robbery and ritualistic murder. Appalled by their activities, English Captain William Savage undertakes a dangerous mission in which he disguises himself, and infiltrates the Thugee cult. At constant risk of betrayal and vengeance, Captain Savage undergoes a disturbing psychological transformation, experiencing the cult's insatiable bloodlust for himself. The film was shot in various locations around the arid steppe region in northwestern India.Pierce Brosnan as William Savage
Saeed Jaffrey as Hussein
Shashi Kapoor as Chandra Singh
Shanmukha Srinivas as Hira Lal
Helena Michell as Sarah Wilson
Keith Michell as Colonel Wilson
David Robb as George Anglesmith
Tariq Yunus as Feringea
Jalal Agha as The Nawab
Gary Cady as Lt. Maunsell
Salim Ghouse as Piroo
Neena Gupta as The Widow
Nayeem Hafizka as Sepoy
Bijoya Jena as Harlot
H.N. Kalla as The Nawab Servant
Kammo as Official
The producer Ismail Merchant first approached writer and director Nicholas Meyer—fresh off his work on Volunteers and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home—through Meyer's agent about directing The Deceivers. Meyer reportedly agreed to a substantial pay cut in order to direct the film, remarking, "Hollywood is making films I have no interest in seeing, machined tooled, packaged, with a lot of numbers after their names. The studios don't just want home runs. They want grand slams. Anything less than $100 million is not interesting to them."
Christopher Reeve and Treat Williams were originally considered for the part of William Savage, but Meyer successfully lobbied to have an actual Englishman in the role. In his memoir The View from the Bridge, Meyer wrote, "'Here's a story about an Englishman who disguises himself as an Indian,' I reasoned. 'If you cast this actor, you will have an American disguising himself as an Englishman, disguising himself as an Indian. We will be lost in the stunt, even if he pulls it off, and not pay attention to the story and the things we want to take for granted, i.e., that it concerns an Englishman.'" The part ultimately went to Pierce Brosnan, whom Meyer fondly described as "Errol Flynn—with talent."
Shooting took place over a four-month period in India while post-production was completed in London. Filming was marred with difficulties from the onset. According to Meyer, the production was subject to frequent disruption from the local Jaipur mafia for declining to make any dealings with their leader. Meyer wrote, "Scores of hooligans stormed through our sets while we were rolling; equipment was sabotaged or stolen; 'cultural' societies were founded for the sole purpose of suing us, alleging pornographic distortions of Indian culture." At one point, Ismail Merchant and co-producer Tim Van Rellim were arrested for "obscenity and misrepresentation of Hindu culture." Among the allegations was that the production filmed a Sati as one really happened. Merchant responded to the allegations with disgust, saying, "What happened was a mockery—people taking advantage of democratic principles in order to whip up a frenzy."
Despite the disruptions, Meyer spoke highly of his Indian production crew, stating, "One day when we needed our tulip crane for a big shot, I was flummoxed to learn that four of its bolts had been stolen, incapacitating a vital piece of equipment. I don't deal well with last minute alterations to The Plan, but my Indian crew managed to mill four new bolts by the time we were ready to roll."
The Deceivers was not a box office success. The film earned only $346,297 in the North American market against an estimated $5-6 million budget.
The Deceivers was released on 2 September 1988 and received mostly negative reviews from film critics. The film currently has a 20% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 5 reviews.
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film a mediocre review and stated that, "Despite the film's claims to be based on fact, I didn't believe it for a moment. I did, however, enjoy it at various moments. Brosnan disappears so completely into the leading role that he hardly seems present in the movie, and the film's portrait of Victorian India is a triumph (the production was designed by the British master of period atmosphere, Tony Adams). It looks great even at its most incredible." Janet Maslin of The New York Times also thought negatively of the film, stating "The tinniness of Michael Hirst's screenplay (It's older than time and just as mysterious) hardly helps bring this material to life, any more than Mr. Brosnan's unconvincing and (despite several episodes in which he proves himself capable of violent killing) rather passive performance." Maslin then went on to say that, "In its own way, The Deceivers is oddly old-fashioned." Hal Hinson of The Washington Post called it "an adventure epic with a pretty measly sense of adventure." He added, "There are a few patches of exotic fun, like the opening murder scene, and there's a seductive campfire dance by a young boy that's creepy enough to send chills (though perhaps inadvertently). But for the most part all we react to is the squandering of a good idea."
Conversely, Jay Boyar of the Orlando Sentinel gave the film modest praise, saying it "casts quite a spell, combining supernatural overtones with scenes of shootings, stabbings and (especially) strangulations. Without being crude or exploitative it tells its story in a modest, old-fashioned way with no reliance on gratuitous gore."
The Deceivers was released on DVD through The Criterion Collection.