Tasveer Ghar: A Digital Archive of South Asian Popular Visual Culture

Still Magic

An Aladdin's Cave of 1950s B-Movie Fantasy

Rosie Thomas

MAGICAL WORLDS

“Fantasies permit you to stretch your imagination, to think out tricks which will thrill the audience, it’s a bit like magic this fantasy film making.” 

Homi Wadia, film director and producer, interviewed in ‘Down Fantasy Lane,’ 1991.1

One of the greatest pleasures of trawling the Priya Paul archive is the haphazard nature of its material and the unexpectedness of what has been saved and collected. Several hundred cinema-related artefacts are here: mostly film stills, lobby cards and publicity brochures. But excitingly, the story they tell is quite unlike the conventional histories of Indian cinema. The great auteurs of 1950s and 1960s Indian cinema are, for the most part, barely represented: the archive boasts only a handful of stills from Raj Kapoor’s key films and just one, poignantly damaged, image of a Pyaasa dreamscape to stand in for Guru Dutt’s whole directorial oeuvre (fig. 02). Meanwhile, we are treated to a full set of pristine, bloodcurdling collages from the ‘jungle mighty thriller’ Adam Khor (Cannibal, Akkoo, 1955) (fig. 01) and almost two dozen charmingly theatrical photographs of Alif Laila (The Thousand and One Nights, K Amarnath, 1953) (fig. 03).

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Alongside these lie dozens of stills and ephemera from other B-movies of the fifties and sixties Bombay industry – long-forgotten films that were blithely ignored by the elite of their day, never made it into any history book, and which are now, for the most part, impossible to see. The traces of ‘trash’ in this archive may be one of the only keys to their fantastical worlds.

Where other essays in this series have focused on images of the everyday - albeit fantastical versions of quotidian life – this essay explores the archive’s visions of the overtly extraordinary - of magical worlds in which the impossible happens, of super-human bodies pushed to their extremes.

Two genres dominated India’s B-movie circuit in the 1950s: stunt and fantasy films – otherwise referred to as ‘fighting’ and ‘magic’ (or ‘jadoo’) films.  The former refers to all manner of action films, which invariably drew openly on the Hollywood ‘low’ genres popular in India since the silent era. India’s fantasy films, on the other hand, were spun around magical and wondrous happenings in a quasi-Arabian Islamicate setting, most drawing loosely on oral and literary traditions of the Arabian Nights.2 Despite the fact that, according to a 1956 film industry report, India’s first post-independence government and censor board ‘did not look favourably on magic and fighting films,’ stunt and fantasy film production did not, as that report asserts, ‘virtually cease’ in the 1950s.3  Far from it: these cheaply made films made good money on the mofussil4 and rural circuits, as well as the working class areas of larger cities. Bombay production companies like Homi Wadia's Basant Pictures, the kings of these genres, flourished. Although disdained by the elite, Basant somewhat redeemed its reputation by also producing mythologicals (stories of the Hindu gods), which appealed to the same subaltern audiences but were considered infinitely more respectable. But as the workers at Basant studios used to quip, ‘mythologicals were just… stunt films which happened to be about gods…’5

Magical worlds and superhuman feats have a long history within India’s mythological traditions, both its Hindu religious epics and its Islamicate legends. Such imagery also permeated the mythology of a ‘mystic east’ that fired the Victorian imagination across Europe. Travellers’ tales of the extraordinary happenings and sensual wonders to be found in India were accompanied by such images of snake charmers, fakirs and dancing girls as we find in the archive’s postcards and prints (figs. 04, 05, 06).

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In turn, British designers of turn-of-century textile labels drew on such imagery to feed into India’s own perceived appetite for the extraordinary (figs. 07, 08, 09). In fact, India had an ambivalent relationship to its own exoticism: the myth of the ‘mystic east’ was enthusiastically exploited by many of India’s own magicians, jugglers, conjurors, fakirs and mystics (see Lamont and Bates, 2007).6

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Such imagery did indeed reflect some realities of subaltern performance culture: Indian ‘jugglers’ (magicians) were an integral part of the street culture of the bazaars, alongside acrobats, snake charmers, and performing animals, even as late as the 1930s, according to Pran Nevile’s accounts of his Lahore childhood (Nevile 1997).7

Since the mid-eighteenth century the circus had been gradually introduced alongside this culture; by the start of the twentieth century Indian circuses, incorporating Indian traditional martial arts, acrobatics, magic and lion-taming acts, were travelling India’s entertainment circuits alongside circuses from Europe, Russia, Japan and elsewhere, inviting audiences to wonder at apparently impossible feats that confounded the rules of the ordinary world. All such shows celebrated bodies pushed to their extremes and wild beasts subdued by men’s - and women’s - remarkable powers.  An underclass of artistes from European, middle-Eastern, Indian and Anglo-Indian backgrounds provided the bodies that peopled these extravaganzas, which were, in many senses, transcultural shows, seen as ambiguously both modern and traditional. European and Asian traditions merged to present hybrid fantasies of exotic otherness. Anecdotal accounts suggest circus images were almost as popular as Hindu gods and goddesses in the turn-of-century magic lantern shows that toured India.8  It is perhaps not surprising that circus scenes found their way onto textile labels designed to encourage Indian consumers to buy British wares (figs. 10, 11 and 12).

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One image from the archive captures this transculturalism particularly strikingly (fig. 13). Speaking globalisation at every level, it is a textile label for Ralli Brothers, a famous family firm of nineteenth century global trading entrepreneurs.

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Originally from Greece, this formidable merchant family strategically dispatched its sons to open offices in London, Constantinople, Bombay and Calcutta, as well as Russia, Eastern Europe and the Middle East, (and latterly USA and China) and exploited early international trading markets in textiles, grain, silk and much else with extraordinary vigour and success.9

Ralli Brothers’ chosen image is of a female acrobat floating through clouds, her striped parachute held aloft.  Ostensibly a circus artiste, this dream-like image simultaneously invokes both the tradition of Indian acrobats and jugglers/magicians – tricks such as ‘the man seated in the air’ were legendary parts of their repertoires – and the ethereal qualities of the winged pari or fairy of Persian legend.  In keeping with circus artistes, the woman is scantily dressed for an Indian context and of ambiguous ethnicity. The distressed condition of this textile label – torn, stained, scratched and ineptly stuck together to produce a startlingly dismembered arm and jagged storm clouds beneath her - adds to a dramatic sense of danger and other-worldliness. It is a transcultural image of thrills - erotic and visceral - which keys into one of the most pervasive of human magical fantasies, the dream of flying. It also fortuitously provides a bridge between subaltern performance cultures and the B-movies, as we shall see.


1 Homi Wadia interviewed by Rajesh Rathore, ‘Down Fantasy Lane,’ in Cinema in India, Bombay: NFDC, April 1991, page 40.
2 Generic boundaries were, as always, fluid: ‘costume’ films ranged from Arabian Nights fantasy to quasi-Rajput and Ruritanian settings. ‘Historical’ and ‘legend’ films could be based on Hindu or Islamicate legends. Moreover all these genres included stunts and action.
3 Indian Talkie, 1931-56 (Silver Jubilee Souvenir), Bombay: Film Federation of India, 1956, page 81
4 ‘Provincial’ – i.e. outside the metropolitan centres - notably in smaller towns and rural areas.
5 Rosie Thomas, ‘Indian Cinema: Pleasures and Popularity,’ in Screen, Vol. 26, Nos. 3-4, May-June 1985, page 129.  Mythologicals were also known as ‘pauranik’ and ‘dhaarmik’ films in 1930s and 1940s.
6 Peter Lamont and Crispin Bates, ‘Conjuring Images of India in Nineteenth-century Britain,’ in Social History, Vol. 32, No 3, August 2007.
7 Pran Nevile, Lahore: A Sentimental Journey, New Delhi: Harper Collins, 1997.
8 Personal communication PK Nair, March, 2005.
9 They set up their offices in Bombay and Calcutta in 1851.

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