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

Still Magic

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

BRUTE STRENGTH

 

Gimmicks wasn’t a dirty word then, one had to think very hard and be absolutely inventive while presenting flying carpet rides and action scenes. Chase sequences, fencing, horseback riding, daredevilry, were part of the fun. 

Homi Wadia on fantasy (op. cit. 1991).
 

Fig.29
Fig.30

Displays of fighting and pumped-up male bodies were as important to fantasy films as the special effects that created their fantastical worlds, as these composite images from Aladdin indicate.  In fig. 29, Aladdin has challenged a villainous courtier to a sword-fight to save the princess he loves from the clutches of her father’s wicked usurper. Further duels to win her handand save her lifetake place within the enchanted palace that we seein miniature in the top of the framebalanced on the edge of a waterfall by the giant djinni.25 In fig. 30, Aladdin arm-wrestles the villain’s henchman. In fact, action and ‘thrills’ had been a key component of all popular genresmythologicals, costume, stunt and fantasy filmssince the silent era, when Hollywood action serials flooded the Indian market. In the 1920s Douglas Fairbanks was as big a star in India as across the rest of the world: both Mark of Zorro and Thief of Bagdad made their mark on Indian audiences, with Homi and Jamshed Wadia foremost amongst their admirers. In Aladdin Mahipal plays a swashbuckling hero directly in the Fairbanks’ mould, displaying much of the balletic agility of Fairbanks’ Baghdad thief. He fights, he fences, he wrestles, he jumps, he dances and he romances.

But if Aladdin’s swashbuckling heroics were inspired by the 1924 Hollywood Thief of Bagdad, the djinni borrows directly from a later, British, version of the tale: Thief of Bagdad (Alexander Korda, 1940), which established the visual and performance style of many subsequent Indian djinn.26 However, this is not simply a rip-off of a successful Western film: Indian audiences would have immediately recognised the figure as an archetypal wrestler’s (or pahalwan’s) body. Indeed, the role was played by Vasantrao Pahalwan, who, like several of the stars of early action cinema and the B movies, came from Bombay’s wrestling community. Moreover, Indian wrestling developed within its own long and distinctive martial arts traditionsquite independently of western wrestlingwith Hindu and Muslim variants celebrating, respectively, Hanuman and Ali. Most cities had akharas (gymnasia), communities in which boys and young men could learn wrestling and its strict disciplines: rigorous training regimes, high fat diets, religious ritual and celibacy (see Alter 1992).27 Wrestling was central to subaltern male performance cultures of early twentieth century India: its champions became folk heroes, celebrated with nationalist zeal, as these Kanpur posters, which probably circulated in the 1930s, suggest (figs. 31-34, see also Picture of the Month October 2009, here@Tasveerghar).

Fig.31
Fig.32
Fig.33
Fig.34

Gama, ‘Lion of Punjab,’ was a legend even amongst wrestling heroes. Undefeated throughout his life, his daily diet included ten litres of milk, half a litre of ghee, a litre and a half of butter, and two kilograms of fruit.28 In 1910 in London, Gama and his brother, Imam Bakhsh, routed a succession of Europeans who, to that date, had considered themselves ‘champions;’ in 1928 Gama definitively defeated the European Zbyszko, the previous world champion, in forty-two seconds in front of forty thousand triumphant spectators in Patiala. After that, no one agreed to fight him again. Hamida, who fought as one of his proxies, was also part of this extraordinary Punjabi Muslim extended family, which provided nationalist role models to lower class men.29

Fig.35

At the same time, international fantasies of superhuman masculinity and machismo circulated in India through the iconic figure of Tarzan, the half-wild man of ‘civilised’ origins.30 JBH Wadia's memoirs tell of the popularity in India of Hollywood’s 1918 Tarzan, but stress that it was the films of Johnny Weissmuller in the 1930s that 'soon made Tarzan a household name even in remote small towns of India.'31 Thus it is no surprise to find a deshi Tarzan adorning local matchboxes. Seamlessly transposed to a fantastical south Indian setting, amidst rice fields and sugarcane groves, Tarzan plunges his dagger into a lion’s jaws, his obedient ape companion at his side (fig. 35).

Fig.36

The Wadia brothers quickly capitalised on the Tarzan brand: Homi Wadia directed Toofani Tarzan (Tempestuous Tarzan), 'India’s first jungle adventure film,' in 1937 (fig. 36), remaking it as the Zimbo series from 1958 (figs. 3740).  Crucially, as JBH explains, they didn’t simply lift the tale but ‘placed [their] screenplay in an Indian setting,’ adding a Sufi philosopher and Tarzan’s crazy mother to the narrative mix (see Thomas 2005).32  Whilst much could be written about this archive’s half dozen glorious, hand-coloured, cinema lobby collages from the now lost film, Zimbo, this would take us far outside the scope of the present essay. Here I refer to them only to make some simple comparisons and contextualise the fantasy films.

Fig.37
Fig.38

Fig.39

Fig.40

Despite their different settings, there were substantial overlaps between the stunt and fantasy films, produced side by side at studios such as Basant. Both deployed similar ‘thrills’ and core actors and both showcased lower-class performance forms such as wrestling and oriental dance (note the triumphant body-builder in fig. 38, the perilous rope-bridge-over-ravine ‘thrill’ in fig. 39, and the tantalising glimpse of an oriental dancer in fig. 40). Both showcased special effects – for which Basant was renowned - although in fantasies (and mythologicals) these were a more central attraction, reflecting their slightly different target audiences. Where stunt films were aimed primarily at men, fantasies were seen as family films. But their audiences in fact crossed over, not unlike circus, a form close to both. The Wadias used animals and performers from Professor Deval’s Circus for many years (note Zimbo’s bicycling chimp in fig. 38) and Aladdin’s parallels with circus were implicit in its quasi-oriental acrobatic novelty dances, strongmen, magic and visual illusion - all celebrating human control over nature and a pushing of the boundaries of the quotidian.

Paradoxically, both films embody
and speakmodernity. Although neither is set in any (recognisable) modern world, both reflectand draw sustenance fromthe global circulation of ‘trashy’ images and stories of their contemporary world. Crucially, Aladdin and Zimbo/Tarzan were both based on stories that had huge global appeal in the early twentieth century–the Arabian Nights and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novels. Both films ‘Indianised’ their sources, albeit in different ways. The ‘others’ of Zimbo/ Tarzan’s imaginary world were ‘tribal’ cannibals in an uncivilised jungle and seductively decadent ‘westernised’ babes swivelling their lipsticks (figs. 39 and 40). Aladdin’s exotic world was an Islamicate never-never land in which Muslim culture was simultaneously celebrated and casually ‘othered’ as decadently sensual, illusory and ultimately irrelevant. It is not insignificant that Muslims, tribals, and the West were marginalisedor vilifiedby the Indian nationalist project. However, these films reflected a different nationalist modernity from that of the elite.33 Unlike the nationalist elite, the Wadias understood market forces and knew that popular passions would be the seeds for new modern Indian identities and that these could not be imposed from above. They recognised the potency of transcultural popular images and the hybrid fluidity of identities within the porous borders of a modern India in a transnational context. They ‘got’ the pleasures of Tarzan and Aladdin in a way that their elite critics did not, leaving them culturally and politically marginalised but ensuring them long-lasting enthusiasm from their loyal subaltern audiences.


25 Basant’s innovative special effects department found low cost, creative and deshi (homegrown/local) solutions to technical problems.
26 Including Alif Laila’s djinni although, interestingly, this djinni does not appear in any of the archive’s twenty-three Alif Laila stills, nor do we see much evidence of the film’s SFX.  These images are much more theatrical – and overtly fantastic - than Aladdin’s stills.
27 Joseph S. Alter, The Wrestler’s Body: Identity and Ideology in North India, Berkeley, Oxford: University of California Press, 1992.
28 Alter, 1992, p. 74.
29 S. Mazumdar, Strong Men over the Years: A Chronicle of Athletes, Lucknow: Oudh Printing Works, 1942.
30 Edgar Rice Burroughs’ original Tarzan novels, overtly imperialist adventure stories first published in America in 1912, spawned a worldwide media craze in the twenties and thirties.
31 JBH Wadia, How Toofani Tarzan Came to be Produced, unpublished essay in Wadia Movietone archive, kindly provided by Vinci Wadia.
32 Rosie Thomas, ‘Zimbo and Son Meet the Girl with a Gun’ in Living Pictures: Perspectives on the Film Poster in India, eds. David Blamey and Robert D’Souza, London: Open Editions, 2005, pp 27-44.
33 For elaboration of this argument see my 2005 essay cited in previous footnote.
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