Nothing is predictable in a fantasy. Besides the surprising twists and turns in the plot, one could indulge in spectacular mounting – grand sets, gorgeous costumes.
Homi Wadia (op. cit. 1991).
If Ralli Brothers’ aerialist was chosen to sell textiles back to India after Indian cotton’s profitable journey around the world, another dreamscape of magical flying (fig. 14) was designed to sell Indian audiences a film based on the Arabian Nights - stories originally from India that were returning, embellished and transformed, after circulating global cultures over several centuries.
It is, perhaps, fitting that this Aladdin’s cave of an archive includes half a dozen cinema lobby display stills from Homi Wadia's 1952 Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp. Aladdin, as probably every reader knows, is the story of a good-hearted, if feckless, young man who comes into untold, unearned wealth and magical powers through command of a supernatural being: a djinni/genie arrives to do his will whenever he rubs a dirty old lamp he inadvertently acquired in an enchanted cave through a wicked magician’s trickery. What exists in the archive is undoubtedly not a complete publicity set - and most of these photographs are damaged and fragile - but, in the spirit of the serendipity of the archive, I propose to use these six fragments as pegs from which to hang my essay, allowing each section to unfold from a different still (or two) from Aladdin.
Fig. 14 is a composite photograph, loosely based on the film’s final scene. The all-powerful djinni, the genie of the magic lamp, flies through dramatic storm clouds with Aladdin’s luxurious palace balanced precariously in his arms, whilst the crowd in the streets of Baghdad below celebrates Aladdin’s triumphant return to his mother’s side, his beautiful princess bride and entourage in tow. The image has curious resonances of the Ralli Brothers’ acrobat: both are dreamscapes in which apparently magical flying promises to transport consumers out of the mundane world into an enchanted domain. In both cases, for viewers today, the burnished bronze rust stains and degraded image lend the sepia, silvery-brown and cream images a heightened quality of unreality and a magical golden glow. For its contemporary audience, the gigantic flying djinni in the silver-lined clouds would have made this instantly recognisable as a fantasy film. However, this publicity still did not have too much work to do – the story of Aladdin was as well known in 1950s India as it was in Europe.
The Arabian Nights (hereafter the Nights), a.k.a The Thousand and One Nights, is a labyrinth of stories that originated – and evolved – within ancient Indian, Persian and medieval Arabic low-culture oral traditions.10 The Nights had a strong presence in Victorian India, in part in continuation of local and vernacular traditions, notably through theatre and oral cultures, but most importantly as a result of the eighteenth and nineteenth century European literary and artistic craze sparked by the Nights’ various European translations, which further embellished the tales. In fact, the stories of Aladdin, Ali Baba and Sinbad were virtually unknown before Galland’s French translations of 1704-17, suggesting that these now internationally famous core tales were in part a European invention. As Marzolph argues, despite its undisputed oriental origins, the Nights has today to be seen as a transcultural creative work 'shaped into its presently visible form by European demand and influence.'11
In India, nineteenth century Urdu Parsee theatre was key in popularising the Nights: versions of Aladdin, Ali Baba, Hatim Tai were staples of its repertoire from at least the 1870s. Arabian Nights’ hybrids were also created - plays woven from a number of different Nights tales, which might additionally incorporate not only Shakespeare and Victorian literature but a range of Persian, Indian and Arabic literature and legend. Thus, by the time cinema arrived in India a vernacular tradition of eclectic integration of Arabian Nights within other local and foreign forms was well established. The Nights provided not only recognisable motifs but also unparalleled license for ‘surprising twists and turns’ in the storylines.
The Arabian Nights was present at the birth of cinema in Europe, America and India: Ali Baba (Hiralal Sen, 1903), a film version of a Calcutta stage sensation, was probably India’s first feature.12 By the mid 1920s, two fantasy films, Gul-e-Bakavali (K. Rathod, 1924) and Princess Budur (J.J. Madan, 1922), had become major Indian hits. But it was Hollywood’s Thief of Bagdad (Raoul Walsh, 1924), billed as ‘An Arabian Nights Fantasy’, a hybrid spun from the tales of Aladdin, the Ebony Horse and Princess Budur, that set the Indian box office alight, inspiring a spate of Indian films in the late 1920s.13 With the coming of the talkies in 1931, ‘Arabian Nights’ (or ‘Oriental’) films, using writers and actors from Parsee theatre, became wildly popular. These included India’s first talkie, Alam Ara (Light of the World, Ardeshir Irani, 1931) and the Wadias' first sound venture, Lal-e-Yaman (Jewel of Yemen, JBH Wadia, 1933). The trend petered out by the end of the decade, as the ‘realist’ social melodramas became increasingly fashionable, although a trickle of cheaply made fantasy films fed the subaltern audiences of the 1940s.
In 1952 things changed. The success of Homi Wadia’s Aladdin kick-started a new vogue for fantasy films on the B and C circuits.14 By the mid-1950s these and costume films together accounted for around a third of all productions.15 The archive’s twenty-three stills from K Amarnath’s Alif Laila16 (1953) give us a rare glimpse of the narrative and visual motifs of these fantastical worlds.
Alif Laila’s story is an Aladdin hybrid. Set in Baghdad, it tells of Aladdin’s love for a beautiful princess, of a magic lamp found in a cave, and of a wicked magician who tries to thwart him (fig. 15).17 To this it adds other stock Arabian Nights and Persian fairy tale elements: the pari (fairy) of the magic lamp (fig. 03), humans transformed into animals by the wicked magician (fig. 16), magic rings and flying carpets.
As the glimpses of Alif Laila indicate, the mise-en-scene of fantasy films recycled a series of cultural clichés and architectural tropes (fig. 17). Onion domes, minarets, crescent moons, giant urns, terraced gardens, filigree, colonnades and scalloped Islamic arches conveyed an orientalist imaginary drawn as much from Parsee theatre as Hollywood’s Thief of Bagdad. These both also drew on European image-makers: Jamshed Wadia's memoirs mention the 'profusely illustrated books on art, architecture, costumes and furniture designs,' including 'beautifully bound German volumes,' that his art director, formerly a Parsee theatre set-designer, used for their Islamicate sets.18 'How many times must Homi and I have gone through them for modelling sets in our umpteen films?'19
Such mise-en-scène also defined the Islamicate ‘legend’ and ‘historical’ films, where grandeur was de rigueur. Cinema lobby cards from Jahan Ara (Vinod Kumar, 1964) encapsulate the dream-like beauty of this quasi-Mughal imaginary (figs. 18, 19), including the ubiquitous motif of mujra/dance performance hinted at here (fig. 20), whilst the perennially popular story of Laila Majnu (Nayyar & Nazir, 1945) peddled romantic fantasies set in garden terraces (fig. 21).
So why was the Arabian Nights so popular? What work did the tales do or allow to be done? On the one hand, as Homi Wadia acknowledged, the tales licensed grandeur and unpredictable storylines. On the other, Islamicate worlds were a ploy to appeal to India’s large Muslim audiences of the day. Box-office returns show these films did particularly well in Bombay and north India and also played in Baghdad and elsewhere in the Arab world. Motifs from the stories would resonate with audiences’ cultural knowledge. The Nights was, above all, a shared set of fantasies of the culture, a set of exciting reference points. As such, it played on a knife edge between validating its Islamicate world and ‘othering’ its Muslims, as we will see. But, I suggest, the Arabian Nights film worked with wider Indian audiences because it came in a double register: it carried an apparent cultural authenticity as a refusal of all things western, but it was also modern and western – carrying the prestige and branding of the genre’s Hollywood successes and a fashionable Europeanism. The Orient it peddled was a hybrid of east and west that is more complex than at first appears.
10 For an excellent account of the complexity of the Nights phenomenon, see Robert Irwin, The Arabian Nights: A Companion, London: Allen Lane, 1994.
11 Ulrich Marzolph, Arabian Nights Reader, Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2006, page vii.
12 Although DG Phalke’s Raja Harischandra (1913) is usually celebrated as the first Indian feature film, anecdotal accounts suggest Sen’s ‘full length’ Ali Baba (1903) might well have deserved that honour. As all Sen’s work was destroyed in a warehouse fire in 1917, no further verification is possible.
13 Between 1927 and the mid-1930s, over half of all Indian releases were described as ‘fantasy,’ ‘costume,’ or ‘stunt’ films, with two or three ‘straight’ Arabian Nights tales each year and dozens of hybrids.
14 According to industry parlance from 1930s onwards: the ‘A-circuit’ comprised prestigious metropolitan cinemas; the ‘B-circuit’ referred to middle-ranking and ‘second-run’ cinemas in cities and larger towns; the ‘C circuit’ comprised cinemas in rural districts, smaller towns and the poorest urban areas - where subaltern audiences lived. My use here of the term ‘B-movies’ covers films that would be referred to within the industry as either ‘B-grade’ or ‘C-grade’ films (sometimes interchangeably), i.e. films made cheaply, without expensive stars, that would play on both the B and C circuits.
15 In 1950 there were no fantasy films and just 3 ‘costume’ films released; by 1955, out of 125 releases there were 8 fantasy and 32 costume films (Firoze Rangoowalla, Indian Filmography, 1970). Basant itself made Ali Baba (1954), Gul Sanobar (1955), Hatimtai (1956), as well as Bagdad ki Jadu (1956), a comedy spoof starring Fearless Nadia, after which the studio returned to producing stunt and mythological films until the 1960s.
16 Alif Laila means ‘one thousand nights’ in Arabic.
17 I have not been able to see the film but am grateful to Radha Dayal for her excellent notes on this.
18 Following Marshall Hodgson and Mukul Kesavan, ‘Islamicate’ does not refer to the Muslim religion but rather to “forms of imagined history, social life and expressive idiom derived from and associated with Islamic culture and history” (see Ira Bhaskar and Richard Allen, Islamicate Cultures of Bombay Cinema, New Delhi: Tulika, 2009).
19 JBH Wadia, ‘How Bagh-e-Misr Came to be Produced,’ from unpublished memoirs, 1980, in Wadia Movietone archives, Bombay. Accessed with kind permission of Vinci Wadia.