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Indian cinema celebrated its centenary in 2013, with fulsome tributes to the ‘Father of Indian Cinema’ Dadasaheb Phalke and the ‘mythological’ genre that his films inaugurated, based on stories about Hindu gods. However, there are other histories to be told.

Eschewing the conventional focus on Indian cinema’s social and mythological offerings, this lecture will explore the ‘magic and fighting films’—the fantasy and stunt genres—of the B- and C-circuits in the decades before and immediately after India’s independence. These films left their legacy on Bombay’s big-budget masala films of the 1970s and 1980s, before ‘Bollywood’ erupted onto the world stage in the mid-1990s.

Drawing on archival traces—from film fragments, shooting scripts and newspaper advertisements, to memoirs, posters and publicity stills—the lecture will argue that it is time to acknowledge the influence of globally-circulating popular stories on the development of India’s many forms of cinema, past and present. The transcultural fantastical tales of the Arabian Nights inspired not only an Indian film version of Ali Baba in 1903, a decade before Phalke’s first film, but also a stream of fantasy or jadoo (magic) films set in quasi-Islamicate, enchanted ‘other’ worlds, from the pari (fairy) films of the silent era to the magical never-never lands of many 1950s hits. Similarly, the iconic figure of Tarzan, the half wild man of ‘civilised’ origins, was adapted for Indian audiences in a series of stunt capers that made Tarzan a household name, even in remote small towns of India, from the 1930s onwards.

The lecture will remind us that, alongside nationalist orthodoxies, a significant stream of Bombay cinema has always revelled in cultural hybridity, borrowing voraciously from global popular culture and engaging with transcultural flows of cosmopolitan modernity and postmodernity, largely beneath the radar of the Indian nationalist elite.

Why were these stories so potent? What is their legacy today? How do we uncover this fading history? What is its importance in the contemporary moment?

Tickets for this event are free, please register online in advance.