Westminster Talks is proud to continue the series with a talk by Professor Rosie Thomas from Westminster School of Media, Arts and Design
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?
Rosie Thomas is Director of the Centre for Research and Education in Art and Media (CREAM), Co-Director of the India Media Centre and Professor of Film at the University of Westminster. After a first degree in Psychology from Manchester University, she trained as a social anthropologist at the London School of Economics. She began her first fieldwork on the Bombay film industry in the early 1980s and, since 1985, has published widely on Indian cinema, contributing to numerous books and journals. She is internationally acknowledged as a pioneer of the academic study of popular Bombay cinema.
Rosie has also worked as an independent television producer, running her own company, Hindi Picture, in the 1980s and 1990s. Throughout the 1990s Rosie made documentaries, arts and current affairs programmes for Channel Four on a range of subject matters, from health and mental health issues to South Asian politics, arts and culture.
Rosie’s current research interests focus on popular Indian cinema in the pre-independence and early post-independence eras, with a special interest in the B-movie stunt and fantasy films. She is a co-founder and co-editor of the Sage journal BioScope: South Asian Screen Studies, a forum for new research on the history and theory of South Asian film, screen-based arts and new media screen cultures. Her monograph Bombay Before Bollywood: Film City Fantasies was published in South Asia by Orient BlackSwan in 2013 and republished in USA and Europe by State University of New York Press in 2015.