Mehboob’s AAN (1952) – Indian Cinema’s entry into Europe

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This latest piece on Aan is part of an on going series of tentative writings and research on the films of Mehboob Khan – earlier posts have focused on Roti and Aurat.

Directed and produced by Mehboob Khan, Aan is recognised as a classic of Hindi cinema. I have fond memories of Aan from my childhood, a family favourite I guess, mainly because of Dilip Kumar and the considerable, irresistible sway he had with the South Asian diaspora. Revisiting Aan after many years was a nostalgic trip down memory lane and all of those iconic, extravagant star gestures etched so fervently into my memory were resurrected in the form of Dilip Kumar’s cocky grin, Nadira’s vampish gaze (also one of the first Jewish heroines in Indian cinema), comedian Mehmood’s villainous turn and Nimmi’s vexing eyes as the enduring Mangala. The film was originally supposed to star Nargis in a leading role and a publicity ad for the film released in 1949 confirms this (see below). As I have discussed in my previous writings on Mehboob, much of his work appears to be firmly established in the canon of popular Hindi cinema, and unlike Mehboob’s lesser-known films, particularly the pre-Partition work, Aan has generated an intermittent discourse. Often under-discussed is Aan’s significance to the relationship between European and popular Hindi cinema, one that has its early commercial imperatives in the 1950s just as the South Asian diaspora in the UK and Europe was beginning to develop.

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Aan was ‘the first feature film made by an Indian company to be seen in Europe’ (The Manchester Guardian, Jul 11: 1952, pg. 5), a seminal moment in the outward reach of Indian cinema. It was also the first Indian film to reach an international audience and was particularly successful in the Middle East and Africa. The distribution of Aan in Europe predates the success of Raj Kapoor’s Awaara, the first Indian film to be released in the Soviet Union in 1954. Aan had its world gala premiere at the Rialto in London on July 18, 1952, a prestigious affair, and Mehboob worked with Alexander Korda’s London Films to secure distribution for the film in the UK. In the UK and US, the film was released under the title of The Savage Princess. The presence of popular Hindi cinema is a habitual feature of the UK distribution-exhibition landscape today but Aan’s importance cannot be overstated enough since it was ‘the first Indian picture to be screened abroad on a commercial basis’ (Times of India, Aug 3: 1952, pg. 3). The commercial significance of Aan was matched by its technical innovations. Aan was one of the first full-length films to be shot in colour in India and notable in Irani’s striking twilight vistas:

‘Aan was shot in 16mm Kodachrome that followed a reversal process: a positive print was obtained straight away when shooting with this stock. A negative was made out of the positive, which then was blown up to 35mm and passes through Technicolor’s three-colour separation (making three matrices) and dyer transfer process’ (Chatterjee, 2002: 20).

The film’s international success was a critical factor in persuading the Indian film industry to embrace colour.

Aan is a fantasy adventure and in terms of its overly exotic identity recalls the feverish escapist imagery of The Arabian Nights. It is not just The Arabian Nights that are decidedly visible in the production design of Aan but the mighty spectacle that is Korda’s The Thief of Baghdad (1940), one of the most influential fantasy films of its time. I would go as far as to say the visual look of both Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948) can be seen fleetingly in the eccentric yet spectacular art design of Aan. While the film could be viewed as a pastiche of popular Hollywood film genres, Mehboob’s authorial touch is discernable in the class conflict, a recurring political theme distinguishable in many of his major works, this time emphasised in the clash between the royal Indian family and the local villagers, symbolised in the swashbuckling peasant played by Dilip Kumar. In the early 1950s, Mehboob was working at his peak, having been part of the Indian film industry since the 1930s, and later forming his own production company. Aan was an ideal film to inaugurate Indian cinema’s entry into the European film market since much of the narrative draws on recognisable fantasy adventure tropes from literature and film that would have been familiar to audiences especially outside of India. The hegemonic image of India as the exotic other was duly noted at the time: ‘I recommend it [Aan], particularly to people whose notions of the great continent revolve around Benares ware and postcards of the Taj Mahal’ (July, 18, 97: 1952) wrote Virginia Graham.

The critical reception of Aan in the UK in 1952 tells a different story to the commercial success of the film, in several respects. Writing in August 17, 1952, The Times of India, refers to the review of the film by English film critic C. A. Lejeune, in the following terms:

‘It is impossible to convey its full effect on paper, but you may get a rough idea of it by imagining a composite of ‘Robin Hood’, the ‘Arabian Nights’, ‘Il Trovatore’, ‘The Taming of the Shrew’, any Soviet picture, ‘Quo Vadis’, Douglas Fairbanks Senior, Bengal lights, the Lilian Harvey musicals, the acid colours of the latest bill posting and ‘The Perils of Pauline’.

Lejeune’s potpourri of cultural references maps an early attempt to frame popular Indian cinema as a fusion, hybrid and mix of incongruent ideas and elements. There is nothing wrong with this view. I noticed several potential film influences while watching the film. However, since Aan was the first Indian film to be released in the UK and Europe, whatever was said about the film was also in part a measure of Indian cinema as a whole. Many of the reviews I looked at fail to comprehend the film as a complete work. For instance, Lejeune’s cultural deconstruction detracts from the creative contribution of Mehboob and his highly proficient and adept cast and crew. Lejeune overlooks what is effectively a playful, creative interpretation of The Arabian Nights. Another determinant at play that certainly shaped the critical response in 1952 was to do with the running time. Aan’s UK release in 1952 was a truncated one, lasting 130 min. An hour was cut from the version that played in Europe, a substantial portion of the film. It is highly likely many of the songs would have been excised. Without songs you lose the essence of what makes popular Indian cinema so distinct. In this context, the missing hour would have certainly affected the response from critics, somewhat evident in the comments levied at the film’s supposedly erratic narrative structure.

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The decision to shorten the length of the film, perhaps one taken by the distributor, underlines early and on-going anxieties to do with the apparently excessive running time of Indian films. The form and structure of popular Hindi cinema is to do with the ways in which narrative is supported by the convention of song and dance, and since Aan’s soundtrack was made up of nine (or is it fourteen?) songs, integral to the film experience and diegesis of the world being presented, songs invariably lengthen the running time but also act as a supplementary, alternative and internal commentary. Songs are also one of the major pleasures for film audiences, functioning as escapist, allegorical and narrative totems. Unfortunately, the somewhat irrelevant and illogical criticism that Indian films are too long still remains a popular default reaction from critics and film audiences. Rather than accept songs and the longer running time of Indian films as a conventional, dominant aspect of their construction, Indian films are often even today deemed to be ridiculously and excessively over long in the purview of critics outside of India. Nonetheless, given the ways in which the film audiences’ habits and tastes have shifted dramatically over the past years, the length of Indian films has become shorter but perhaps only to suit commercial inclinations.

Respectively, there wasn’t much praise from The Times of India review of Aan: ‘It is a depressing and deplorable lapse from standards and a reputation long established by one of our most distinguished film creators’ (Aug, 17: 1952). The review goes on to criticise the film for ‘its gross lack of refinement’. The Spectator review for the film by Virginia Graham is comparably expressive about the cultural debasement of popular Indian cinema, comparing Aan to the cooking of food: ‘Cooked at high pressure for a prodigiously long time, with a wicked Prince and Princess and a handsome dashing peasant and his beloved as the main ingredients, it is a layer-cake of conflicting flavours’ (July, 18, 96: 1952). I mention the food analogy since the term Masala cinema would emerge as an ignorant and contrived method of categorising popular Hindi cinema in the 1970s and 1980s. This is just one way film criticism has systemically refused to take Indian cinema seriously. Although the theory of Masala cinema has enough substance behind it now to in fact consolidate this method of categorisation as both valid and relatively intrinsic to Bollywood film discourse. I’m quite schizophrenic of the term Masala and admittedly it can be useful in some specific contexts – say for example the films of Manmohan Desai. The review continues, faltering badly: ‘That Indians make exactly the same faces as we do when they fall in love astounds me beyond measure’ (July, 18, 97: 1952), says Graham, smacks of not only a racial superiority but underlines a cultural ignorance. Although Virginia Graham does recommend the film, her review is full of hyperbole that not only overlooks the technical achievements of the production but completely fails to acknowledge the authorial contribution of Mehboob Khan, the stardom of Dilip Kumar and the lucid cinematography of Faredoon Irani.

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Denis Myers damning review of the film for Picturegoer goes one step further, calling Aan ‘soul-destroying’ and mocking the director’s versatility as a desperate, superficial juxtaposition of stock narrative situations. At the time Myers opined Aan should not be released in UK cinemas because it does not meet the criteria of the quota system. However, belying the rhetoric to do with protecting indigenous British cinema from the harmful cultural effects of Indian cinema is also a belated xenophobia, which I suspect was shared by many UK film critics of the time. The overall tone struck by Myers response to Aan is a patronising one, full of mockery and contempt. Nowhere is there any attempt to comprehend the form and style of popular Hindi cinema – a good and useful starting point is to compare the internal logic of films such as Aan to the eclecticism of Parsi Theatre, a major influence on the narratological mysteries of Indian cinema. Instead, Myers works his through the film, taking the piss out of the film’s supposedly haphazard and illogical aesthetic, thematic and structural design. Mehboob directed far better films than Aan but one needs to contextualise, position and read the film in his oeuvre as a work that was a creative, stylistic experiment with colour – an attempt to evolve the technical possibilities of Indian cinema. Central here is the contribution of cinematographer Faredoon Irani to the technical advances of Hindi cinema. And since the use of colour in popular Hindi cinema has become such a vital part of the overall aesthetic and visual practice, seeing the sumptuous colours of the cinematic imaginings of popular cinema for the first time would have been a completely new and rewarding experience for film audiences. Aan was also a major leap in the career of Mehboob, whereby spectacle came to the fore, reaching its zenith in Mother India (1957). When UK film critics saw Aan in 1952, they placed a far greater emphasis on the exotic spectacle of the film as it chimed with their own orientalist assumptions of India.

While the orientalist readings have their own contestable place, Aan like so many of Mehboob’s films demands to be revisited and viewed in alternate, wider contexts of reception. It would take Ray’s Pather Panchali, released a few years later, to completely overhaul cultural perceptions harboured by critics abroad towards Indian cinema. But this only applied to Indian art cinema. What would be useful is to try and find out what UK film audiences made of Aan; this might offer further insight and potentially challenge the critical response, one that reeked of cultural and racial snobbery. The critical response to Aan in the rest of Europe was different to that of the UK, perhaps in some respects it was more favourable, particularly in France, where the film was titled Mangala, Fille Des Indes (Mangala, the daughter of India). In France, it was the character of Mangala, played by Nimmi, which struck a chord with film audiences, as evident in the artwork to the Carlotta DVD release of the film. And it was also the French version of the film that was distributed in Europe. What remains inconclusive is the way the film was received comparatively in the rest of Europe and how widely it was distributed. Additionally, Aan is a work worth examining in relation to other films that used The Arabian Nights as a narrative source particularly the ones made by The Wadia Brothers in the 1930s and beyond. In doing so, a comparative approach would more than likely extrapolate and magnify the popularity of the fantasy adventure film, a sub genre in Indian cinema. From the perspective of Indian film history Aan is best viewed as a gateway film, the first experience of Indian cinema for an international audience. Further research is needed though to try and fully comprehend the ways in which the cinematic imaginings of Mehboob Khan shaped international perceptions about popular Hindi cinema in Europe and beyond. Perhaps a useful way forward here is to consider the ideological worth of ephemera including posters, ads, trailers, the music album, to name a few, that could offer an alternate insight into the ways in which Aan was marketed to a wider international audience.

Bibliography

AAN. 1952. Monthly Film Bulletin, 19 (216), pp. 121.

Anonymous 1952, Jun 29. World Premiere For Mehboob’s “Aan” At London On July 18. The Times of India (1861-current), 3.

OUR LONDON, F.C., 1952, Jul 11. INDIAN FEATURE FILM. The Manchester Guardian (1901-1959), 5.

GRAHAM, V., 1952. Aan. (Rialto.)-Penny Princess. (Leicester Square) (Book Review). The Spectator, 189 (6473), pp. 96.

MYERS, D., 1952. INDIA GOES HOLLYWOOD-ALMOST. Picturegoer (Archive: 1932-1960), 24 (902), pp. 8.

Anonymous 1954, Oct 16. THE EYE AND THE EAR OF MEHBOOB PRODUCTIONS. The Times of India (1861-current), 1.

CHATTERJEE, G. 2002. Mother India. BFI

GUNGA JUMNA – (Dir. Nitin Bose, 1961, India)

The following quote from the entry on Nitin Bose taken from Rajadhyaksha & Willemen’s Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema underlines his hugely important role in the history of Indian cinema:

‘A key figure in the New Theatres organisation and maker of some of its most successful films. He later introduced a ‘realist’ element (Didi/President; Desher Mati/Dharti Mata) foreshadowing the films of his own student and cameraman Bimal Roy (Udayer Pathey, 1944), and probably Mrinal Sen‘s early films…’

Many would argue that the auteur theory has led to a process of canonisation and discriminates against the contribution of so many peripheral artists. However, auteurism did wonders in helping to excavate and salvage the careers of those invisible directors who worked tirelessly to perfect their craft as filmmakers. The same authorial approach has been applied to Indian cinema but with less rigour and authority. The 1930s witnessed acceleration in quality output, permitting filmmakers to refine their style and with each year it was clear to see their evolution. The films of Nitin Bose are often under discussed and although his status as a pioneering figure is not in doubt, helping the evolution of Indian film language, his authorial status is conflated with the triumphs of the studio system. Revisiting Gunga Jumna after so many years it is transparent to see that in 1961 Nitin Bose was a director working at the peak of his creative powers as a classicist. Gunga Jumna was one of the biggest hits of the 1960s and demonstrates a capacity to merge classical film elements with vivid stylistic flourishes. Produced, starring and written by Dilip Kumar, the story of two warring brothers on opposite sides of society (bandit vs. cop) transformed into a moralistic narrative template for many other populist social melodramas including most strikingly Deewaar.

The powerful narrative momentum is often the way in which the film is referred to in wider critical discourse but we shouldn’t let such conventional readings get in the way of numerous visually inventive and memorable accompaniments that Bose brings to the film. Firstly, the camerawork possesses an infectious vitality conveyed through the notable dolly and tracking shots, which are used sparingly, at key points in the film’s narrative. Secondly, the use of Technicolor and rural landscapes, offers a strong connection with the Earth and village that is realistically presented. In a way, the authenticity of the rural milieu is also dystopian when it comes to the terrain of the bandit and here the film echoes the iconography of the Hollywood western. The intrinsic relationship between the bandit and the rural landscape was a direct influence on films such as Sholay and most recently Lagaan.

Towards the end of the film, the landscape takes on a will of its own and Bose lets us see nature’s mystical powers through the smoke from the funeral pyre that billows into the air, shrouding the villainous figure of the despotic landlord. Lastly, and most influentially, the melodrama nurtured by the narrative conflict of two brothers on opposite sides of the law is a brilliant device for exploring family and the apathetic way in which society criminalises the most vulnerable. Although Gunga Jumna is recognised as a classic and the contribution of Dilip Saab is much celebrated, it is equally critical to extrapolate the brilliance of a film maker like Nitin Bose in the history of Indian cinema.

Here are the final shots to Gunga Jumna, which I found to be both moving and unusually abstract for what is deemed a populist, mainstream and conventional Indian film:

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MADHUMATI (Dir. Bimal Roy, 1958, India)

Madhumati was one of two Hindi films on which director Ritwik Ghatak worked as a writer. The other film was Musafir, released in 1957 and directed by Hrishikesh Mukherjee. When released in 1958 Madhumati was a huge box office hit and saw the re-teaming of director Bimal Roy and actor Dilip Kumar. Madhumati stands alongside Kamal Amrohi’s gothic noir Mahal in terms of its influence, pioneering and popularising the theme of reincarnation in Hindi cinema. The film is a beguiling one, blending together expressionist imagery, rural landscapes and a haunting ghost story, that eventually builds to an unexpected fatalistic ending (although undercut by a conventional epilogue). Familiarity with the work of Ritwik Ghatak and his interest in the more indigenous aspects of tribal customs and rural village life (as expressed in both his films and writings) is manifested most directly in the central romance between Anand (Dilip Kumar), a symbol of the middle class, and Madhumati (Vijayantimala), an innocent tribal girl. With music by Salil Choudhury and lyrics by Shailendra, the soundtrack is regarded as one of the creative high points of 1950s Hindi cinema with classics like ‘Toote Huye Khwabon Ne’ (Rafi Saab). I had problems with the running time of Rockstar, a contemporary Hindi film, which ran for three hours (unjustifiably) but considering Madhumati is of a similar length, it is easy determine that unlike Imtiaz Ali, Bimal Roy has formidable control over his material. A superior melodrama.

AMAR (Dir. Mehboob Khan, India, 1954) – Expressionist Idiosyncrasies


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Film maker Mehboob Khan reached his artistic zenith with Mother India in 1957 whilst his body of work in the 1940s produced such classics as Aurat (Woman, 1940), Roti (The Bread, 1942), Humayun (1945), Anmol Ghadi (1946) and Andaz (1949). The considerable achievements of Mother India and its iconic cultural position in film history obscures many of the more adventurous and unconventional films Mehboob made during his two decade long domination of Hindi popular cinema. Unfortunately when compared to his peers like Raj Kapoor and Guru Dutt, much of Mehboob’s work is still sadly unavailable. Whilst much of it probably does exist somewhere on VHS, the DVD market has been slow to respond to the cinephile demands to make accessible more of the films that have become lost in the melee of populist works from the studio era. Legend has it that Mehboob ran away to join the film industry, working his way through the ranks until he eventually broke through in 1936 as a director on the historical film, Judgement of Allah. Dilip Kumar, dubbed the tragedy king was one of the major Hindi film stars of the 1950s. He worked with Mehboob on a number of films and Amar which was the film made before Mother India cast Dilip Kumar against type as a dubious and unsympathetic lawyer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Amarnath is engaged to Anju (the beautiful Madhubala) but a milk maid Sonia (played by actress Nimmi) who comes from the nearby village also attracts the eye of Amarnath. When Sonia is raped by Amarnath, both of them at first attempt to live with the terrible secret but when Shankar uncovers the truth he tries to kill Amarnath. In the struggle, Amarnath absconds and Shankar is killed whilst the blame is pinned on poor Sonia. Like many of the social melodramas of the 40s and 50s, matters are resolved in a courtroom in which civil institutions are permitted to restore social order and re establish the degrees of morality. At least ten songs are used in the film by Mehboob. The 50s is often referred to as the golden age of Hindi popular cinema and this largely exists because of the nostalgia the older generation harbours for the way in which songs were picturised and sung. However, one of the problems of such a form is that the content can rarely cope with such pauses and interruptions in the narrative. Amar seems to be a case in point as the songs add little to the ideological weight of any social enquiry and in many ways suggest such a genre necessity was dictated by wider institutional concerns over which Mehboob had little control.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is one of Mehboob’s most idiosyncratic films and though the melodramatic content is representative of the studio era and the 50s, it is the cinematography and editing that really saves Amar from being deemed as unmemorable and pedestrian. Cinematographer Faredoon A. Irani whom Mehboob first collaborated with on Judgement of Allah in 1935 would remain a regular contributor, working on many of Mehboob’s greatest works including Mother India. The same goes for Editor Shamsudin Kadri who makes some innovative and powerful uses of unconventional editing techniques including the triple jump cut in two key moments in the film’s narrative. Irani’s cinematography bears a visible expressionist style, producing a litany of gorgeous monochrome imagery in which shadows, glowing lanterns and rain manifest a pathetic fallacy.