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

AURAT / WOMAN (Dir. Mehboob Khan, 1940, India) – Lost & Found

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Sardar Akhtar as Radha

Aurat, a social melodrama, forms part of Mehboob’s period of filmmaking that saw him shift between the studio system of the 1930s and early 1940s before he went independent. He made a number of key films for National Studios including Roti. Mehboob was a studio bound filmmaker, working in many genres and often collaborating with the same technical crew including cinematographer Faredoon A. Irani. His post-independence work is what still garners attention amongst film fans and his colour period resulted in populist classics such as Aan & Mother India. His films also had a remarkably consistent presence at the box office and he had the flair to make even the most unappealing political films of his career such as Roti (1942) succeed with film audiences. So much of Mehboob’s early films has either simply been forgotten, lost to time or have been rendered inaccessible. This was certainly the case with Roti that only recently surfaced online and which I have argued is a key work in pre-independence Hindi cinema both in terms of its political content and appreciating fully Mehboob’s auteur status.

Aurat was recently reissued on DVD by Shemaroo and subsequently uploaded to their Vintage YouTube channel. I am not entirely sure who owns the rights to Roti or Aurat, maybe it is the Mehboob Khan estate, but since the copyright has lapsed on both of these films they have arguably entered the public domain, which seems somewhat sneaky of DVD labels to re-issue these films hoping to make a profit from them. Now, had the films been restored and then re-released in new prints including special features then it would make perfect sense and one would dually buy into such an enterprise. Alas, given the despairing state of DVD authoring and manufacturing in India, films like Aurat are likely to continue circulating in the realm of BitTorrents. What remains to be seen is, if and when, the work of Mehboob is likely to be restored and released in two separate retrospectives; pre and post independence.

Aurat is the story of Radha, a peasant woman of considerable fortitude, left to fend for her four children when her husband burdened with the weight of impoverishment leaves the village, abandoning his family. Through hunger Radha loses two of her children but still succeeds in raising her two remaining sons who grow up to become polar opposites; Birju, the outright rebel and bandit, and Ramu, the romantic, doting son. The narrative template of a mother, the interests in female narratives is a recurring theme in Mehboob’s films, and her two conflicting sons immeasurably influenced dozens of Hindi films. Imagining nationhood through the symbolic coding of the mother figure would reach a Nehruvian zenith with Nargis as Mother India. Sardar Akhtar is equally accomplished in her unassuming performance as Radha, a feminist portrait, growing to occupy a position of respect and autonomy in the village.

In Deewaar, the trade unionist father, ostracized from the village for selling out his fellow workers has its antecedents in Aurat when Shamu abandons his family, the crisis of masculinity insurmountably deathly in its discordant musings. In one of the boldest sequences in the film, Mehboob uses a series of bold superimpositions and deep focus photography, juxtaposing Shamu’s male despair to the quandary of poverty:

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Since the quality of the video I watched varied considerably, the photographic work of Irani still shone through, framing the village in pastoral landscapes of elemental riches, clouds, water and earth, reminiscent of Soviet cinema and the cinema of Dovzhenko that intersects with Raj Kapoor’s Awaara and Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zamin. This nostalgic view of the village, complemented by the traditional folk music by Anil Biswas, is an aspect of Indian rural life that often appears in Mehboob’s work while his criticisms of modernity in terms of its impact on ordinary Indian culture predates Satyajit Ray and many other Indian directors. One can see Mehboob and his regular editor Shamsudin Kadri experimenting with editing devices such as the dissolve, used masterfully to mark the transition of Birju from boy to man:

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One of the noted parallels between Aurat and Mother India is the unruly, scheming figure of the moneylender Sukhilala (actor Kanhaiyalal Chaturvedi would reprise his role) manipulating the despair of the villagers and trying his best to take advantage of Radha’s misfortunes. Sukhilala upsets the equilibrium of the village since his moneylending interpreted, as a capitalist critique, is a source of hostility that antagonises Birju, like it did his father, pointing to cyclical notions of wounded male pride and impotency that can only be resolved by a tragic mortality. Such a deep, eternal realisation is delineated by Mehboob’s dolly shot on Radha’s horrified face (see below) after she has shot Birju, a cataclysmic rupturing of rural laws and Oedipal complications.

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We have had a monograph on Mother India (BFI) by Gayatri Chatterjee and two publications on Mehboob as a director; one by Rauf Ahmed that is underwritten and very basic and also a biography by Bollywood insider Bunny Reuben. Neither of them provides a comprehensive analysis of Mehboob as an auteur since much of his work still remains inaccessible, suggesting a reclaiming of his earlier works as they slowly become available is likely to be a revisionist task.

ROTI / BREAD (Dir. Mehboob Khan, 1942, India) – Iconoclastic Origins

Mehboob’s most political work?

Released in 1942, Roti was director Mehboob Khan’s last film before he established his own production company. Given the film’s daring and at times iconoclastic critique of capitalism, it seems almost as if Mehboob sought to make a statement on the potential of subverting studio limitations by smuggling counter-hegemonic ideologies into a mainstream narrative. Mehboob was proved right since the film was a hit at the box office. Roti is a singular film in Mehboob’s oeuvre, equivalently condemning capitalism as an immoral and dehumanising system in which the poor are crushed under the weight of greed. The film is set in an imaginary India in which social mobility is non-existent, replaced instead by a selfish opportunism that involves acquiring power and status through violence, repression and death.

The film opens with a potent montage, brazenly declaring sympathy with the oppressed poor and postulating a visual analogy of a flawed capitalist system. The montage begins with a field being ploughed, a wheat field, then shows the rich eating food, next servants clear the leftovers and finally, and most purposely, the food is thrown into an alley where the poor are waiting to fight over the scraps. The incisive juxtaposition of shots lays bare the indiscriminate cycle of poverty, inequality and exploitation created by capitalism that benefits only a privileged elite. The montage also marks the introduction of the film’s imagined anonymous commentator, a vindictive man, who instigates much of the class discord. The montage ends with a starving old man who is run over and left for dead on the road clutching on to a scrap of roti (bread). It is a despairing image that provokes a cruel laughter by the commentator, prefiguring the later humiliation suffered by Balam and Kinari.

If Laxmidas is a remorseless, hateful and destructive metaphor for capitalism then an oppositional socialist ideology is embodied in the tribal character of Balam. The tribal community, which symbolises rural India, is first introduced with the farmers sharing out the harvest in a notably altruistic method, the antithesis to economic segregation engendered by Laxmidas. Both Balam and Kinari show no concept of money and they live in a world in which their existence is connected to the earth and motivated by rituals. The film’s depiction of the city as a treacherous and wretched that corrupts people from the rural and traditional heartlands of old India was to later find a parallel in other popular Hindi melodramas of the 1940s and 1950s like Do Bigha Zamin. At first Laxmidas refuses to help Balam and Kinari but Darling persuades him to give Balam a job working at one of the cotton mills. Balam, a dignified tribesman, finds the work humiliating and the conditions in the city unbearable. His enslavement to Laxmidas becomes a major source of anxiety and he is led astray, committing theft while Kinari is nearly raped by a brutish foreman at the mill. At one point, Balam wrecks a machine that is set to replace him at the mill, emphasising the incongruity between tribalism (tradition) and capitalism (modernity).

The ending to the film sees Laxmidas fleeing the city with his car full of gold procured through his greedy exploits. His escape with Darling is premature, as they get lost in the desert. In a cruel twist of fate, Laxmidas and Darling come across Balam and Kinari who offer them water. Laxmidas refuses to accept the water since it would mean he would be indebted to Balam for the rest of his life. The decision to rather die of thirst than accept help from Balam is a deeply pessimistic attitude of the way capitalism generates arrogance, superiority and power as false ideals. Roti’s thematic achievements were matched by the equally arresting expressionistic cinematography by Faredoon A. Irani, influencing later films such as Kaghaaz Ke Phool and Awaara. Nonetheless, it is a film that needs reclaiming from the past so that Mehboob’s status as an auteur can be reconsidered in its rightful context.

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.