In her book, Bombay Before Bollywood: Film City Fantasies, Rosie Thomas has dealt with films from even before 1913

Rosie Thomas first watched a Hindi film in Jaipur. “The memories of it are sort of hazy; I couldn’t understand the context of the film and merely sat through it, but the first feature film I really watched was Aandhi in London,” says the pioneer of the academic study of popular Indian cinema, at the launch last fortnight of her monograph Bombay Before Bollywood: Film City Fantasies published by Orient Blackswan. Hindi cinema had always fascinated her and when she first wrote in Screen magazine in 1985, Rosie established a lasting reputation for herself. She is now co-founder and co-editor of the international 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. She is also Professor of Film, Faculty of Media, Arts and Design, University of Westminster, and Director, Centre for Research and Education in Arts and Media (CREAM), and Co-director, India Media Centre, at University of Westminster.

Influence of the subaltern genres

All this would never have happened but for that rebellious streak in the woman who was training as a social anthropologist at the London School of Economics. “They asked me to study pilgrimage and kinship in remote Indian villages, but I thought that was too drab and decided to study Indian cinema instead, much to their dismay,” she reminisced. The young lady did her fieldwork in the Bombay film industry in the early 1980s, picking up nuggets of information on subaltern genres of fantasy, costume and stunt films popular in the B- and C-circuits in the decades before and immediately after Independence. “The more I explored, the more I realised that these films had been completely sidelined.” In her book, Rosie has sought to bring to the fore the influence of this cinema on what she calls the big-budget masala films of the 1970s and 1980s, before Bollywood emerged full throttle.

In her book, Rosie has dealt with films from even before 1913, when Dadasaheb Phalke’s Raja Harishchandra is said to have laid the foundation of the indigenous film industry. She writes on Hiralal Sen’s Alibaba and the Forty Thieves (1903) which was apparently a filmed version of a play that was lost in a fire in Calcutta in 1917. The book talks about how earlier films were based on Arabian Nights and throws light on films such as the fantasy Gul-e-Bakavali (1924), the talkie Lal-e-Yaman (1933), the Fearless Nadia films such as Hunterwali (1935) and Hunterwali Ki Beti (1943), and the 1960s stunt films Zimbo and Khilari. It is amazing to read of the visual effects in use then; in Gul-e-Bakavali, a princess emerges from a giant flower, several characters fly through the clouds, fairies scatter flowers on earth and horses gallop at the speed of the wind!

“I have just done my part to giving these films their credit. They were sort of brushed under the carpet. When I went looking for material, I guess what helped me was that I was curious and that I was the first to do so. Also, I was a white woman asking questions and it never really seemed important to people somehow! That gave me access to a lot of information,” she said.

Rosie has also worked as an independent documentary television producer, running her own company, Hindi Picture, in the 1980s and 1990s. Throughout the 1990s, Rosie made programmes for UK’s Channel 4 television on a range of subjects from health to South Asian politics, arts and culture. To her credit are current affairs investigations for Dispatches, two series of the innovative discussion programme On the Other Hand with Shekhar Kapur, and documentaries on subjects ranging from self-harming in From Despair to Where, to the dark side of Bollywood stardom in To Hell and Back.