Sunday, May 20, 2012

Baghdad Ka Jadoo, aka Magic of Baghdad (India, 1956)

Despite the contributions of Indian special effects wizard Babubhai Mistry, Baghdad Ka Jadoo's title is something of a misnomer. For the most part, the only magic that the film alludes to is that of star Fearless Nadia's 1930s heyday, the recapturing of which seems to have been at least a tertiary goal. And, in that, Baghdad Ka Jadoo appears to have been largely successful. For present here are all those fabled elements that second hand knowledge has taught us were the hallmarks of Nadia's -- sadly, now largely unseen and unseeable -- classic stunt films:  our heroine's lusty laughter in the face of danger, the wall-to-wall acts of daredevilry punctuated by the frequent trademark "HEEYY!"; the men hoisted up on shoulders and gleefully tossed, etc. We even see that Nadia can still do the splits!

Of course, alongside this are telltale concessions to Nadia's age, among them the cutaways to stunt doubles that were a rare occurrence in her salad days, as well as a scene where a dance started by Nadia is quickly taken up by another, younger female star. But the tone of Baghdad Ka Jadoo is so jaunty and good natured that it's hard to see much pathos in any of that, as, overall, one gets a sense of a past that is being celebrated every bit as much as it is being relived.

At the time of making Baghdad Ka Jadoo, Nadia had been with longtime lover Homi Wadia's Basant Pictures for fourteen years. Though it was under the Wadia Brothers/Movietone banner that she had first achieved fame, her career continued at full steam following the split that lead to Basant's formation. Still, by 1956, public enthusiasm for the stunt film formula was on the wain, and the regular release of Nadia's trademark actioners would trickle to a stop within just a couple of years. Given that, it's hard not to see something elegiac in a later film like Baghdad Ka Jadoo, whether it was intentional or not. For instance, along with the aforementioned return of many narrative elements warmly familiar to Nadia's fans, we also have a return by Nadia's frequent costar, John Cavas, here not only taking his customary place at  her side, but also directing.

Given its stunt film framework, the plot of Baghdad Ka Jadoo is impressively convoluted (the original program booklet's synopsis, reprinted over at Indian Film Trade,  manages to go on at dizzying length without even touching upon the whole "lost and found" aspect of the story). Suffice it to say that Nadia and Cavas play a pair of merrily thieving gypsies who fall on the wrong side of a corrupt sultan, thus necessitating their repeated breach of the castle walls in order to free members of their band who have been wrongly imprisoned, not to mention cause other varying forms of righteous trouble. This scenario provides the opportunity for all manner of showy leaping up and down parapets and onto the backs of charging horses, much of which is thrillingly impressive regardless of who was actually doing it.

One such episode involves Nadia entering the palace in the guise of a visiting prince -- such gender bending masquerades being another signature aspect of her classic screen adventures -- and meeting with the unintended consequence that the young princess' heart is set aflutter by her dashingly bearded visage. Nadia then goes so far as to woo the young girl, even performing a romantic duet with her in which a concealed Cavas, in the tradition of Cyrano, acts as her personal on-site playback singer. And while these scenes are played for laughs, they nonetheless can't help but carry a racy, transgressive charge; all told a pointed demonstration of how, when it came to Fearless Nadia, Bollywood's normally rigid gender boundaries somehow found themselves helplessly crashing in on themselves.

Baghdad Ka Jadoo ultimately fulfills its titular promise during its final minutes, folding in elements of the Arabian Nights style fantasies that were, at the time, Basant's bread and butter. This episode sees Nadia sidetracked on an abbreviated magical quest that ends with her riding to the rescue on a flying chariot as, meanwhile, Cavas leads a rousing peasant revolt against the palace. In the spirit of Baghdad Ka Jadoo overall, it's gloriously, triumphantly silly. And if throughout Nadia and Cavas aren't having the absolute time of their lives, they're certainly doing an uncannily good job of acting it.


Michael Barnum said...

What a great write-up Todd! I watched the first half of the film a few years back. I guess it is about time to dust off that vcd set and see how it plays out.

Banno said...

Todd, loved the review. I must get my hands on the DVD/VCD.

Todd said...

Thanks, y'all!

Mike, the film does get off to a bit of a low start, so I can see why you might have set it aside, but I think you'll be pleased with the stunt-packed remainder.

Banno: Sadly, this is only available on VCD. But, on a positive note, at least the Moser Baer logo that appears throughout is semi-transparent!

batgirl said...

I didn't know about this subgenre - can I find more by scouring youtube?

Todd said...

There are a few clips from Fearless Nadia's old films on YouTube, though no full movies as far as I could see. I'd definitely recommend checking them out, as -- barring some surprise future DVD release -- it may be the closest any of us gets to seeing them.