Ulti Ganga – The Great Indian Film Hunt
Ulti Ganga (1942)
(“The Ganga flows in reverse”)
Dir: Keshavrao Dhaiber. Studio: Minerva Movietone. IMDB entry
What happens when gender roles are reversed in the world? A film ahead of it’s time, with strong feminist undertones. Starring Pramila Devi, Gulab and Sadiq Ali.
In the centre image below, Pramila – the future Miss India – is holding a whip. In the image on the right, a male character is adopting the pose of Naachya, a eunuch narrator character from traditional Mahrati Tamasha theatre.
A whip held by a woman has obvious dual symbolic meanings in an Indian context: not only is it a hunting implement (the Hindi for whip is “hunter”, hence Fearless Nadia’s character ‘Hunter Wali’, the woman with the whip) that can be used to keep large beasts at bay, like tigers; it’s also a phallic symbol. Five years before India’s independence, and twelve years after the introduction of the Hays Code in Hollywood which forbade such symbolism, Indian cinema was employing imagery associated with gender roles which – for domestic audiences in the subcontinent – weren’t subtext: they were text.
It’s also significant that ‘Ulti Ganga’ was made by Minerva Movietone, a company created by the actor and director Sohrab Modi who also made ‘Khoon Ka Khoon‘ in Nair’s list of missing films. Similar in its aims to the 1919 foundation of United Artists in California by Chaplin, Pickford, Griffith and Fairbanks, Minerva was a company created to produce films with ambitious artistic goals, ambitions that Modi brought with him from his career in theatre.
Another commercially successful Hindi film made in 1942, ‘Khandan‘, is described by Wikipedia as showing men “constantly threatened by women and only paternal wisdom can save them from the untoward desires of women.” Compare this with movies made in Hollywood under the Hays code in 1942, the year that ‘Rosie the Riveter‘ became an cultural icon: despite the strong women’s roles in ‘Casablanca‘ and ‘Cat People‘, the female protagonists are still subordinate to the men, ultimately. For sexual subtext in American culture at war, you had to look to ‘Sweater Girl‘ or a boxing flick like ‘Treat ‘Em Rough‘. Arguably, English speaking audiences had to wait another three years till the animator Tex Avery told it like it was in ‘Swing Shift Cinderella‘. The biggest thrill that British film audiences of 1942 could hope for in a film called ‘Uncensored‘ was Eric Portman’s upper lip quivering momentarily.
The surviving images of ‘Ulti Ganga’ below seem to run contrary to the idea that the history of Hindi films over a century has been one of moral decline associated with the salaciousness of Bollywood musicals. They suggest instead that in the years immediately before independence and partition, companies like Minerva were creating challenging and complex work with themes, that – in a culture with few hang ups about phallic symbols in devotional art, for example – would have been well understood by mainstream audiences.
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