Many people of my generation who grew up watching Hindi films in the mid-1980s will remember their well-worn Mr. India videocassettes: there was so much repeat value in this fantasy-romance about a compassionate underdog who acquires the gift of invisibility just as evil forces are bearing down on him. Those of us who knew H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man felt an added frisson of excitement that a popular Hindi movie—close to home, with stars and songs—could draw on a classic sci-fi book, even while working with the vigilante-hero format.
Watching the film multiple times, a scene that always had me leaning forward in anticipation was the one where the genial Prof. Sinha (Ashok Kumar) snaps at a student who asks him about invisibility. This is it, I would tell myself as the scene began and Sinha droned on about how today’s technology would have seemed like magic to people living centuries ago; this was where the film’s main plot device came into focus, and one felt vaguely pleased that it was endorsed by that most daunting of subjects, Science.
Little did I know that Kumar himself, 30 years earlier, had played the lead in what is widely considered India’s first film involving invisibility: the 1957 Mr. X, directed by Nanabhai Bhatt (Mahesh Bhatt’s father), which was spun into a minor franchise.
I haven’t seen the original Mr. X, but I remember the 1964 spin-off Mr. X In Bombay, in which Kumar’s younger brother Kishore got to perform both physical comedy and pathos within a pseudo-sci-fi plot. More recently, I saw the 1965 Aadhi Raat Ke Baad (that’s a generic title—it could have been called: “Mr. X In Rangoon", since it deals with an invisible man’s adventures in that city), which also stars Ashok Kumar. This one gives us one of the most (unintentionally) harrowing filmic introductions to an invisible hero: pouring liquids into test tubes with only his white gloves visible, he slowly comes into view as a twang of star-heralding music plays on the soundtrack. And he is shirtless! With a coy expression, he turns sideways and puts on a white gown.
Now, I’m an Ashok Kumar fan on many levels, but not so much at the level of chest hair and man-boobs; on the physical-attractiveness gauge, I defer to Mukul Kesavan’s observation that mid-career Dada Moni resembled a cupboard wearing a dressing gown.
Once I had survived this scene and started to relish Aadhi Raat Ke Baad’s corniness and tonal shifts, I found myself thinking about the main function of the invisible hero in our films. Internationally, such characters have done many things in cinema and literature, from crime-fighting to crime-committing to being martyrs in the interests of science to, well, just being smutty: the title character in the 1988 The Invisible Kid directs his energies to sneaking into girls’ locker rooms; in the comic series The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Alan Moore successfully recasts Griffin (the protagonist of Wells’ story) into a sex-starved psychopath.
But since our mainstream films moved blithely from one register to another, Aadhi Raat Ke Baad isn’t required to pick a motif and stick with it. It combines suspense, sci-fi, B-movie noir and goofy slapstick—the last involving the fine comedian Agha, who gets his invisible friend to perform “magic" for him by moving ashtrays around. This leads to an unexpectedly sweet and poetic scene where Agha sings to a roomful of young women—some of them dancing and playing musical instruments—while a lone saxophone (held by our unseen hero) sways plaintively in the middle of the room. A quasi-horror moment follows, with the excellent line: “Abbay yaar, yeh bhi koi tareeka hai aane ka? Bigair sar ke koi aata hai kya? (is this any way to show up? Who comes without a head?)"
It must be remembered that the above sequence is an interlude in a story where the hero is preoccupied with serious and urgent things—clearing his own name of a murder charge, finding the real killers as well as his own kidnapped girlfriend. But there is still time for some tomfoolery along the way.
Tomfoolery is also central to the 1971 Elaan, arguably the most entertaining invisible-man film I have seen (with apologies to Mr India, which will always occupy a special place in my shrine). Elaan has too many eye-popping things to mention here, but consider just this: Vinod Mehra must take off his shirt, pop a ring in his mouth, then remove his trousers—in precisely that order—before he can become fully invisible. And if someone so much as throws a cloth on him, he becomes visible again.
This, it can be argued, makes Elaan as much about the revitalizing power of nudity as about anything else. Whatever you make of the film’s main plot, you’ll never forget the sideshow antics involving the complicated obtaining and discarding of clothes. Ah, to be riding naked on the leather seat of a motorcycle, with best buddy Rajendra Nath cracking cheesy jokes as he sits behind you clutching your bare (but thankfully invisible) midsection. H.G. Wells may never have imagined such a thing, but we pulled it off.
Above The Line is a column on Hindi cinema and how it presents the world.
He tweets at @jaiarjun