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Come On, Baby, Be My Tiger
Inventing India on the German Screen in Der Tiger von Eschnapur and Das indische Grabmal

Meenakshi Shedde and Vinzenz Hediger

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Commissioned by the Maharajah of Eschnapur, a European architect travels to India to build a shrine more splendid than the Taj Mahal. Upon his arrival, the architect discovers the Maharajah’s true intention. A monument to both undying love and the spirit of revenge, the shrine will serve as the Maharajah’s unfaithful lover’s tomb in which she is to be buried alive in punishment for her betrayal. The architect runs into all sorts of trouble before the shrine can be built. This, in short, is the plot of a screenplay by Thea von Harbou and Fritz Lang, based on a 1917 novel by von Harbou, which was filmed three times in 1921, 1938 and 1959 as a film in two parts called the Der Tiger von Eschnapur (The Tiger of Eschnapur) and Das indische Grabmal (The Indian Tomb). The three films mark three important stages in the history of German cinema, namely the burgeoning Weimar cinema (1921 version, dir. Joe May), the Nazi entertainment apparatus (1938 version, dir. Richard Eichberg) and the struggling German post-war cinema (1959 version, dir. Fritz Lang).

Furthermore, the three films represent an archive of German fantasies of India as they evolved over the twentieth century, and they have probably shaped Germany’s imaginary map of India more than any other popular text of the twentieth century. Colonial and late colonial fantasies from a country with no colonial empire to speak of – Germany only became a unified nation state in 1871 and entered the imperialist game of geopolitics in 1890, too late to obtain more than just a few rather negligible possessions in West and Southwest Africa – the three films contribute to keeping a colonial desire alive in German culture years and even decades after the Kaiserreich had to give up its few colonies in the wake of the Versailles treaty of 1918. More specifically, the three films perpetuate a peculiar German interest in, if not an obsession with, Indian philosophy and culture that emerges in the early nineteenth century. They inscribe into the mainstream of popular culture what began in the work of writers such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) and the influential Indologist Max Müller (1823-1900), a renowned scholar of Sanskrit and Indian philosophy and a key interpreter of Indian philosophy for the West.

Not surprisingly, given their pedigree, the three films have something of an Orientalist bias. As Edward Said pointed out, Orientalism was based on the idea of knowledge as power: effective colonial conquest required knowledge of the conquered. Orientalist discourse suggests that the Orient is inferior, mysterious, exotic, despotic, sensual – sexually available if female, or sexually threatening if male. In all three films, there is plenty of exotica and erotica, seasoned with melodrama, playing to the gallery with stereotypes – fabulously rich Maharajahs with palaces, elephants, horses, armies, hordes of jewels, lake palaces and private tiger dens in which to casually toss the enemy. There are lascivious Indian Maharajahs, Indian queens who make love in open palace chambers in a state of picturesque undress and have extra-marital affairs with white men. The films are crammed with love affairs, nearly-naked dancers doing exotic numbers in smoky clubs (Eichberg) and a sexy dancer about to become an Indian Queen mainly by virtue of her hypnotic lip gloss and cleavage (Lang). Significantly, Germans in blackface play all the major Indians parts. More than just a solution for a practical problem of language, this casting indicates that India, or ‘India’, is very much a screen for the projection of German fantasies. As always in Orientalist fantasies, studying the maps of an imaginary ‘there’ will tell us as much, if not more, about the here, the vantage point from which they are drawn, as they do about the place that they supposedly represent.

We would like to visit a few crucial themes in the films and discuss how they evolve over time. These themes include the problem of getting ‘there’; the ‘essence’ of India; and the aesthetics of sexuality and religion. But before we embark on our reading of the imaginary map of the three films, we would like to provide some background.




One Film, Three Versions

Numerous Orientalist films preceded these three films and may well have influenced them. According to the film historian Virchand Dharamsey, hundreds of Orientalist short features and films were made in the US and Europe prior to 1916, including D.W. Griffith’s Brahma Diamond and Hindu Danger (USA, both 1909), Raoul Walsh’s Mystery of the Hindu Image (USA, 1914) and Paul Wegener’s Der Yoghi (Germany, 1916). Closer to home were the landmark Indo-German co-productions of the ‘20s directed by Franz Osten of Munich: The Light of Asia / Die Leuchte Asiens (1925), on the life of Gautama Buddha; Shiraz / Das Grabmal einer Grossen Liebe (1928) on the love story of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal that culminates in building the Taj Mahal; and A Throw of Dice / Schicksalswurfel) (1929), a cross between the Indian epic Mahabharata and the Arabian A Thousand and One Nights.

Furthermore, the films find their parallels in British jungle/fantasy adventures produced by Alexander Korda, including Elephant Boy (directed by Robert ‘Nanook’ Flaherty, 1937), The Drum (1938), Thief of Baghdad (1940) and The Jungle Book (1942). In the same vein are two American films based on Rudyard Kipling’s work and set during the British Raj (colonial rule in India from 1858-1947): George Stevens’ Gunga Din (1939) with the British fighting Indian ‘thuggee’ criminals, and Victor Saville’s Kim (1950), whose protagonist is an orphan who gets by begging, stealing and spying for the British.

The three Tiger films vary in important ways. Rather than be buried alive, the Maharajah’s lover/wife kills herself in the 1921 version, runs away with her Russian gentleman-thug lover in the 1938 version, and runs away with the architect in the 1959 version, in which the ageing Lang loses no time on romantic subplots and cuts to the chase. Also, the architect is English in the 1921 version and German in the 1938 and 1959 versions. Finally, the architect’s fiancé follows her soon-to-be betrothed to India and saves his life in the 1921 and 1938 versions, while in the Lang version the White European Woman is relegated to the subsidiary role of the architect’s sister to make way for the building man’s burning passion for the Irish-Indian half-breed temple dancer (a busty female Kim of sorts).

The 1921 version featured stars like Conrad Veidt as the Maharajah, now better remembered as the Nazi major in Casablanca (1942). The film came at the height of a popular vogue of all things Indian in the postwar years, when film producers even named their companies after key concepts borrowed from Indian philosophy (thus Prana, after the universal life principle in Hindu philosophy, was the production company of Murnau’s Nosferatu [1922]). Produced at a time when impresarios of large theatres in America and in Europe sought to emulate opera in their modes of film presentation, the 1921 version is eerily reminiscent of a Richard Wagner opera in terms of rhythm, and the stress that it puts on the emotional travails of the characters rather than on physical action – not to speak of the architect’s fiancé who looks like a Wagnerian heroine, a Valkyrie, all blonde and heavyset. Wagner, regarded by some media theorists as the true precursor of cinematic spectacle, had at one point considered writing an opera about the life of the Buddha. While May’s version is not exactly that, it is certainly a spectacle of Wagnerian dimensions.




The 1938 version by Richard Eichberg – shot in Udaipur in the western desert state of Rajasthan rather than in the Brandenburg hinterland of Berlin like the 1921 version – has a plot that is more tangled than a plate of tagliatelle, crammed with Russians, Germans, Indians and a monkey called Johnny who swills whisky. It presents professional Europeans versus crooked, unreliable, lecherous natives. Focusing more on physical action than on the inner life of the characters, the film tells the story of a German architect in India as a mixture of action, adventure, romance and over-the-top comedy. The architect’s fiancé, a gung-ho, can-do blonde who cunningly manages her boyfriend’s career, exemplifies the Nazi ‘new woman’ type, but finds her immediate counterpart in the silly blonde girlfriend of the architect’s equally silly right-hand man. The funny couple fail to deal effectively with Indian notables, but Ms Aryan Übermensch and her fiancé of course keep the upper hand against the exotic Others with cool and steely determination, even in extreme danger.

That the Übermensch approach is the one favoured by the filmmakers themselves may be guessed from a number of racist comments they made to the German press. ‘It was terribly difficult to deal with the people there,’ they said about filming in India. ‘They work like snails and some of the natives were so stupid that it would have saved time to train a dog.’ Furthermore, they complained that Indian women doing a bathing scene were impossible to film because they would not let the director touch them. These comments led to a controversy launched by Baburao Patel in a September 1938 article in the trade paper Film India. ‘In his utter arrogance of newly found national pride and power,’ Patel wrote rather penetratingly in his article, ‘the modern German has become blind to all the finer feelings of sentiment which distinguish a better type of human being ... Tiger of Eschnapur is in short an obnoxious film which is at present doing dirty work in European countries by defaming Indians and exposing them to the ridicule of the world ... It is in spirit and essence anti-Indian’.

However, this controversy was to remain the most significant response to the three films in India. May’s version was probably the only one to be released in India. According to Virchand Dharamsey, it is possible that a film released by J. Madan Theatres as The Mysteries of India at the Cinema Majestic in Girgaum, Bombay, in 1926, was in fact May’s The Indian Tomb. Madan often showed foreign films without their credits, giving the impression that they were Indian films. The Bombay Chronicle has an advertisement for this film on September 18, 1926, but there is no proof that it was May’s version. Whatever the case, the film fared so badly that it was cancelled after just one week. In regards to the Eichberg film, Patel called for a ban in his article. However, there is no conclusive evidence proving that Eichberg’s or Lang’s versions were shown or even banned in India.

In Germany, however, the film was deemed to be innocuous even by the victorious Allies after the Second World War. Faced with a dearth of German-language production in the immediate aftermath of the War, the Allies cleared the Eichberg film for a re-release in 1948. Among other things, this meant that many people in Germany came to the 1959 version with a first-hand theatrical experience of the 1938 version, even if they were born only in the late ‘30s. Incidentally, while the original Thea von Harbou plot of the architect who is called to India may have been purely imaginary, the 1938 architect could have been based on a real-life model. In 1930, the Mahadja of Indore, a champion of European modernist art who lived in Paris in the ‘20s and counted Man Ray among his friends, commissioned the young German architect Eckard Muthesius to build a palace in the Bauhaus style for him in India. Muthesius, son of Hermann Muthesius, one of Germany’s most influential turn-of-the-century architects and the founder of the Werkbund, stayed on in India and worked as the Maharaja’s chief architect and urban developer until 1938, when he was forced to return to a changed Germany that offered no further professional opportunities for him. Since the Muthesius building of 1930 was widely celebrated in Western architectural circles at the time, it is quite likely that the producers of the 1938 version were aware of this story. However, and not surprisingly, their architect is more closely modeled on Hitler’s favorite Albert Speer than on the Bauhaus graduate Muthesius.








1. An anecdote may serve to illustrate this claim. One of my PhD students is the son of a Bengali scientist who moved to Germany in 1962. In his first years in Germany, the father was repeatedly asked by Germans who met him whether by any coincidence he had ever been to Eschnapur (which is, of course, a purely imaginary place), or whether he was perhaps even born there. His interlocutors would usually add that they thought that Eschnapur was a terribly fascinating place. The son claims that he remembers this story so well because his father told it to him every time the film was on television, which was at least once a year. (Note by V.H.)












The 1959 version, again shot on location in India, was Germany’s answer to the wave of monumental historical epics from Hollywood in the ‘50s. A co-production between Germany and France, the Lang film earned box office-related state subsidies (the avances sur recettes) for its French producer Gérard Beytout who (as Colin McCabe points out) used the money to bankroll a small film called À bout de souffle (1960) by critic turned first-time director, Jean-Luc Godard. But while the Lang version thus incidentally helped to bring about the dawn of a new era in world cinema, the old Austro-German master’s two 1959 films found their most significant afterlife on television. In fact, Lang’s version has become something of a cultural icon in the German-speaking world over time, comparable to films like It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and The Wizard of Oz (1939) in America that wove their thread into the fabric of national culture mainly through holiday television screenings. (1) Lang himself directed only one more film, the 1960 sequel to his own Dr Mabuse, but he went on to star in Godard’s Contempt in 1963.

The visions of India expressed in these three films are rather like that unspeakable yet popular invention of German post-war cuisine, the currywurst. The wurst is emphatically German, the tomato ketchup is presumably of American origin, and only the spicy so-called ‘curry powder’ added is Indian. No Indian would ever eat currywurst in his home country, but the Germans love their Imbiss version of India. Given Lang’s Hollywood pedigree, his is clearly the most currywurst version of the three (he knew about wurst and ketchup, and was willing to learn about curry, sort of), and it was also his version that made the most lasting impression on German audiences. However, all three films have contributed to German perceptions of India.




Getting There

How does a Maharajah hire a European architect? In the 1921 version, a letter is sent, but it is the mailman that makes the difference. As the film starts, the Maharajah goes to a holy site and brings back to life a yogi who has buried himself there for meditation purposes (for there is nothing like a little burial from time to time to focus the mind of the spiritual seeker). Bound by an ancient oath to the one who awakens him, the yogi has to fulfil the Maharajah’s wish to bring the architect to India. Through mental power alone, the yogi transfers (or rather beams) himself from India to England. The yogi’s command of travel and communication media through mental powers does not stop there, however. Acting under explicit orders to bring only the architect to India and not his fiancé, the yogi disconnects the architect’s phone just as the fiancé is trying to call him, and telepathically unhinges a wheel on the fiancé’s car as she is driving towards her boyfriend’s house, worried by his lack of response. Eastern mental power beats Western technology on a level playing field.

It is important to note that the idea of mental powers such as the yogi’s occurs in the West at about the same time that the telephone and the motorcar are invented in the late nineteenth century. Modern communication media create the illusion of bodily presence, but the body present in the media is also always absent, rather like a ghost. The yogi in May’s film, with his ability to transcend time and space, is an exemplary image of this ghostly body in modern communication media. Furthermore, the yogi is caught up in nineteenth century European ideas of progress. He does better and more expeditiously what Western science and technology do, and the competitive use of his powers is purely instrumental. However, the Maharajah’s aim is far from ‘rational’, in the sense that Western science and technology claim to be. For May, the yogi, and with him Indian spirituality and mysticism, are merely devices to exact revenge, in the hands of a supposedly typical Indian tyrant.

In the 1938 version, the yogi has vanished, and the problem of ghostly presence along with him. The Maharajah’s sidekick Ramigani is now a scheming prince looking for a chance to unseat the Maharajah. But if the spirituality of communication media is out, travel and communication technology are still in. Much like the fiancé in the 1921 version who flew a plane to India in her attempt to rescue the architect, the 1938 fiancé gets her first sight of India from an airplane window. What she sees is an aerial shot of the Taj Mahal Hotel in Bombay, clearly highlighting the modernity of Indian cities. But soon we are back in the Orientalist land of fantasy, as the Europeans arrive in Eschnapur on the back of an elephant. No more level playing field for the Indians here: the yogi’s talent for travel at the speed of light has been exchanged for the slow and ponderous gait of the elephant. That the Indians of the 1938 version live in a different age is further underscored by views of village life that establish an ethnographic perspective of life in ‘backward societies’. Very much in tune with this perspective, the architect’s original commission in the 1938 version is to build a model city, a ‘development’ project. The plan of the tomb only emerges as the Maharajah’s wife elopes with her lover.

Lang’s 1959 version avoids the problem of getting there by introducing us to the architect in a rural Indian town one late afternoon. The architect is on his way to meet the Maharajah of Eschnapur who has called upon his services to build, once again, a model city. No conflict between modern urbanity and rural backwardness here. India is all countryside, and nothing disturbs the picture of a quiet place remote in time as well as space, were it not for the implicit modernity of Lang’s architect played by Swiss actor Paul Hubschmid, looking like a cross between Charlton Heston and Rock Hudson. But elsewhere, he moves around in a theme park-style space that is about as isolated from the complexities of the modern world as Disneyland, the model of the modern theme park inaugurated just four years prior to the film’s release.

For Lang’s architect, who is already there when we meet him in the film, getting to India is not so much a problem of transportation as it is a question of transformation. Getting to India for him means becoming India, and becoming India means becoming an animal, to wit: a tiger. The architect’s becoming-animal is the point of the film’s first big action sequence. In this opening scene, the architect meets the dancer played by Debra Paget, who comes across in this role as a poor woman’s Liz Taylor. As they meet, a tiger attacks the carriage of the dancer. Every Indian in sight runs for cover, but the valiant architect grabs a burning piece of wood from the campfire and drives the wild beast away. Duly impressed, the dancer says to her saviour: ‘I have seen two tigers fight for my life, you and the other tiger.’ Thus, to beat the tiger, the architect had to become like a tiger himself. But there is more. ‘Do you know, Sahib,’ the dancer continues, ‘that you are now India?’ ‘And the other tiger?’ the architect asks. ‘The other tiger is the other India.’ Then there is a cut to a scene with the Maharajah standing in front of a cage with another tiger running around inside. According to the dancer’s muddled metaphor, the other India, then, is the tiger locked away and held at bay by a cowardly Indian king. As the story plays out, the dancer has to make up her mind as to who she wants to be her tiger.

In Lang’s film, we now know that India is a difficult place to access because there are essentially two, and probably more, Indias. Another trope of European metaphysics comes into play here: whereas good is always one and unity, evil is always multiple. Which brings us to the question of the essence of India.




The Essence of India

From a place where ancient spirituality matches modern technology to a place where modern technology reaches only at the shore and finally to a remote locale where the outside world is but a shadow: thus evolves India in the three versions. What unites the Western heroes and heroines in all three versions is that India puzzles them. What is the essence of India? Apparently, Europeans will never understand. For India is a land of illusions where nothing is what it seems. In Lang’s version, for instance, the king is a shameless lecher, the priests are evil conspirators, the placid lake is full of crocodiles and there is treachery lurking behind every door (and the architect, making his way through the dangerous palace, opens many of them over the course of the film).

India is also the land of truly irrational behaviour. The way the Maharajah behaves in the 1921 version is a case in point. The Maharajah wants the architect to ‘fill himself with the blood and soul of India’, for without such immersion he will not be able to create the expected masterpiece. Female company, particularly of the European sort, would only distract his mind from the task at hand, which is why the architect’s girlfriend is not welcome. ‘In you, Europe would be with him, the unmysterious, fearless, and serene’, the Maharajah tells her over a cup of afternoon tea. The idea that women are a threat to male creativity is a cornerstone of European nineteenth century ideologies of artistic genius. But then the Maharajah, who has told her that the architect is busy working, attempts to conceal the fact that her fiancé has contracted leprosy and is locked away in a lepers’ compound. When he finally takes the woman to see her sick fiancé, he perversely insinuates that only a human sacrifice could cure the architect: the fiancé would have to give in to his advances. At the sight of her fiancé in agony the woman faints. Standing by her, the Maharajah does nothing to stop her fall. Thus, the essence of India boils down to duplicitous behaviour, in conjunction with bad manners and bad medical care.

In the 1938 version India troubles the European visitors, because the urban Bombay is not what they expect. On the other hand, Eschnapur is what they expect, and they happily receive their dose of the incomprehensible there, with all the oriental violence and intrigue erupting at court that a Western traveller could hope for. In the 1959 version, the essence of India is of course the tiger, and the architect can partake in the essence of India by becoming that tiger. Furthermore, there is the Great Indian Rope Trick. At a crucial moment in the film, the Maharajah gives a soirée where a fakir and his juvenile assistant perform the Great Indian Rope Trick. Next, the Maharajah forces the fakir to perform a sword trick on the dancer’s maid, unintentionally killing her. Playing to Western clichés of India, this leads to the Maharajah’s downfall. An evening’s entertainment to the Orientals is a crime by Western standards, and the half-breed dancer dumps the Maharajah in favour of the civilised European.




None of what we learn about the essence of India in the films is terribly useful information for anyone interested in the inner workings of India. Perhaps this is too much to ask of popular fiction. However, many nineteenth century novels did precisely this: explain the world to their readers in a documentary mode. Contrast the three films with Kipling’s Kim. The tale of an Irish soldier’s orphan child who passes as an Indian and grows up in Northern India to become a secret agent for the Raj, Kipling’s book is really a study in how the British ruled India by establishing reconnaissance networks involving local actors from all walks of life. The Germans never had much of that ambition; to the extent that they encountered the problems of colonial rule in South West Africa, they dealt with them with a genocidal cruelty that was quite unspeakable and long unspoken about. Perhaps accordingly, German fiction will not tell us much about the practicalities of what it means to be ‘there’.

In a way, then, the three films continue in the tradition of the already mentioned Indologist Max Müller. A prime specimen of the Victorian armchair scholar, Müller spent most of his career at Oxford where he was brought from Leipzig in 1850. While he stood apart from his British contemporaries, in that he openly supported the Indian movement for national independence of his time – a stance that earned him the lasting respect of many Indians and explains why the German cultural institutes in India today are named after Müller rather than after the poet Goethe, as they are everywhere else in the world – Müller never once traveled to India in his lifetime. What is more, he actually forbade his students to travel there, too.



2. There were exceptions, such as Franz von Osten. The Deutsche Filmzeitung, No 27 (1929), said of Franz Osten’s work: ‘Unlike others whose "Indian" films proved to be utter failures, [Osten] saw India and her wonders neither through the lenses of the European intellectual nor did he confuse European pseudo-romanticism with Indian mysticism. … Osten’s invaluable achievement was to have shown and filmed India as it is … His Shiraz was running in Calcutta’s largest cinema with a capacity of 1,500 seats for four weeks and soon had to be screened in all the native cinemas …’.


But then, German attitudes seem not to have changed a great deal. The Berlin Film Festival in 2005 showed Florian Gallenberger’s Schatten der Zeit (Shadows of Time), shot in Bengali in Calcutta, focusing on poverty, sexuality, prostitution and child labour – topics that play into German perceptions of India, and are like buttons to push with German audiences. The director said that he wrote the story in three days without ever visiting India. Somewhere, it shows. (2)

The Aesthetics of Sexuality and Religion

If the temple dancer in Lang’s version is half-Irish, her trade is Indian religion. Indian religion as presented in the films is a religion practiced by people who behave irrationally (such as the Maharaja who tosses people randomly in the tiger den), and a religion suffused with a strong dose of sexuality. As Ranjit Hoskote points out, this image of Indian religion may be traced back partly to the European missionary literature of the nineteenth century. Missionary tracts of the time, particularly those of the protestant persuasion, highlight the irrational and perverse nature of what they polemicise against as Indian religion. Christian religion, by contrast, appears as rational and thereby universal, as much of a blessing for ‘backward societies’ as Western science and technology.




If such rhetoric primarily served to legitimise the missionary enterprise, the perception of India that it shaped also had an impact on general culture. Thus the architect of the 1938 and 1959 versions of Tiger of Eschnapur, with his commission to build hospitals and schools, is something of a missionary, at least to the extent that building hospitals and schools had always been an important part of the work of Western missionaries in India. On the other hand, in the 1959 version the architect’s counterpart and soon-to-be-lover, the temple dancer, is Indian religion incarnate at its most lascivious and irrational. As a temple dancer, she seems rather unsacred, given the casting of the Hollywood B-type actress Debra Paget in the role. The dance numbers take place in a holy of holies where no white man shall tread, but where the reckless architect of course still goes. All dance numbers in the three films are decidedly on the athletic side, drawing on European modern dance more than on the traditions of classical Indian dance at play in the more subtle dance numbers which Madhuri Dixit performs in contemporary Hindi films. In all three versions, the dancers are scantily clad and the dances rather overtly sexual. Savitri, the wife of the emperor in May’s version, is dressed not so much like an Indian empress but mainly in feathers and beads rather like Josephine Baker, the famous black jazz Harlem dancer in Paris of the ‘20s whose trademark was a dance in the nude, decked only in a skirt of bananas. However, only in Lang’s version is sensual dancing connected with religious ritual.

Moreover, the key dance scenes in the film are performed in front of a giant statue of a female goddess with voluminous breasts – touristically exaggerated as an Indian religious symbol of fertility. Strategically poised above the statue’s breasts in the opening shot of the first dance scene, Lang’s camera gazes at one woman’s breasts over the breasts of another. As if such highly sexualised pseudo-syncretism were not enough, the final dance scene pitches Sitha against a huge and rather phallic deadly cobra. This ‘snake dance’, the high point of Lang’s film, is a trial by ordeal concocted by the priests, meant to prove if her love for the Maharajah is true. Sitha, named after an Indian goddess, dances entirely naked, except for three sequined bits that only just cover her nipples and private parts. It is like having a congregation of Christian priests presiding over a naked erotic dance in a church, meant to prove whether a common dancer loves a certain head of state. Since the goddess concerned is not Mother Mary, he could cheerfully turn her into a tits-and-ass show, since the Indians would not be able to do a thing about it anyway.

Even though Lang does in the first five minutes what a Bollywood film will usually take three hours to achieve (boy meets girl, and they even kiss), Lang’s film features a great deal of what later would be called Bollywood kitsch. Snake stories score big with Indian filmgoers, as Hollywood distributor Columbia-Tristar learned when the mega-snake-thriller Anaconda (1997) outperformed any other territory upon its recent Indian release. However, in its slithery brazenness, Sitha’s erotic snake dance is jaw-droppingly way ahead of similarly themed Hindi films such as Nagin with Vyjayantimala (1954), Nagin with Reena Roy (1976) and Nagina with Sridevi (1986). In Lang’s snake dance, Orientalist notions of India as a place of enhanced sensuality come into play, as they do in the historical epics that Hollywood produced around the same time. But then, Lang’s 1959 film also gives us an idea of some of the coming attractions of the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, when the combination of Indian spirituality and free love promoted by such cult leaders as Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh proved to be a huge draw for many Westerners feeling uneasy about Western modernity, not least in the German speaking world. The imaginary map of India that the Tiger films draw is not just an archive of the past, but also a potential archive of future fantasies.

In the final analysis, all three films are openly patronising and quite racist. The Europeans are forever saving Indians from themselves. According to the films, Indians need Europeans to build hospitals and shrines – which seems slightly odd, considering that the Indians built the Taj Mahal, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. But then, that’s the history of colonialism in a nutshell. Indian royalty hunger for love and sex wherever they can find it, and the Indians need Europeans to show them the path of true love. Moreover, the racist conviction that Indians could not possibly play their own stories well meant that directors took fewer business risks, even as their stories got more risqué. The Osten-directed Indo-German co-productions with Indians playing lead roles were hugely successful not only in Germany, but also widely exported to other European nations and America way back in the ‘20s. But Eichberg and Lang, shooting in India in 1938 and 1959, still preferred a German cast in blackface, cautiously sprinkling curry powder Indians in the background as postcard scenery.

It is interesting to note the similarities between the plot of the Eschnapur films and K. Asif’s Mughal-e-Azam (1960). In the Tiger trilogy, a Maharajah falls in love with a dancer and provokes a political crisis. In Asif’s film, the son of the Mughal falls in love with Anarkali, a dancer, incurs the wrath of his father and provokes a civil war. A classic of Hindi cinema and world cinema, Mughal-e-Azam began its fifteen years of production in 1945 and emerged just after the Lang. It is not known whether K. Asif saw any of the Eschnapur films, nor is it likely that Lang had any knowledge of Asif’s work. Viewing the two films in parallel, however, sheds an interesting light on Lang’s version. Suddenly, the architect’s rivalry with the Maharajah over the love of the dancer – his ambition to, as it were, become her favourite tiger – appears as a German’s somewhat jealous attempt to inscribe himself into a history that is not his, but that he is trying to appropriate.

The nineteenth century German philosophers and Indologists understood Indian culture not as something completely alien and other, but as one of the hidden sources of their own culture. Trying to adopt an Indian story, or trying to infiltrate into what is also, and perhaps essentially, an Indian plot, Fritz Lang’s architect treads in their footsteps. Even in 1959, inventing India on the German screen is as much about inventing Germany as it is about inventing India.



  This essay has been reprinted with permission from M. Dutta, A. Fitz, M. Kröge, A. Schneider & D. Wenner (eds.), Import/Export: Cultural Transfer between India and Germany (Berlin: Parthas, 2005).  

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© Meenakshi Shedde and Vinzenz Hediger June 2005. Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors of Rouge.
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