A caravan of travelling performers cruising through SS Vasan’s Chandralekha (1948), their operatic chorus bounces off the wilderness and reaches actor TR Rajakumari. She enlists their help in rescuing her lover (MK Radha), who is stuck inside a cave. But the rocks won’t budge so circus elephants are summoned to move the boulders and reunite them.
It’s an arresting sequence, marking the confluence of two mediums with similar destinies in India. Circus, like cinema, is a medium of import. Both arrived in the late 19th century and gave birth to indigenous cottage industries providing public entertainment at a lower price and also sowed the invisible seeds of national identity.
Released a year after Independence, Chandralekha was the most expensive Indian film of its time. Produced under Vasan’s Gemini Studio banner, the Tamil epic was released in Hindi with moderate changes. The circus sequences feature equestrian stunts, trapeze acts, clown skits, animal routines and a unicycle parade—were the handiwork of South Indian Ladies Circus. In his book, An Album of Indian Big Tops, circus historian Sreedharan Champad recounts, “Damodaran (the owner) agreed with pleasure and the film Chandralekha was shot utilising the facilities of the circus. Vasan gave a reasonable remuneration to Damodaran, who, on receiving such an amount, decided to take the circus abroad...”
On a world stage, jugglers and freaks, clowns and runaways, permeate the whole of cinema. Griffith made his circus movie in 1925, Chaplin in 1928. While Cecil B DeMille amped up the pomp in The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), Fellini wrecked hearts with La Strada (1954). In India, Mary Ann Evans—known as Fearless Nadia—starred in Noshir Engineer’s Circus Queen (1959). The Cold War fostered good Indo-Soviet relations, and several Russian troupes toured through India which led to the idea of Mera Naam Joker (1970). Raj Kapoor after watching a Czechoslovakian circus show in Bombay created an epic about a circus clown named Raju. Most of his assets were mortgaged in production, and the film was declared a disaster.
The criticism was directed at the experimental plot and four-hour-plus runtime, as well as Kapoor’s waning charisma as a hero. But the circus scenes executed by Soviet performers from Gemini Circus were widely loved. In 1971, A Salaam released Murder in Circus starring Jaimala as a trapeze artist solving a string of murders. Bharat Circus—one of the many circuses founded by Kallan Gopalan, a disciple of Keeleri Kunhikannan, the father of Indian circus—aided in the production. Jokers, sharpshooters and tightrope walkers continued to appear in the Hindi films of the 70s and 80s, but few of them focused on their marginalised existence. In 1989, Kamal Haasan’s Apoorva Sagodharargal (Appu Raja), about a circus midget, was praised for its practical effects and Haasan’s empathetic portrayal of a dwarf. This was followed by the Indo-Soviet co-production Shikari (1991) starring Mithun Chakraborty, Irina Kushnareva and Naseeruddin Shah. Again, MV Shankaran’s Gemini Circus provided the talent and logistics.
On television, Aziz Mirza and Kundan Shah’s television series, Circus, starring Shah Rukh Khan and Ashutosh Gowariker, was a highlight of the 90s. Contemporary movies have shown a mixed affinity for circus life. Films like Phir Hera Pheri and Krrish exploited the backdrop for glitz and humour, Mangesh Hadawale’s Dekh Indian Circus made metaphorical use of its central theme. Zoya Akhtar shot the song Baawre, her debut film Luck by Chance at the iconic Rambo Circus in Pune, while Vijay Krishna Acharya took the Indian circus to Chicago in Dhoom 3.
Saravana Rajendran’s debut film Mehendi Circus released in April follows a circus performer (Shweta Tripathi) who falls in love with a record shop owner. Their romance, set to the tunes of 90s Tamil music, is complicated by issues of caste and patriarchy. “I wanted to come as close as possible to the character of Mehendi. I performed the knife-throwing stunts myself. Of course, they were fake knives and we used CG, but they were still scary,” says Shweta.
Come June 5, Salman Khan will be seen portraying a circus stuntman in the 1960s chapter of Bharat. “I think the circus has changed drastically from the time that we were trying to recreate,” says director Ali Abbas Zafar, who modelled Salman’s character on Dharmendra from Mera Naam Joker.But the dwindling legacy of Indian circuses continues. As few as 30 companies were operational by 2016 and the Kerala Circus Academy was shut down the same year. There’s also talk of expanding the Performing Animals (Registration) Amendment Rules to exclude any kind of animal use. In an increasingly simulated media world, the joy and thrill of live spectacle has died down.