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Toofani Tarzan

Director: Homi Wadia
Writers: JBH Wadia, Pandil Gnyan
Producers: JBH Wadia, Homi Wadia
Cast: John Cawas, Gulshan, Ahmed Dilavar
Year of release: 1937
Country: India
Reviewed from: UK TV screening (Channel 4)

It’s amazing the stuff that turns up on late night TV. Buried away in a ‘Bollywood Gold’ season on Channel 4 was this 65-year-old Indian Tarzan movie. And for all that one must make allowances for geographical, cultural and generational differences - this is still pretty crappy. It’s of historical interest certainly, in fact it’s fascinating, and it’s sporadically entertaining - but at 160 minutes you’ve got to be pretty determined to be entertained.

We start by seeing scientist Ramu making the breakthrough in his search for the nectar of immortality. Already we’re in murky territory: it’s not clear if this elixir actually makes people immortal or is just a powerful medicine (Ramu says, “This will save millions of lives.”); also Ramu is referred to later as Ranmick; and quite why he has set up his lab in a hut in a jungle village... who knows?

Ramu is married to Uma (Nazira - a lot of the actors have only one name) and has a young son, Leher, around whose neck he places an amulet containing the formula for the ‘nectar.’ When lions attack the village for no reason, Ramu is killed. Leher is rescued by family servant Dada and they fly off in a balloon, accompanied by their jack russell terrier Moti. Uma is left behind and goes mad.

A word here about Dada: he is the single most amazingly offensive racial stereotype I’ve ever seen on screen, a character who makes Stepin Fetchit look like a sensitive portrayal of the African-American experience. Played by ‘Dare-Devil Bonan Shroff’ (also credited as Assistant Director), Dada is Bollywood’s view of an African - one step up the evolutionary ladder from a chimpanzee. Dada lollops around, bent double, knuckles dragging on the ground, vacant expression on his face, communicating only by simian whoops and grunts. He is presented as completely subhuman and, absolutely incredibly, wears what can only be described as ‘nigger minstrel make-up’ - the full Al Jolson huge white lips and everything. Gobsmacking. He is also, incidentally, massively irritating.

Anyway, we flash forward 15 years and little Leher has grown into hunky, loincloth-clad Tarzan, played by a bodybuilder named John Cawas (credited here as ‘John Cavas [sic] (Indian Eddie Polo)’ whatever that means). He lives in a treehouse accompanied by the faithful Dada (which apparently means ‘brother’) and the Rintintin-like Moti, who is actually fourth-credited as being played by ‘Professor Motee (trainer - Omar)’.

Ramu’s father (who is never actually named) is an old man with a Colonel Sanders beard and glasses. The fact that he is clearly a young man in terrible make-up leads me to think that the same actor (Dalpat) may have played Ramu in the prologue too. He is leading an expedition to search for his lost grandson, both of whose parents died. With him is his adopted daughter Leela (Gulshan); a bounder named Biharilal (Chandrasekhar) who really is only interested in locating the nectar formula; faithful guide Dilavar (Ahmed Dilawar); and comic relief servant Bundle (Bandal) who is even more irritating than Dada. Bandal was clearly a fan of Harold Lloyd and Laurel and Hardy films, playing every scene like a cross between Lloyd and Laurel, even occasionally lifting his straw boater to do that thing with his hair.

The party sets off with a couple of dozen native bearers and are attacked by a tribe of cannibals - the chief is played by ‘Professor Buloch (Sandow)’ - who are driven off by the timely arrival of Tarzan, alerted by Moti and assisted by a herd of stampeding elephants led by Dada on a 'phant named Raja.

Biharilal spots the amulet around Tarzan’s neck, but suddenly the proceedings are interrupted by the arrival of a cackling mad woman. It’s Uma, who didn’t die after all but is still insane. She is still played by Nazira, made to look 15 years older by having heavy lines drawn on her face, and has a really tatty-looking, misshapen ‘human skull’ (papier mache by the looks of it) strapped to each arm. Confused, Tarzan runs off, speeding up even more when Biharilal takes a potshot at him.

Having made camp, and after we have suffered through a ‘comedy’ scene of Moti stealing Bundle’s food, Biharilal spots Dada and shoots at him too. Moti alerts Tarzan to his friend’s plight in true Rintintin/Lassie fashion. Later, when the slimy Biharilal is coming on to Leela in her tent, Tarzan appears, knocks him about and abducts Leela to his tree-top eyrie. Fortunately for Dada, Leela is a trained nurse and removes the bullet from his arm.

Gradually Tarzan and Leela come to understand each other and fall in love yada yada yada, same as in most Tarzan movies. (Let’s face it: Tarzan is a great character, and the Edgar Rice Burroughs novels are fantastic, but most Tarzan movies - like this one - are rubbish.) She’s swiftly decked out in a leopard skin mini-dress, and he’s rescuing her from tigers and crocodiles. The tiger fight is actually pretty exciting; it certainly looks like Cawas wrestling the beast, although Gulshan obviously was more careful and so only looks on in admiration by the miracle of back projection.

Back at camp, Dilavar sings a song, then the cannibals attack and make off with everyone, taking them to their fortified village where they worship - a 30-foot tall gorilla idol! Yes, the film-makers had clearly seen King Kong and decided to throw it into the mix. Fantastic! Meanwhile Leela is bathing ‘naked’ in a lake (her swimming costume is plainly visible), chases Moti when he cheekily runs off with her dress, then both girl and dog are captured by the cannibals. Taken to the village, they’re tied up in the same hut as their five friends.

Who can save them? Why, Professor Moti of course! The dog unties itself, jumps out the window and down a hundred-foot cliff, races off to Tarzan’s treehouse and barks out what has happened. I’ll just repeat that for emphasis: the dog doesn’t bite through the ropes, it actually unties itself!

In the village, a terrified native is picked up by the most extraordinary giant grabber thing and swung out over a pit, wherein lives the sacred gorilla himself. And it’s the worst bloody gorilla costume in the history of cinema. Big circular eyes, strange white whiskers - quite honestly, if we hadn't already seen the statue, we wouldn’t know this was supposed to be a gorilla. The native is dropped in the pit and killed by the beast, then just as Leela is about to suffer the same fate, Tarzan arrives! He fights the natives and helps the explorers all escape, while Dada and Moti are busy rescuing the native bearers tied up elsewhere in the village. A big chase ensues.

I should explain about the chases. For some reason, every chase or fight or any other sort of action scene is undercranked so that all movement is speeded up slightly. This makes the gang of cannibals chasing the explorers along the skyline look like nothing less than a 1930s episode of The Benny Hill Show. Having crossed a gorge with Tarzan’s help, our heroes are finally all safe. Now Biharilal threatens Tarzan with his gun, but Moti knocks it away. Uma appears - and Biharilal shoots her instead. The little dog leaps at the trigger-happy swine - who falls to his death over a handy cliff. The bullet has brought Uma to her senses, and before she dies she explains everything: that Tarzan is Leher, that she was Ramu’s wife, that the amulet has the nectar formula etc.

Tarzan carries his mother’s body away, and Leela elects to stay with Tarzan (and Moti and Dada) in the jungle, much to her father’s alarm. Off they go - man, woman, dog and subhuman stereotype - leaving the three remaining explorers, and their remaining bearers, to head back to civilisation on a dodgy back-projection screen behind Dilavar, singing one final song.

Well, goodness gracious me (to coin a phrase)! What a find. This is a very early Tarzan film, only a few years after Johnny Weissmuller starred in Tarzan the Ape Man, though it seems to have been influenced more by the silent versions starring Elmo Lincoln (Cawas’ appearance is certainly modelled more on Lincoln’s than Weissmuller’s). It is also completely unauthorised - there is no mention of Edgar Rice Burroughs anywhere and it is debatable whether the Wadia Brothers didn’t know about him or simply didn’t care. Maybe they thought Tarzan was a public domain legend. The sepia-tinted print shown on Channel Four was a brand new one, supposedly digitally remastered, though there were still plenty of scratches and crackles.

Jamshed Boman Homi Wadia (1901-1986) and his brother Homi Boman Wadia (b.1911) were born in Surat, Gujarat. Jamshed wrote and co-produced his first film (Vasant Leela) in 1928 and established Young United Players with his brother in 1931. Sound films took a while to make it to India and they made five silents between 1931 and 1933 starring Boman Shroff, all inspired to some extent by Douglas Fairbanks’ 1920 classic The Mark of Zorro, including Diler Daku (aka Thunderbolt, 1931) which was a straightforward (unauthorised) remake.

The Wadias were populist film-makers through and through, beloved of stunts and action. They founded Wadia Movietone in 1933 and Jamshed directed Lal-e-Yaman (aka Parviz Parizad, 1933, also with Shroff) which features a magic ring, an ape-man and a genie. In the chorus was a girl called Nadia who as ‘Fearless Nadia’ became the Wadia’s biggest star and India’s top action actress, starring in the classic Hunterwali (aka The Lady with the Whip, 1935, also starring Gulshan, Shroff and Cawas) and many other films, usually with Cawas or Shroff as the leading man. Astoundingly, Nadia wasn’t actually Indian - she was born Mary Evans in Perth, Australia in 1910 to a Welsh father and a Greek mother! (You can read more about her on the Choti Si Duniya website.)

By 1942, Jamshed (who was a supporter of Communist reformer MN Roy) wanted to put more social relevance into the Wadia Movietone films, so Homi left to continue making action epics under the Basant Pictures banner. Homi married Nadia in 1961 (making her Nadia Wadia!), made his last film - his fourth version of the Ali Baba story - in 1978 and retired in 1981. Nadia died in 1996.

Any other Indian Tarzan films? Why, yes. Tarzan ki Beti (Roop K Shorey) was made in 1938, then John Guillerman’s Tarzan Goes to India/Tarzan Mera Saathi (1962) kicked off a whole subgenre: Toofani Tarzan (AR Zamindar, 1962 - I don’t know whether this was a remake of the 1937 film), Tarzan and Gorilla (Pyarelal, 1963), Tarzan aur Jadugar (Radhakant, 1963), Tarzan and Delilah (A Shamsheer, 1964), Tarzan and Captain Kishore (Jal, 1964), Tarzan aur Jalpari (Radhakant, 1964), Tarzan and King Kong (A Shamsheer, 1965 - I believe this ‘King Kong’ was actually a popular wrestler), Tarzan and the Circus (Shiv Kumar, 1965), Tarzan Comes to Delhi/Tarzan Delhi Mein (Kedar Kapoor, 1965), Tarzan and Hercules (Mehmood, 1966), Tarzan aur Jadui Chirag (Babubhai Banjhi, 1966), Tarzan ki Mehbooba (Ram Rasila, 1966), Tarzan in Fairyland/Tarzan Paristan Mein (Sushil Gupta, 1968), and Tarzan 303 (Chandrakant, 1970). More recently there was The Adventures of Tarzan (B Subhash, 1985) and Tarzan and Cobra (Bhagwant Choudhury, 1987)

If and when Toofani Tarzan is repeated, I urge you to set the video because it's a true oddity. As a final note, the film features what may well be my favourite movie credit of all time: ‘Matte effects in co-operation with Mino the Mystic’!

MJS rating: C