February 1920 was a very important month for Hindi cinema, though of course the fledgling cinema industry in India back then didn’t know it. But that month, a century ago, marked the births of three major actors (and one not so major, but by no means a non-entity). One was Pran, born on February 12th. Another was Iftekhar, born on February 22nd (a birthday shared with Kamal Kapoor). And between Pran and Iftekhar, born on February 16th, a man who was not just actor, but also writer, director and producer: IS Johar.
Born in Tollaganj (now in Pakistan), IS Johar migrated to India at the time of the Partition, and ended up in Bombay, debuting as writer and actor in Roop Shorey’s smash hit, Ek Thi Ladki. From there onwards, there was no looking back: Johar went on to write several other scripts (especially, in the early years, for comedies such as Dholak and Hum Sab Chor Hain), while also acting and directing—among the films he directed (and wrote) were Shrimatiji, Nastik, Hum Sab Chor Hain, and, in the 1960s, the Johar-Mehmood comedies. While most of the films he wrote and/or directed were comic, satirical, or just plain slapstick, IS Johar’s acting spanned a wider range of styles.
He played a lot of comic roles—my favourite one is his character in Shagird, though among his other famous comic roles has been a triple role (in Johny Mera Naam) which bagged him a Filmfare Award. He played somewhat comical meanies (not outright villains) in films like Pavitra Paapi, Chhoti Bahu, and Ek Thi Ladki. And he played, occasionally, the endearing and warm character—his role as Sharmila Tagore’s character’s older brother in Safar is an example.
And he acted in several English-language films (and a couple of Italian ones, which I haven’t seen), including Lawrence of Arabia, Death on the Nile, North-West Frontier, and Harry Black and the Tiger. The last-named is the film I choose to review as tribute today, simply because his role in this film got IS Johar a BAFTA Film Award nomination, and it’s a fine example of his acting.
The eponymous Harry Black (Stewart Granger) of Harry Black and the Tiger is a White Hunter in India, and Bapu (IS Johar) is his tracker. Not just tracker, but pretty much everything else, too: general dogsbody, interpreter, friend and comrade. When the story begins, Harry and Bapu are trailing a tiger which has turned man-eater and has been terrorizing villages in an area called Rimli.
Harry, despite being encumbered with one artificial leg, is good at his job—very good. With Bapu’s help, he is able to get into position to get a good shot at the tiger. Everything is ready; Harry has the tiger in his sights—and then suddenly, on the road down below in the valley, a vehicle roars by, startling the tiger and sending it racing off into the jungle. Harry’s lost his chance of killing the man-eater.
An incensed Harry goes back to the rest house where he’s been staying, only to discover who the erring motorists are: people from out of his past. Desmond Tanner (Anthony Steel) has arrived as the new manager of a tea plantation in the vicinity, and while Desmond and Harry do meet amiably enough, it’s plain that there is some tension in the air. They know each other, but it’s perhaps not in a way that makes them completely at ease with each other.
Then Desmond’s wife Christian (Barbara Rush) emerges, and there’s the same sense of a somewhat awkward acquaintance—though in this case, Harry’s attraction for Christian is palpable. These two, it seems, from the way in which they meet and in what they say (and how they say it), have been together. They’ve been in love at some point in the past.
Michael, Christian and Desmond’s eight-year old son (Martin Stephens) comes bounding along, full of beans and eager to make friends not just with Harry but with his tin leg too. Does ‘Plain Harry’ (as Michael decides to call him, since Harry completely forbids him from calling him ‘Uncle Harry’) really have a tin leg? Does it go all the way up?
Later, once Michael has gone off to play or do other things boys his age do, the grown-ups talk. Christian asks Harry about his wife—hadn’t he got married some years ago? Yes, says Harry. And divorced, too, since. Christian looks a bit discomfited by this news, but she rallies around, and soon, with Bapu bringing news of the tiger’s whereabouts, Harry gets ready to go out again after the man-eater.
At this point, Desmond—now alone with Harry—asks if he may come along too. Harry tries to dissuade him; killing tigers—especially man-eaters—isn’t an easy job. Desmond insists, even to the point of pleading. His motive finally becomes clear, as it has been to Harry from the beginning. Desmond is a coward, he knows he’s a coward, and he has an urgent desire to prove (in particular to his wife) that he isn’t. Harry knows this, and Harry knows too that Desmond’s fear can prove dangerous, not just for him, but for others, too.
Eventually, though, Desmond has his way, and armed with a gun, goes off into the rocks with Harry and Bapu. Harry gives him detailed instructions: don’t move from this sheltered spot, don’t fire until you’re absolutely certain that you’ll hit. Harry repeats it again and again, and Desmond insists he’s understood. Both men take their places, some distance apart from each other.
Meanwhile, as per instructions passed down from Harry through Bapu to the local villagers, a large group of beaters, followed by elephants—the entire jingbang creating a huge ruckus—has set off, to rouse the tiger from where it’s hiding and chase it towards the spot where Harry (and Desmond) are waiting for it.
The tiger comes hurrying down the track, pretty much where Harry and Bapu had expected it to approach from. Both Harry and Desmond get ready, watching the tiger with bated breath, ready to fire—and Desmond suddenly loses his nerve, or gets excited, or simply doesn’t think. Before he can get a really certain shot at the tiger, he fires. And misses.
But the tiger, already right on them, comes rushing madly forward. It leaps, Harry tries to get in as good a shot as he can in the circumstances—and the tiger pounces right on him. It’s more an accidental collision than a deliberate attack, but any collision with a tiger can be lethal. Harry gets badly mauled across the chest. Instead of carrying a dead tiger down in triumph to the village, the beaters end up having to carry an unconscious Harry to the rest house.
When he comes to, Harry finds himself being attended to by a Dr Chowdhury (Frank Olegario), and with Christian hovering solicitously in the background. And Bapu, putting up a pretence of having been around only because he was missing the daily dose of ‘whisky-wine’ that Harry gives him, but—as is obvious to Harry too—in reality very worried.
Over the next few days, while Harry recovers and has various conversations with Christian, Bapu and the nurse (Kamala Devi) whom the doctor has left behind to look after Harry, we get a glimpse of how Harry got to be where he is now. Or rather, what his relationship with Desmond is. How Harry’s missing leg is connected to Desmond’s cowardice, and how that incident also led to Harry and Christian getting to know each other… in a way that Desmond probably knows nothing about.
Harry Black and the Tiger is one of those many ‘man pitted against nature’ films that are invariably set in some exotic locale (Asia, Africa and South America seem to be the most preferred settings) where there’s plenty of scope for both fierce animals and exotic natives. This one, while it has all the adventure of a good man-vs-film, also tries to balance that with emotional drama, with the end result being a bit of a mishmash.
What I liked about this film:
The tiger sequences, which are pretty real: the last scene, in particular, I found fairly scary. The scenes featuring the villagers are a little erratic—some are realistic (for instance, there’s one chilling one where the tiger’s prowling around on the outskirts of a village, where a group of villagers is making bricks. One woman is singing a song and everything looks eerily everyday). Some, on the other hand, look too much like non-actors being forced to act. But, thankfully, no Indian villagers are shown conversing in English!
Plus, IS Johar. Bapu is an endearing character, very faithful to Harry Black, but not the simple rustic he would have been in most other foreign films set in India of that period. This is a man who is both philosopher and tracker. He needs his regular ‘sups of whisky-wine’, and he’s had three wives ‘at a conservative estimate’. Yet, when Harry thrashes about in a fevered nightmare, Bapu is the one who knows how to soothe him back without hurting the Great White Hunter’s ego (and one gets the impression that Bapu is the only man with whom Harry will even cast aside that ego). Bapu is friend and confidant, and support through everything, whether it’s facing up to a tiger or his own tormented past. And IS Johar plays Bapu brilliantly.
Interestingly, Howard Thompson, reviewing Harry Black and the Tiger for The New York Times in September 1958, had this to say in his review:
“Three native Indians, perhaps aptly, steal the picture right out from under the verbose British colonials. Frank Olegario and Kamala Devi do well briefly on the sidelines. But a chirpy, bright-eyed little man named I. S. Johar, as Mr. Granger’s faithful servant, has only to open his mouth to own the picture. Mr. Johar, that is—and the tiger.”
What I didn’t like:
The ‘emotional drama’ bit of it. What could have been a humdinger of a man-vs-man-eater film is seriously diluted by the odd love triangle history shared by Harry, Desmond and Christian. It seems thrown in for the sake of providing something other than the adventure, and for me, at least, it doesn’t work, mostly because it finally ends up being rather pointless.
And, Kamala Devi as the nurse irritated me. She looked really more like a European in brownface than an Indian, but that’s beside the point—more to the point, she acted and spoke in a way that did not strike me as Indian (simple example: when Kamala Devi says “Sahib”, she says it the way it’s written in English: “saa-hib”; IS Johar pronounces it the way an Indian would: “saa-hub”). And the faux philosophy spouted by the nurse, the oddly mysterious aura that goes nowhere, made the character even more unbearable.
But, a film you should watch for IS Johar and the tiger.