Harry Black and the Tiger (1958)

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.

25 thoughts on “Harry Black and the Tiger (1958)

  1. A wonderful Article! I am pleased to read about I S Johar, may favourite comedian of his time. His cute acting as a Postman in Gunj Oothi Shahnai will be remembered for ever.

  2. I do like I. S. Johar. He was a very educated, intelligent and witty man. I remember Dainik Bhaskar had a series on him. That was an eye opener, for before that he was only seen as a comedian. I also remember one of his dialogues from “Nastik”. Ajit says that he doesn’t believe in God or his existence and Johar’s character replies something like- “Zara aahista/ soch ke bolo. Agar nahin hua to thik, par nikal aaya (God) to beda gark kar ke chodega”.
    P.S.: “………since Harry completely forbids him from calling him ‘Uncle Harry’)”. I got reminded of those ex-lovers joke here. When a girl introduces her son to her past boyfrined as- “woh dekho beta mama ko namaste karo”. Sorry, out of context.

    • That’s a great dialogue from Nastik – it’s been decades since I watched it. Must see it again sometime. It had some good songs too.

      Talking about him being more than a comedian, a friend shared an interesting article on Facebook about how IS Johar’s play Bhutto was banned in 1982 because it was considered derogatory to Bhutto.

  3. Just wanted to point out two songs in
    two eponymous movies of his…Johar
    Mehmood in Goa and Johar in Kashmir.
    Quite serious songs. Na koi raha hai na
    koi rahega as well as Jannat ki hai
    tasweer. Good, old fashioned patriotic
    songs. Sadly, not sung nowadays even
    on Independence and Republic Days!
    Nitin

    • I have heard of these two films, but never seen them (I have vague memories of watching Johar Mehmood in Hong Kong, and hating it). I just listened to the two songs you’ve mentioned:

      and

      Yes, really pretty good old-fashioned patriotic songs. Wonder why they aren’t better-known.

  4. Thanks for a great article. My first introduction to IS Johar was from a column he used to write in the Illustrated Weekly of India – basically funny/quirky responses to reader’s questions -(Later Khushwant Singh took over) I am sure someone will remember what it was called! He was also great in Aaj ki taaza khabar and as Shooka in Nanak Naam Jahaz Hai.

    • Someone on Facebook also told me about the Illustrated Weekly column. I have no recollection of it – I guess I was too small to remember, but I can well imagine.

      I second your appreciation of his role as Shooka – that was really good. Aaj ki Taaza Khabar I watched so long ago, I’ only remember the bare bones of the plot, nothing even of who acted in it. Must rewatch it!

  5. I remember watching Harry Black and the Tiger a long time ago. It was after I read about Guru Dutt forcing SD to use a tune from the film for Sar jo tera chakraye. :)

    Your review had me nodding along in agreement so many times. Yeah, the emotional triangle bit didn’t do much for me. And I wish that Desmond’s cowardice (his responsibility for Harry’s mishap, not once, but twice) were better integrated. It really was one of those ‘could have been better’ movies, but was fine for a one-time watch.

    Johar was annoying most times as the comedian, but I did like what I’d read of the man himself. He was very witty, and very intelligent. This certainly was an iconic role.

    • Yes, Desmond’s cowardice was badly integrated. On the whole, I got the impression that the writer (and director?) was/were far better at the adventure element than at the emotional one. Oddly enough, this was one film I liked better on the second viewing – though I wonder if that could have been because I disliked it so much the first time round. This time, my expectations were lower.

  6. Heartfelt thanks for remembering I.S. Johar (his full name was Inder Sen Johar) on the occasion of his birth centenary. He was indeed a versatile actor who could do all kinds of roles. I liked him very much in Ek Thi Larki (1949), Goonj Uthi Shehnai (1959), Goa (1965) which was produced, written and directed also by himself only, Kagaz Ki Nao (1975) and Be-reham (1980). However Shagird (1967) is an unforgettable gem of this brilliant artiste. It’s a classic in which Johar’s role reminds of the character of Hamilton Beamish in the classic novel – The Small Bachelor penned by P.G. Wodehouse. Shagird later inspired several movies viz. Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman (1992), Shreemaan Aashique (1993), Life Partner (2009) etc. Having immense repeat value, Shagird can be watched n number of times if not for anything else, solely for I.S. Johar. Your review is quite an objective one and a perfect tribute to this great artiste who left for his heavenly abode on 10.03.1984.

    • Thank you so much! And yes, I completely agree about his role in Shagird. I really liked that one, Johar was excellent in it. Your comment also reminded me that I haven’t yet read The Small Bachelor – thank you for that. I must put that on my list.

  7. Thank you for reminding about the birthdays of three men who entertained millions of us. Regarding I S Johar, can’t say that I have seen many of his movies. But, I do remember his triple role in I S Johar. What I liked about him was that his was dialogue driven comedy. He was an intelligent man who deserved many more significant roles than these roles where he was engaged in tomfoolery.

    • It’s such a shame that he was often relegated to tomfoolery. That’s why it’s a pleasant change to see him in roles like the ones he played in Safar, North-West Frontier or Harry Black and the Tiger, where you can see that intelligence shine through, and where he gets to really show his acting skills.

  8. I S Johar is the only comedian that I can stand from that period. Mehmood,Rajendra Nath and the rest were so terrible and loud that I’d skip the comic side plots. But Johar always brought something new to the table. His performance usually stays on the sensible and real side of the equation.I especially loved his role in Aag aur Daag as a taxi driver left with an abandoned baby (with a very adult mind and voice).

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