Monday, May 24, 2010

Jungle Ka Jawahar (India, 1952)

Let’s face it: Jungle Adventure Month hasn’t been easy on any of us. That’s why, after suffering through the stubborn just-there-ness of Jungle King, I thought I’d turn myself over to the professionals. And that brings us to Jungle Ka Jawahar. It was produced and directed by the king of Indian stunt films himself, Homi Wadia, and stars his queen -- and wife -- the Australian-born Mary Evans, more legendarily known as Fearless Nadia. But, wait, that’s not all! The film also benefits from the set design and special effects work of the great Babhubai Mistry, who was not only a pioneer of Indian special effects, but also the director of a number of captivating Bollywood fantasy and mythological films in his own right.

Granted, the forty-something Nadia looks a bit matronly here, but she’s still game enough that I think we can extrapolate from Jungle Ka Jawahar what those stunt films from her 1930s heyday might have been like. (Which, sadly, is all that we can do for the moment, as none of those films are currently available for our viewing.) While some of her feats of daredevilry are filmed from a safe enough distance that they could conceivably have been performed by a double -- or are aided in part by rear-projection trickery -- in the film’s many acrobatic fights scenes we can clearly see, for the most part, that it’s Nadia getting down and dirty in the thick of things. She even pulls off one of those Dara Singh moves where she twirls a guy over her head before tossing him back at her opponents. (Which, now that I think about it, could just as easily have been an original Fearless Nadia move that Dara Singh later borrowed.) Hers is definitely a commitment to hands-on, sweaty, rough-and-tumble action that is very far indeed from what we’d expect to see from the typical Indian film heroine of this, or any previous, era -- which is another way of saying that Nadia indeed delivers in full on her reputation here.

The film’s story concerns a perpetually pissed-off jungle queen called Sheena -- played with fiery-eyed petulance by Leela Kumari -- who is scheming to return to her tribe a sacred scepter that has somehow fallen into the hands of a kindly jungle doctor played by Aga Shapoor. Aiding her in her scheming is one of those awful big city fortune hunters who so often arrive in the jungle to stir things up, in this case played by Dalpat.

What these two hadn’t counted on, however, is the facility that the doctor’s daughter, Mala (Nadia), has with swinging from vines, high diving, leaping from her perch high atop the backs of elephants, and generally kicking ass in the name of keeping things in the jungle status quo. And, by the way, I love the switch-up that Jungle Ka Jawahar pulls by having a fur-clad character named Sheena who, despite being -- like the famous comic book character from whom she takes her name -- the Queen of the Jungle, spends the whole of the movie stomping ineffectually around her cave lair in a big snit, while it is the dowdy Nadia, in her sensible safari wear, who takes part in all of the traditional jungle heroics.

Aside from that, however, Jungle Ka Jawahar doesn’t throw much at us that’s not covered in Jungle Adventure 101. Present are all those elements that have seemed to become part of the very air we breath here at 4DK over the past month: Pith-helmeted explorers tied to elaborately carved posts as natives dance in supplication to a creepy giant idol, one of their number eagerly stirring a giant stew pot in anticipation of the meal to come; someone wrestling with an uproariously fake looking stuffed lion; the outrageously phony gorilla costume; and, of course, the climactic elephant charge. What Jungle Ka Jawahar brings to this stew of familiar elements is an enthusiasm that works somewhat toward belying their not-so-freshness, as if this oft told tale was instead being told for -- well, maybe not the first, but perhaps only the hundredth time, rather than the thousandth.

The film also benefits from a sort of antique charm, even by the standards of Bollywood circa 1952. Take away the abundance of novelty musical numbers and comic relief sequences, and what you have is almost indistinguishable from a Hollywood movie serial from the 30s, complete with all of the last minute escapes, diabolical traps and rowdy physical stunts that entails. Even the film’s music, with all of its big band dynamics and whimsical clarinet leads, seems anachronistic, often coming across as a sort of Cab Calloway take on jungle exotica. All of this works together to instill the movie with an appropriately “gee whiz” kind of breathlessness, granting it just enough of an air of innocence and sincerity to keep the reeling out of its tropes from becoming tiresome.

Babhubai Mistry’s work here also goes a long way toward weaving a little bit of old fashioned magic around Jungle Ka Jawahar’s otherwise modest presentation. While clearly some location shooting was involved, the film is largely a backlot affair, and Mistry’s fancifully stylized sets -- from the jungle environs to Sheena’s expressionistic, idol-adorned cave lair -- conjure happy associations with set-bound Hollywood jungle adventures from the 30s and 40s like The Most Dangerous Game and King Kong. (I also couldn’t help thinking of the recent Filipino film Independencia, whose self-consciously artificial jungle sets were designed as an homage to such films.) It also has to be said that Mistry’s miniature work here is top-notch, and definitely on par with what was being done elsewhere in the world, Hollywood included -- which leads me to wonder again what the hell happened to Bollywood special effects, and why in later years they fell so dramatically (and hilariously!) behind pace with what was being done in the field elsewhere.

Most importantly, perhaps, Jungle Ka Jawahar manages to let us know that it doesn’t take itself all that seriously without lapsing into complete parody. Intermittent winks toward the audience cumulatively serve as a good natured invitation for us to check our incredulity at the door and simply thrill along as god and Homi Wadia intended. A parting shot, in which even the ridiculous looking man-in-suit gorilla waves goodbye to the triumphant Nadia as she speeds off in her plane, lets the viewer know in no uncertain terms that, if he or she spent the previous two hours worrying over Jungle Ka Jawahar’s general silliness or crudeness of construction, he or she just missed out on a whole lot of fun.

This review is part of "Stranded in the Jungle", a month of jungle adventure themed posts at 4DK.


houseinrlyeh aka Denis said...

Is that a female gorilla costume/costume gorilla?

memsaab said...

@house: I certainly think so!

I liked this film, it's just plain silly. Loved the giant wooden spoon to stir the cannibal pot, loved the gorilla boobs (and potbelly), the big cushy carpetbag of death, even the CSP :) Hooray for Nadia!

Beth Loves Bollywood said...

Sounds wonderful! Someday, someday I will get to watch an actual Nadia film!

Todd said...

I'd instead refer to the gorilla's boobs as "poobs" or "bubes", for reasons that I think are obvious.

It appears that Induna has another one of these later Fearless Nadia titles available, this one directed by her Jungle Ka Jawahar costar John Cawas:

Still none of her early stunt classics, though.