Tuesday, February 5, 2019

4DK at 10: Zimbo (India, 1958)

[ORIGINALLY POSTED DECEMBER, 21st, 2008: This review of the first Zimbo movie was not only a reader favorite, but also provided 4DK with its enduring mascot, Pedro the Ape Bomb]

Homi Wadia's Zimbo is proof that you can never have too much of a good thing. That is, if your idea of "a good thing" is Tarzan, because Zimbo is essentially just Tarzan under another name. That struck me as odd, because -- despite what the estate of Edgar Rice Burroughs might have had to say about the matter -- Indian filmmakers have never seemed shy about making films about Tarzan under his own name. Lots of them, in fact.

Anyway, Zimbo: Professor Chakravarty, after years of toil in his beaker-filled jungle laboratory, has finally perfected his revolutionary youth serum, and secrets the formula away in a locket that he places around his young son's neck. No sooner has he done this, than a pack of angry lions invades the Chakravarty family home. The Professor only has enough time to place his son within the basket of a handy hot air balloon before being fatally mauled by one of the beasts. Chakravarty's wife is unable to join her son before the line mooring the balloon slips loose, and the child goes sailing off into the sunset without her.

With her husband dead and her son now a rapidly receding dot in the sky, Mrs. Chakravarty instantly descends into face-clawing madness and disappears into the jungle, only to emerge periodically throughout the rest of the film to go "boogity boogity" and freak people out. Later, Chakravarty Jr.'s balloon touches down in a remote part of the jungle, where he is taken in by Dada, a chimp played, according to the credits, by "Pedro, the human chimpanzee" (though, to be clear, Pedro is actually a real chimpanzee who acts human, and not the other way around). Thus is young Chakravarty's journey to becoming Zimbo, the lord of the jungle, set in motion.

Seventeen years later, the Professor's brother and his adopted daughter, Leela (Chitra), arrive in the jungle to look for the missing family, and it is not too long before they are confronted with the adult Zimbo (Azad) in all his glory. And hey, color me edified: It turns out that extremely well-built, mostly naked men who are in touch with their primitive sides, but at the same time display a strong, if nascent, sense of chivalry are quite popular with the ladies. Really, who'd have thought? Because judging from the look Leela gives Zimbo upon first laying eyes on him, she really like-a what she sees:

As does Maya, the evil queen of a secret kingdom hidden deep within the jungle:

It should come as no surprise that Leela will eventually become the Jane to Zimbo's Tarzan, and, despite the fact that the leopard skin togs she'll wear are a sight more matronly than those worn by her American counterparts, the obvious warmth that she feels for Zimbo's form adds an estrogen-fueled heat to Zimbo that I don't recall in any of Hollywood's entries in the Tarzan saga. Judging from that look she gives him, you'd expect that, rather than the other way around, it would be she who slings Zimbo over her shoulder and carries him off into the brush.

And why not? Zimbo, as he's presented, fully lives up to his almost-name: a perfect male bimbo, half innocent and half idiot, but with all of his manly parts in prime working order. In short, an ideal fixer-upper for the woman willing to invest herself in the task And Leela, by all appearances, is highly motivated.

While Zimbo provides a rote, eyepatch-wearing male villain with his eye on the Professor's formula, it is clearly a film that belongs to the ladies. And the real MacGuffin is not what's hidden in Zimbo's locket, but what's locked in his trunks. As such, our hero is little more than a delightfully oblivious boy toy, caught in a tug-of-war between two powerful females who both have a very firm grasp on exactly what it is that they want. Of course, we should expect such take-charge women from a director like Wadia. This is, after all, the man who made his directing debut by introducing the whip-wielding Fearless Nadia to Indian cinema audiences, and who would soon after that make Nadia the -- whip wielding? -- star of his own life by marrying her.

Eventually Maya's desires drive her to have her men capture Zimbo and bring him to her palace -- a wonderfully phantasmagorical set complete with cartoonish-looking giant idols that ends up giving Zimbo a bit of a Flash Gordon flavor. Here she tries to win his affections with sexy item numbers, but to no avail. Zimbo ultimately escapes, leaving Maya no choice but to take Leela, her father, and Dada prisoner in order to draw him back. This leads to a spectacular climax in which Zimbo leads a charging herd of elephants in an attack on the palace. It's a sequence that demonstrates that Zimbo, while having a B movie sensibility, is actually a fairly handsomely mounted production, with a large number of extras, some eye-catching sets, and a number of well-staged action set pieces.

While it's definitely the women's show, I don't want Pedro the human chimp's substantial contributions to Zimbo to go unmentioned. Not only does he perform all of the expected movie chimp duties by riding a tricycle and wearing a tutu (though, sadly, no fez), but he also -- while obviously doubled by a dwarf or a small child in a couple of shots -- takes part in a song and dance number with the movie's comic relief and, in the climax, displays a thirst for vengeance and handiness with a weapon that would not be displayed by a chimp again until Dario Argento's Phenomena in the eighties. I've never really sat down to compare the merits of various chimp actors before, but I think that, if I did, Pedro would most likely come out on top.

Zimbo is the rare entertainment that actually earns being described by the over-used adjective "rollicking", aided by what is, by all appearances, a very ahead-of-its-time, self-conscious sense of camp. In short, it's more fun than a barrel of monkeys, human or otherwise.

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