As one of the first—and still one of the few—women to specialize in onscreen kick-assery, it’s no secret that Fearless Nadia is one of my idols (and I’m not alone in that by any means). So when she is set down in the heart of the Dark Continent with ooga-booga natives, pith-helmeted villains, handsome big game hunter John Cawas, and a loyal and clever lion named Shankar, the little African heart of this Memsaab goes pitter-patter. It’s also The Big Muscle Tussle month over at this site, where I am a rather unproductive member but whose other more participatory writers I cannot recommend highly enough.
There is quite a lot of muscle on display in this, and not all of it belongs to Nadia!
Plus I haven’t gone back this far in time lately and I’ve been missing the aesthetic of this era. I mean, even the censor certificate back then was pretty.
The movie opens with a ship in full sail and its sailors engaged in singing a lusty sea-chanty. But the presence of a wealthy man named Sir Mangal Das (SK Hasan) and his little girl Leela (Baby Madhuri, so adorable), traveling to Bombay, spells certain disaster as we all know: child + rich parent(s) + ship @ sea = shipwreck + separation(s). I am enchanted by the detail in the ship and its denizens, a little less so by the blatant racism although of course Indians learned it from experts and it was fairly standard in films at the time everywhere. Baby Madhuri is the cutest little “Indian Shirley Temple” ever (and there were a few of them). I believe she is the same Madhuri who was Meena Kumari’s little sister and Mehmood’s first wife, but here she is a just a ringleted little moppet.
Before she goes to bed, Leela’s father shows her some papers that (I think) prove that she is the heiress to his large fortune and secures them in a briefcase.
Sure enough, soon after that a huge storm blows up. Leela’s father ropes her to a lifesaver along with her doll and the briefcase and pushes her off into the raging sea, watching sadly as she bobs off into the distance. I feel sad too, and am not very sure that Baby Madhuri’s sobs are “acting”. Also I am not clear why, thus secured to a flotation device, she couldn’t just stay with her father and the crew on board, but never mind.
As dawn breaks, Leela washes up on a tropical shore populated by a lot of wildlife stock footage: monkeys, elephants, big cats. Clutching the briefcase and her doll, she trudges into the jungle where—in a nice twist—she is adopted not by our cousins the apes but by a family of lions with two cute little cubs, and grows up to be Fearless Nadia.
Twenty years have passed and Mangal Das, having survived the shipwreck as well (I knew he should have kept her with him!), has long been looking for his long-lost little girl. He refuses to give up on her despite the urging of his brother Mohanlal (Dalpat) who thinks she must surely be dead (he also obviously has ulterior motives, being Dalpat and therefore villainous). Mangal Das decides to mount a search expedition in far-off Nigeria, accompanied by Mohanlal.
There, Mangal Das hires a pipe-puffing safari hunter named Surendra (John Cawas). He brings along his friend Hamid (Sardar Mansur) who appears to be Ancient Assyrian royalty mixed with North African mercenary. Surendra and Hamid are also accompanied by an extremely irritating CSP guy inaptly called Bahadur (Mitthu Miyan) whose catchphrase for some reason is “lakh rupaiya!”.
Everyone (especially me) is entertained in a tropical bar where men in pith helmets and cowboy hats watch a lively dancer (Shahzadi) in a satin sailor outfit sing a ditty about whiskey. Jolly! (And I think this guy is actor Habib; he plays a different part later on—but maybe he was an extra in this scene too.)
Hamid warns Mohanlal and Mangal Das about the dangers of jungle travel (or so I gather), and the savage natives of Harambano. Undeterred, Mohanlal sets off the next day (not sure what Mangal Das does, presumably he stays behind in the relative comforts of a hotel) with Surendra, Hamid, Bahadur and a host of blackamoor caricatures in the form of local bearers. Forced to cross a bubbling hot spring they obviously fear, the bearers finally flee when the expedition is attacked by tribals from Harambano. After a short exchange of spears and gunfire accompanied by very dramatic death (hint: bellow “aaaaarrrrggghhhh”, clutch chest, arch forward, fall on face), our intrepid foursome escape with just their rifles and the clothes on their backs while the natives make off with the rest of their supplies.
Hamid pursues them, trying to retrieve at least the ammunition, but the Harambanoids (I made that up) tie him to a tree just as several lions arrive on the scene. Surendra is attacked by a lioness when he goes to rescue Hamid, and Bahadur (for once useful) shoots her dead. Pursued by her angry relatives, the men flee into a cave and play dead themselves until they are rescued in turn by the arrival of Leela, who informs them that her name is Mala and that she is the daughter of the Raja of Harambano (Hari Shivdasani!). She agrees to take them to see the king.
He lives in a palace that resembles a one of those giant dragon floats seen in Chinatowns the world over at New Year’s, and seems to fancy himself some sort of eastern potentate (Fu Manchu moustache, crossed arms tucked into sleeves, events announced by earsplitting gong). He is watching a sultry woman named Meena (Radharani) dance. She might be a concubine, or his wife, I have no idea; but she has a definite if one-sided rivalry going on with Mala.
The Raja is not pleased to see strangers in his territory and orders them executed. Mala intervenes, suggesting a contest between Surendra and a large tiger, with the winner going free (unless it’s the tiger, in which case it would probably just go back into its cage). I ponder briefly on the fact that there are no tigers in Nigeria, or indeed on the whole continent of Africa, but…never mind. It also seems strange to me that Mala should be so fond of her lion family, but has no qualms about watching the tiger get knifed to death. Maybe she is certain the tiger will win, but of course it doesn’t. Surendra kills it (I love how scared he looks though when it jumps him) and the king is forced to let the four men go.
Meena watches sulkily as Surendra and Mala gaze into each other’s eyes, and the four men take their leave after getting their guns back. The king and Meena now discuss Mala at some length, but I have no idea what they are saying other than that she is not really the Raja’s daughter, which I already knew. So I am grateful when we return to Surendra and company, now menaced by another not-native-to-Africa tiger. This affords Mala the opportunity to swing through some trees a la Tarzan (but without the yell) and Homi Wadia the use of some stock lion-vs-tiger footage as Shankar takes on the tiger at Mala’s command.
Reaching the not unreasonable conclusion that these guys aren’t going to get far without her help, Mala invites them to stay the night in her cave. Mohanlal really really wants to go home (especially since he didn’t want to come on this journey to begin with and has no wish to find Leela), but the others accept her offer. Then as Surendra and Mala romance by the light of the silvery moon, Mohanlal spots the telltale doll and briefcase, still sitting there in their niche all these years later. When he opens the briefcase to read through its contents Shankar snarls frighteningly and he is forced to leave it there for the time being.
But of course he now knows for sure that the true heiress to his brother’s fortune is still alive, and that she is Mala.
He says nothing to Surendra or Hamid, and the next day Mala accompanies them back to the Raja’s palace for their ammunition. I’m not clear why they didn’t think of that before they left the day before…but never mind. The Raja gives them their bullets back and Surendra now asks if Mala is really the woman they are looking for, Leela. He explains that Mangal Das is looking for his long-lost daughter and that Leela is an heiress. But Mala indignantly denies it, saying that the king is her father and she belongs in this jungle (at least in my head that’s what she says). She tells the four men to leave, but without her to protect them they are quickly recaptured by the Harambanoids (possibly at Meena’s behest this time).
Manly Surendra can’t put up a fight because a monkey drops a huge coconut on his head and knocks him out, so they are taken back and chained up in the palace dungeon.
Meena pays them a visit there, and she and Mohanlal join forces. I’m guessing their plan to be along the lines of Meena pretending to be Leela and splitting the fortune with Mohanlal. As she and Mohanlal travel through the jungle they come across Mala sunbathing on a tree branch and shoot her. Mohanlal retrieves the identity-confirming briefcase and they flee towards the river and passage back to civilization.
Poor Mala lies wounded, and Surendra, Hamid and Bahadur are abandoned to an uncertain fate, chained to large Pez Dispensers the likes of which I have seen before!
Will Mala survive her wounds? Is Shankar a good medic? Will Mohanlal and Meena make it back to Mangal Das and his money? What will happen to Surendra, Hamid and Bahadur?
Still to come are more muscles (60s and 70s uber-henchman Habib plays the Raja’s chief enforcer Chanook):
more eye-candy (John Cawas is dreamy, plus a wonderfully photographed and staged-in-miniature tsunami):
and oodles more action and suspense! The romance between Surendra and Mala is not really the point but tepid as it is, it doesn’t interrupt or irritate (it’s sort of amusing, actually, with lots of posturing and turning of profiles to the camera).
I am sure that part of this movie’s charm for me lies in the nostalgic (for me) colonial African atmosphere that I grew up in; but it’s also a ripping good yarn with something interesting at every turn, many trademark Wadia loony touches, and of course Nadia. How I love Nadia. Here’s hoping that one of these days more of her will find its way into the digital age (with subtitles and no purple logos!) for us to savor. Make it happen, Universe!