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Animal Instincts by Khalid Mohamed

Amitabh Bachchan with 'Allarakha' in Manmohan Desai's Coolie(1983)

Right, there has been the widely admired and National Award-winning best Kannada film 777 Charlie (2022), about a bond which develops between a lonely factory worker and a stray Labrador dog. And it’s quite a favourite with kids as well as adults on a streaming channel (Jio Cinema).

Brainy dogs, horses and birds have been missing from the Hindi cinema scene for quite a while though. Animals have to be recreated with special effects and it has to be declared, in the pre-credit titles, that no harm came to the animals or birds depicted in a movie.

The ongoing campaign for cruelty against animals on the screen has been rigidly monitored by Ms Maneka Gandhi, Member of Parliament and animal rights activist. Over two and a half decades have elapsed: If an animal or bird is being shown in a film, an official with due authority is mandatory to report any coercion on the sets while the shot was on.

This has gone to absurd limits, at times. Shots of pigeons who fluttered around within the camera’s frame, by chance, in Kalpana Lajmi’s Chingari (2006) had to be deleted. Strange. A Punjabi filmmaker had to wait for a year for a clearance certificate from the censors, only because a stray dog had popped up during a scene set on an expressway.

So, when do you last remember a dog or cat being given extra prominence in a film’s plot and credits? As far as I can remember the spotlight was turned some eight years ago on the bullmastiff Pluto Mehra of Dil Dhadakne Do (2015), who was even bestowed with a Twitter account. The morose, saucer-eyed dog who stole the show as “the only sane member” of the dysfunctional Mehra family on an ocean cruise, had even posted selfies (go figure!) and messages sparkling like pearls of wisdom.

Director Zoya Akhtar had waxed eloquent about the canine in her interviews, soon after the film was declared one of the coolest hits of the year. It had also been disclosed that the dog was at one point to be called Plato in the script.

However, Zoya Akhtar had conjectured that since many in the audience wouldn’t get the reference to the Greek philosopher, Pluto it was. More: after his scenes were done, the wonder dog had returned with his coach and presumably owner to the salubrious climes of London.

The real-life name of Pluto Mehra wasn’t announced. Aamir Khan who dubbed the voice-over for the dog avoided any newsbreaks. Reportedly, with the success of Dil Dhadakne Do, a spiralling number of bullmastiffs were in demand as pets in Indian households. Exact statistics unknown. For sure, the statistics cannot be anywhere close to the mega-popularity of pet pugs, following an ad campaign for a cellphone company at the turn of the millennium.

Some of those who stayed on till the end credit titles of Dil Dhadakne Do, did notice the name of of one Fu Tu (or was it Tu Fu?) as Pluto’s make-up artiste. Who’s that? The mystery lingers.

Anil Kapoor, Shefali Shah, Priyanka Chopra & Ranveer Singh in Zoya Akhtar's Dil Dhadakne Do(2015)

It goes without saying that Pluto isn’t the first dog to achieve celebrity status in Hindi language cinema. There was a time when dogs, chimpanzees, elephants and horses, with uncanny skills, were a rage in the B-town movies, right from the black-and-white era. They were hired on a daily basis, free from animal trainers, mostly from within India itself.

However, this wasn’t the norm at times. In fact, there has been no bigger star than Chimpanzee Zippy, the one-foot chimpanzee imported from the U.S. to pep up the swashbuckler titled Insaniyat (1957). Indeed, an information packed article on the internet by researcher and screenwriter Rajesh Devraj, points out that the Madras-anchored producer-director S. S. Vasan felt there wasn’t sufficient entertainment value in the script despite the presence of Dilip Kumar and Dev Anand crossing swords. That was the first and last time the two legendary actors occupied the same screen space.

The film just didn’t have an USP, it seemed. A studio technician had suggested an animal star. Next: Zippy with his coach and team were flown in from the U.S. to Chennai. Way back in the 50s, the chimpanzee is believed to have earned 55,000 U.S. dollars a month, thanks to regular engagements on TV shows, at night clubs and exclusive events hosted for gazillionaires in the hotspots of New York, Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

Zippy and his team jetted to India to be received with much fanfare at the Madras airport. And the diminutive one-foot-tall chimp, adept at playing the piano, roller skating, typewriting besides other feats, was assigned not one but two song sequences– ‘Beta Bada Hoga’ and ‘Main Hoon Bandar Shaher Ka’ --which continue to ooze charm on YouTube today. Neither Dilip Kumar nor Dev Anand were amused though.

Indeed, when I’d once brought up Insaniyat for discussion with the usually affable Dev Anand, he’d said darkly, “That’s one experience I’d rather forget.” He was also miffed by the fact that he was compelled to wear a wispy fake moustache.

Yet another chimpanzee, Pedro, played the simian buddy to the Indian avatar of Tarzan – in Homi Wadia’s Zimbo (1958). An instant hit with the kids, Pedro the Human Chimpanzee – described as the Ape Bomb – inspired an Indian Tarzan franchise. However, the original Pedro didn’t feature in the sequels. His lookalikes did. And when one of them passed away at an advanced age, Homi Wadia’s actress wife, the feisty Hunterwalli Nadia, went into mourning.

Mushtaque the Wonder Horse fetched up with his fleet-footed stunts in quite a few of the B-grade stunt movies of yore. Moti the Dog with extra-sensory perception, identified the murderous villain Ranjit in court, saving Rajesh Khanna from the gallows, in Manmohan Desai’s Sachaa Jhuta (1970).

The director, indeed, seemed to have a pet fondness for animals and birds as mascots. A falcon, called Sheroo, came to the fore in Dharamveer (1977). And an eagle named Allarakha showed up in Coolie (1983). Followed Moti the Dog and Horse Badal as Bachchan’s buddies in Mard (1985). In real-life, however, Manmohan Desai didn’t keep any pets in his house.

Brownie, a lean Labrador, wreaked revenge for his slain master Jackie Shroff in producer K.C.Bokadia’s Teri Meherbaniyan (1985), a huge hit.

Jackie Shroff with his labrador in K.C. Bokadia's Teri Meharbaniyan(1985)

India’s retort to Walt Disney’s brand of children-friendly films – Sandow M M A Chinappa Devar – had produced the delightful Haathi Mere Saathi (1971), extolling the loyal instincts of elephants for the under-stress couple enacted by Rajesh Khanna and Tanuja. Subsequently, Chinappa Devar’s Jaanwar aur Insaan (1972) featuring a vengeful tiger with Shashi Kapoor-Raakhee and Gaai aur Gori, 1973) which focused on a village cow, reduced its actors Shatrughan Sinha and Jaya Bhaduri to portraying amazed bystanders.

A pet dog of the household has often been a prominent quotient in the films of Sooraj Barjatya. Even a carrier pigeon was used to fly a courier letter in Maine Pyar Kiya (1989), inspiring the song ‘Kabutar Ja Ja’. Cut to Hum Aapke Hain Koun..!, in which dog Tuffy played a key role in the climax, uniting Salman Khan with Madhuri Dixit.

Film historian Dhruv Somani cites the instances of Shashilal Nair’s Parivar (1987). Its star attraction was Jaani the Wonder Dog who drives a car to chase the baddies. Jaani was even fixed with a girlfriend, a monkey named Savithri. Such wild imagination at work!

Rajesh Khanna with his pet 'haathi' in Devar's Haathi Mere Saathi(1971)

Ajay Kashyap’s Maa (1991) outwitted the villains effortlessly and David Dhawan’s Bol Radha Bol (1992) brought in a miracle dog suddenly, since the plot didn’t have much substance to brag about.

Santosh Sivan’s Halo (1996) revolved around a lost dog, while Vikas Bahl-Nitesh Tiwari’s Chillar Party (2011) pleaded for the adoption of stray dogs. Both these were purposeful films, way above the commonplace. The Vidyut Jaamwal actioner Junglee (2019), dealt with elephant poaching, but the direction by Chuck Russell was mediocre at best.

Now, that’s quite a mixed bag of animal and bird movies, if we can call them that. Snake movies, of course, are another distinct genre altogether.

Ah, but if you ask me, I miss the vintage Zippy and Pedro neither of whom needed Twitter accounts. They just did their jobs with their incredible feats which are still cherished and live on in the Bollywood archives.

Khalid Mohamed is a Mumbai based journalist, writer, filmmaker & screenwriter.

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Oct 31, 2023
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Excellent Work

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