One of the earliest Indians to try his luck in Hollywood appeared mostly in uncredited parts. The Amritsar-born Lal Chand Mehra played the roles of servant, bartender, policeman and hotel desk clerk in several Hollywood adventure movies from the late 1930s onwards. Mehra also did his share of speaking parts, and is among several non-white actors who can be spotted in the background in adventure dramas, Orientalist productions, and exotic thrillers.
Mehra’s Hollywood foray began with Cecil DeMille’s The King of Kings (1927), a biopic of Jesus Christ. Made during the silent era, the movie depicts Christ’s many miracles, including the reforming of Mary Magdalene. Mehra played a key role in the Hindustani subtitling of the film, and was also one of the extras in the first of several uncredited roles (as was the writer Ayn Rand).
Following his work on The King of Kings, Mehra became something of an expert on all things Indian. He is popularly referred to as Hollywood’s “favourite Hindu” as Nitin Govil writes in his book Orienting Hollywood: A Century of Film Culture Between Los Angeles and Bombay, Mehra was, along with Husain Nasri and Bhogwan Singh, one of American cinema’s highly regarded “turban wrappers”.
Available records give two different dates for Mehra’s year of birth: 1897 and 1898. He initially studied in Punjab and later found himself on the American West Coast, arriving, like many others of the time, in San Francisco. The reasons for Mehra’s journey west aren’t known, though events of the time such as the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in 1919 did make an impression on him, as mentioned in a pamphlet relating to his lectures and writings.
As a student at Berkeley, Mehra obtained both bachelors and masters’ degrees (in 1923 or thereabouts). His thesis was on the Arya Samaj as an educational movement. Alongside his quiet foray into Hollywood, he began a career as a lecturer in the University of California’s extension services.
As a public speaker and in his radio lectures, Mehra sought to dispel the mystery and ignorance about the East, especially India and Hinduism. He spoke on a range of topics such as caste, the many schools of Hindu philosophy and yoga and even touched on literary matters, such as the writings of EM Forster and Rabindranath Tagore and Kim, Rudyard Kipling’s novel on an orphan who becomes a lama’s travelling companion. Interspersed with the academic activities were his roles in radio enactments of popular Broadway shows and films that were broadcast to a live audience.
Mehra’s first speaking role came in the occult murder mystery The Thirteenth Chair (1929), set in British Calcutta. He plays Chotee, the manservant who shows in visitors and stands loyally outside the door as the medium conducts a séance that goes wrong and leads to a death.
In 1931, Mehra played a non-commissioned officer in the India-set Friends and Lovers, which happened also to be Lawrence Olivier’s first Hollywood film. A year later, while working on The Monkey’s Paw, Mehra served as the attaché to the Indian hockey team that competed in the Los Angeles Olympics – a fact recorded in Dhyan Chand’s autobiography.
Mehra wrote copiously alongside acting. In his book The Story of India: Key to the land of Mystery in 1933, he tried to explain popular yet little known concepts of Indian life such as its many religions, reincarnation, the occult significance of dreams and the belief in life after death.
Also in 1933, Mehra married Georgia Williams, a concert violinist from Los Angeles. Mehra met Williams, as seen in a notice on the news of their marriage, at the Institute of Religious Science, a movement initiated by maverick philosopher Ernest S Holmes.
The notice described Mehra as a Hindu radio star and scholar, someone who was “wholly American in manner and appearance despite being a native of Amritsar, India”. Holmes, for his part, would write the introduction of another of Mehra’s books that appeared in 1935 called Looking Inward.
Following Stamboul Quest (1934) and Bonnie Scotland (1935), in which Laurel and Hardy travel to India in search of fortune, Mehra appeared in College Holiday, a musical comedy that also featured the subject of eugenics (something of an irony as the Nazi Aryanisation campaign was soon to make its nefarious rise). Mehra appears as Rahmi, a holy man who causes hypnosis by strange snake-like hand movements.
In an interesting change from his earlier roles, Mehra appears as a rascally sailor in Windjammer (1937) who boards the ship of a smuggler who is holding a commodore and his daughter hostage. Mehra’s Willy keeps referring in a rather sinister fashion to a beloved brother Mandreal.
In 1939, Mehra acted in The Rains Came, based on a novel by Louis Broomfield. Set in the fictional Indian town Ranchipur, it traces the redemption of its lead character, Lady Esketh, who tends to victims of an earthquake, floods and a cholera epidemic that strike the town. Esketh’s love interest, Rama Safti, was played by Hollywood star Tyrone Power. Mehra appears for a few minutes in the film, singing the “Hindoo song of love”, which he composed and set to music himself.
The next films featuring Mehra in minuscule parts clocking not more than a few minutes, such as in The Saints Double Trouble in 1940, in which he plays a desk clerk in a Cairo office. Mr Moto’s Last Warning (1939), the sixth of eight films in which Peter Lorre plays Mr Moto, the spy from the novels by John Marquand, has Mehra as a customs official.
In Murder Over New York, one of the four Charlie Chan movies that came out in 1940, Mehra is cast as the loyal servant of international saboteur Paul Narvo. Mehra appears as Ramullah after a particularly egregious sequence in ethnic stereotyping, in which several Indians are rounded up and paraded (every Hindu in New York, as Inspector Vance orders) so Charlie Chan’s son John can identify the one who had shadowed him the night before. Minutes after he is outed, Ramullah meets an unfortunate end.
Mehra was also cast in two Fu Manchu movies based on the fictional Chinese supervillain created by novelist Sax Rohmer and in WWII films in the early ’40s – as a policeman in the background in the Ingrid Bergman-Humphrey Bogart starrer Casablanca (1942), for instance, and a desk clerk at a hotel in China Girl (1942).
Apart from playing nondescript parts, Mehra doubled up as a technical advisor on such films as The Razor’s Edge (1946) and Bombay Clipper (1942), in which he was credited for his contributions to the Bombay and Singapore sequences.
Two of Mehra’s last film roles saw him as the loyal servant Pookan to an elephant-loving American woman who owns a teak plantation in Escape to Burma (1955).
In the John Wayne movie about fire fighters, Hell Fighters (1967), Mehra plays Songla, the doctor who rushes up in an ambulance just in time.
Mehra also appeared on television, in the popular American fantasy series Bewitched, about the witch Samantha who is trying to live the normal life of a suburban housewife. The series ran from 1964 to 1972 and featured Mehra in the episode Long Live the Queen. Mehra lends his voice to a crow that later assumes its human form after Samantha (Elizabeth Montgomery) lifts the spell.
Mehra also was at work on a novel called The Temple Dancer – though this is apparently lost – and his abiding interest in music is evident in articles he wrote such as Hindu music in Hollywood films. He died in 1980 at his Los Angeles home. His wife, Georgia Williams, survived him by nine years.