By all accounts, Phiroze Pestonjee Nazir led a life less ordinary: he won acclaim in the United Kingdom and the United States for his innovations in wing design. He also enjoyed some fame as a bit part actor in Hollywood movies in the 1940s and ’50s, and was a lecturer, musician and poet.
In 1934, the year the Melbourne Air Centenary race was announced, two Indians were in the fray: pilot Aspi Engineer and Nazir, his navigation engineer. The world’s longest and most exciting event of its time, the race involved pilots flying from London to Melbourne with stopovers at Baghdad, Allahabad and Singapore.
Engineer and Nazir went on to have spectacular careers in their own way. Engineer, also a winner of the Aga Khan trophy awarded to the first Indian to fly solo from Bombay to London, later became independent India’s chief of air staff. Nazir went on to win acclaim not just as an aeronautical engineer, but also an actor in Hollywood.
Nazir was born in Bombay. In the early ’30s, he moved to London on a government scholarship to study aeronautical engineering. His interest in airplanes later brought him to Los Angeles through a convoluted route.
In the ’30s, as the world around him changed, Nazir studied at Queen Mary’s college and later at the Brooklands Aviation School. He also pursued other interests, notably in music. The UK’s National Jazz Archives records that in 1939, Phiroze Nazir set up a band while pursuing his work on airline innovation. Nazir’s work on developing a trailing edge slot in an aircraft’s tail wings won him a patent and it was, as The Times aviation correspondent wrote at the time, an invention guaranteed to make planes safer, especially at the takeoff and landing stages. It was a report picked up by several other newspapers in the British Dominions and for this alone, Nazir enjoyed some fame.
Nazir continued his work on aeroplanes after he sailed to New York City later that year, only weeks before World War II broke out in September. In all likelihood, however, it was in London that Nazir had made his first acquaintance with the boy actor from India, Sabu Dastagir, brought over from Mysore by filmmaker Alexander Korda as the lead in his Kipling adaptation Elephant Boy (1937).
Flying high with the movies
Work took Nazir to Los Angeles first in 1942. Here in the home of Hollywood, Nazir found himself in the unlikely position of becoming a spokesperson for India. Immigration from Asia to the US was severely restricted, and the few who attained prominent roles in public life found themselves taking on multiple roles, including that of explaining the East and all its associated myths.
Thus Nazir spoke at several public events on Mahatma Gandhi’s role, India’s anti-Japanese stand, and the need for concerted efforts to fight the war. His friendship with Sabu continued. Nazir stayed for a while with Sabu as the latter filmed Arabian Nights. Sabu was also due to fly back with Nazir to British Columbia in Canada to take flying lessons.
Yet, Nazir made some life-changing decisions around this time. Sabu enlisted in the American Air Force and fought as a gunner while Nazir registered as a private. After two years of war service, Nazir chose to stay on. Los Angeles was where several aviation research and manufacturing companies were based – as was Hollywood.
Nazir acted in his first films in the war’s waning years. Kismet and Action in Arabia were both released in 1944. Kismet, set in the period when the Caliphs ruled medieval Baghdad, has Marlene Dietrich as the lead. Nazir briefly appears as a fighter.
Action in Arabia is more contemporary. The action unfolds in Damascus, where Nazi and American spies, sleuths and war correspondents keep tabs on each other. There are murders, intrigue and fear of Germans taking control of the Suez Canal. Nazir fleetingly appears as a Syrian native, Haroun. The movie credits have his first name as Phil – a name he would use off and on all through his film career.
Sabu and Nazir acted together in the new version of Jim Corbett’s Man Eaters of Kumaon (1946). Sabu was Narain, the farmer besotted with his wife, Lalli, who is attacked by a tiger. Nazir played a farmer who appears fleetingly as the headman (Morris Carnovsky) speaks to the doctor hunter (Wendell Corey).
The war changed Nazir into a peacenik of sorts. As one newspaper of the time had it, his aims had turned from being an airplane developer and innovator to working toward promoting a real “science of democracy” among nations. It was around this period that Nazir developed a close friendship with Theodore and Helen Dreiser. Theodore Dreiser is one of America’s most highly regarded writers, and received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1930. Dreiser died in 1947, and his last novel, The Stoic, which was published posthumously, has scenes set in India. It is hard, though, to speculate on Nazir’s influence on Dreiser, though the latter’s politically radical views, support for peace and the unprivileged did perhaps rub off on Nazir.
Nazir lived and worked in the Dreiser home for many years – as photos making up the Dreiser archives now in the University of Pennsylvania show. Nazir was also one of the beneficiaries in Helen Dreiser’s will when she died in 1955 (he is cited as a Hollywood actor). Nazir did deserve some claim to that job description, for between 1948 and 1950, he acted in Unknown Island, and later, in South Sea Sinner. Both films were set in the South Pacific.
In Unknown Island, Nazir has a substantial role as Golab, the leader of the lascars on a ship that is headed toward a secret island populated by dinosaurs. Golab instigates his men to mutiny with the evocative line, “Cowards submit, lascars never”. The words are echoed fervently by his men before they leap into action – fruitlessly, as it turns out.
As a police lieutenant in South Sea Sinner, Nazir is seen driving his chief around in a jeep and warning the nightclub owner Cognac about the threat of deportation that hangs over the singer, Coral, whose popularity leads to fights breaking out in the bar. Coral’s charms are only a part of this very complicated story set just after Japan’s defeat in World War II.
Nazir, despite his smouldering presence, often overdid the role of the supportive native complete with his staccato English, but then, as with some other actors around this time, his presence only helped authenticate certain scenes. It’s hard to say if he had his heart set on a film career. He did act in Stone Frog, an episode that aired in 1964 as part of the popular All My Sons serial (1960-1974). He was also a familiar stage presence and appeared in radio plays.
Nazir also had, as is evident from catalogues of the time, a few musical compositions to his name. Paradise Waltz and The Lord’s Prayer had music arranged by Reuben Haskins, the pianist who attained some fame during the ragtime era (1890s-1920) and for his Piano phiend: a musical eccentricity (1914). In 1951, Nazir’s book of poems, Songs of Shantee, also appeared. He continued his work in aeronautics, and was associated with other entrepreneurs of the time, such as Henry Kaiser (widely regarded as the man who founded America’s modern shipbuilding industry) and Harry Thalman, whose firm was involved in developing light and durable airplanes ideal for individual ownership.
Nazir’s inventive mind was also drawn to more mundane things. He had a patent for an “improved method of mounting slide clasp fasteners” for everyday articles of use.
Phiroze Nazir was married thrice. When he died in 1997 at the age of 90, local newspapers described him as a poet – a somewhat unfair diminishing of a multi-faceted man.