Aanand L Rai’s December 21 release Zero will see Shah Rukh Khan as the vertically challenged Bauaa Singh, who is caught in a love triangle between a scientist (Anushka Sharma) and a movie star (Katrina Kaif). Earlier examples of actors playing dwarfs in Indian cinema include Kamaal Haasan in Apoorva Sagodharargal (1989) and Anupam Kher in Jaan-E-Mann (2005).
From special effects to clever camera angles , a range of technologies has been deployed to reduce the height of these stars on screen. But filmmakers seldom cast real-life dwarfs in central roles in Indian cinema. A rare exception is Kaushik Ganguly’s acclaimed short film Chotoder Chobi (2014), a love story centred on two dwarfs, played by Dulal Sarkar and Debalina Roy. And while actors like Lilliput, KK Goswami and Guinness Pakru have become known names, India is yet to get its Peter Dinklage equivalent, a global star and domestic icon.
In Philippines, however, a man born with primordial dwarfism enjoyed phenomenal, if short-lived, success as an actor and heartthrob.
Born Ernesta de La Cruz, Filipino actor Weng Weng achieved stardom with this roles in the spy parody films For Y’ur Height Only (1981) and The Impossible Kid (1982). About 2 feet and 9 inches tall, Weng Weng appeared in a number of Filipino movies that went on to achieve cult status.
Weng Weng was mentored by the husband-wife producer duo Peter and Cora Ridon Caballes, who got him into show business and introduced him to Filipino actor Dolphy. One of the country’s top stars at the time, Dolphy cast Weng Weng as his sidekick in the spy parody The Quick Brown Fox (1980). The two also collaborated on Starirey and Da Best in the West. The success of these films encouraged the Caballes to launch Weng Weng as Agent 00 under their own banner in For Y’ur Height Only (1981). The movie cataplulted Weng Weng to international fame and spawned a sequel, The Impossible Kid.
In For Y’ur Height Only (the name parodies the Bond film For Your Eyes Only), Agent 00 has to rescue a scientist from the evil Mr Giant (who turns out to be just a little taller than Weng Weng). With the help of high-tech gadgets and female sidekicks, Weng Weng accomplishes the mission in style.
In The Impossible Kid, Agent 00 returned to take on a gang that is kidnapping rich industrialists for ransom. Weng Weng did his own stunts, and his movies portrayed him as a super spy with abilities to match his Western counterparts.
The success of these films landed Weng Weng a role in the Western Comedy D’Wild Wild Weng and a few other movies, but none were as popular.
A few films later, Weng Weng found himself to be a pariah in the industry. According to some accounts, the Caballes abandoned their film career to pursue politics. “There came the day when Weng Weng simply just stopped getting calls from movie producers,” notes a 2017 Esquire article. Some of his films were not preserved and others forgotten. Weng Weng died in relative obscurity in 1999, aged 34.
In the 2013 essay “You’re really a Miniature Bond’: Weng Weng and the Transnational Dimensions of Cult Film Stardom”, Iain Robert Smith writes that spoofs and parodies had a long tradition in Filipino cinema. When the entire world was cashing on the popularity of the James Bond films, Philippines produced parodies such as Dolpinger (1965) and Dr Yes (1965).
But with Weng Weng, the very image of a spy evolved, from a traditional strapping alpha male to one who did not look the part but could pack a punch, take on those double his size, and woo glamorous women. His moves reached beyond the Filipino “Bakya crowds” – a term coined by legendary Filipino director Lamberto Avellana, who had worked with Dev Anand in The Evil Within (1970) – who only sought thrill and entertainment from cinema.
Though his Agent 00 films spawned fans across the world through bootlegged versions, Weng Weng’s fame did not result in monetary benefits, according to Australian filmmaker Andrew Leavold’s documentary The Search for Weng Weng (2013).
A video store owner-turned-filmmaker, Leavold made it his life’s mission to dig out information on Weng Weng after seeing him in For Y’ur Height Only. The quest led him to travel to the Phillipines. Multiple visits and years of research culminated in The Search for Weng Weng, a rare comprehensive source of information on its star.
The film uncovers several gems about Weng Weng’s life, including his martial arts training and his complete filmography – 13 titles in all. It also reveals that Weng Weng was a regular visitor to the mansion of President Ferdinand Marcos in the 1980s and was close to the First Lady, Imelda Marcos, and her daughter Imee.
The film sheds light on For Y’ur Height Only’s global success, including in Asia, Europe and even Trinidad. However, it also paints a disheartening picture of Weng Weng’s life. The crew of some of his films and his family allege that the producers did not pay the star for his roles and abruptly abandoned him later on.
Over the years, Weng Weng has found fans such as Leavold in unlikely places, who have helped keep his legacy alive. A hip-hop group called The Chuds released a song called The Weng Weng Rap, which praises the actor’s “smile and cute little style” as well as his crime-fighting abilities. His fame has even spread to Brazil, where the comedy duo Hermes and Renato did a parody dub of The Impossible Kid for their television show Tela Clas (2007-08), and France, while there’s an website dedicated to him, developed by Nanarland, a portal dedicated to “so bad its good” films.