It’s 1962. A man with straw-coloured hair and a rippling body protects Indian elephants from slaughter despite (or perhaps because of) being clad in nothing more than a loincloth.
A bit like the other famous loincloth-clad Indian hero from a couple of decades before this, Tarzan swings to the rescue without paying heed to the consequences. Summoned to an Indian kingdom by its ailing ruler, the apeman from Africa promises to free elephants trapped by a dam project that has blocked their traditional path.
Along the way, Tarzan befriends a knee-high mahout who rides the mighty tusker Gajendra, takes on the beastly foreign overseers of the dam project, dodges bullets with arrows, and, when it’s all done, lets out his famous “oouuoouuoouu” cry.
Tarzan Goes to India was directed by John Guillermin, who had several Hollywood adventures to his credit, including The Towering Inferno (1974), King Kong (1976) and Sheena (1984). The movie was headlined by Jock Mahoney, who had appeared in other roles in previous Tarzan productions.
Mahoney was 43 when he took on the role of the character created by American novelist Edgar Rice Burroughs in 1912. The actor’s height, physique, and fitness levels presumably compensated for any misgivings about his age. Mahoney played the character once again in Tarzan’s Three Challenges (1963).
The English-language movie also stars Feroz Khan and Simi Garewal, both at the beginning of their careers. Khan plays Raju, an employee at the dam project who changes sides after he witnesses the cruelty of his bosses.
Feroz Khan’s brother, the actor and filmmaker Sanjay, was an assistant director on the production. In his autobiography The Best Mistakes of My Life (Penguin Random House India, 2018), Sanjay Khan recalls that 175 elephants were used for the film. Sanjay Khan claims that he was the one who fired the shots for the climactic action sequence in which the elephants thunder down on the dam workers and destroy their wooden obstructions. Sanjay Khan also had a tiny role as the pilot who flies Tarzan into India.
Murad plays the king, while Simi Garewal (credited only by her first name), plays his oddly named daughter Kamara. The princess is so well-mannered that she doesn’t blink when Tarzan saunters into her palace, clad in his brown leather loincloth with a knife tucked into his waist.
As it turns out, Tarzan’s singular appearance does not elicit any comment or consternation from the Indian villagers and dam workers either. In the absence of a behind-the-scenes account of the production, which was filmed in the forests of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, we can only wonder what the shoot might have been like, and what the local extras made of this blonde man towering above them in a state of near-undress.
Tarzan is matched in the costume department by Jai, the spirited mahout who has tamed the elephant Gajendra. Jai, played by a boy picked off the streets, is the movie’s most honest actor. The child shares his name with the character, and his reactions to Tarzan’s valour and elephant whispering ways (petty jealousy giving way to admiration) appear untutored and wholly believable.
Equally remarkable are the animals that romp across the screen. There’s a snake-and-mongoose fight, a battle between Gajendra and another tusker for control of the herd, a wayward leopard, chattering monkeys and at least one curious owl. The movie was clearly made in an age before awareness about animal cruelty prevented trained beasts from performing dangerous tricks. When the elephants run through fire or the leopard wrestles with Tarzan, the heart skips a beat at the thought of what they might have endured. But the results are more thrilling than the antics of the humans.
Tarzan too gets to show off his agility, leaping on and off the backs of elephants and swinging from trees. The plot and characters are strictly serviceable, but as a showcase of India’s natural landscape and its magnificent animals, Tarzan Goes to India works just fine.
Tarzan ventured beyond his African forest into foreign lands several times in the films based on his exploits. His desintations include New York, Guatemala and Mexico. A product of their times and fuelled by the stereotype of Africa as a vast jungle teeming with tribals and animals all held together by a Caucasian superhero, the books have become more anachronistic as the years roll by. The latest version from 2016, The Legend of Tarzan, places its hero’s exploits against the backdrop of the crippling Belgian conquest of the Congo. In a movie that has slavery and the diamond trade as the backdrop, Tarzan (played by Alexander Skarsgard) switches into loincloth mode only in the closing moments. The kitsch factor is completely missing, of course, and the computer-generated apes are no match for the magnificent pachyderms of the film set in India.
The shrinking habitats of the Indian elephant and frequent reports of injuries and deaths of the animals give the 1962 production more relevance than it deserves. Were Tarzan to come to India again, he would find fewer elephants, smaller forests and little support for his idea of creating a corridor for the gentle giants. And, of course, the moral police would have a thing to say about that loincloth.