Wonder Animals: The Untold Storyby Khalid Mohamed July 13 2020, 5:36 pm Estimated Reading Time: 5 mins, 25 secs
Khalid Mohamed rewinds to the coached dogs, chimpanzees and elephants that would often steal the show in Bollywood blockbusters.
They’ve been missing from the scene for quite a while now. 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.
Mrs Maneka Gandhi rigidly monitored the ongoing campaign for cruelty against animals on the screen. If an animal was being used in a film, an official with due authority to report any coercion was essential to be on the sets while the shot was on.
This did go to absurd limits, at times. Shots of pigeons who fluttered around within the camera’s frame, by chance, in Kalpana Lajmi’s Chingari had to be deleted. Strange. A Punjabi filmmaker had to wait for months 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 on some five years ago on the bullmastiff Pluto Mehra of Dil Dhadakne Do, who was even bestowed with a Twitter account. The morose, saucer-eyed dog that stole the show as “the only sane member” of the dysfunctional Mehra family on an ocean cruise, had posted selfies (go figure!) and 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, Akhtar has stated that since many in the audience wouldn’t get the reference to the Greek philosopher, Pluto it was. More news: after his scenes were done, the wonder dog had returned with his coach and presumably owner to the cooler 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 spiraling number of bullmastiffs were in demand as pets in Indian households; exact statistics are 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 the make-up artiste of one Fu Tu (or was it Tu Fu?). Who’s that? The mystery lingers.
However, 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 B-town movies, right from the black-and-white era.
And, there has been no bigger star than Chimpanzee Zippy. The one-foot chimpanzee was 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 producer-director S S Vasan felt there wasn’t sufficient entertainment value in the film despite the presence of Dilip Kumar and Dev Anand crossing swords; the first and the last time that the two legendary actors had shared screen space.
The film just didn’t have an USP. A studio technician suggested an animal star. Next: Zippy with his coach and team were flown into Chennai. Way back in the 1950s, the chimpanzee is believed to have earned 55,000 US dollars a month, thanks to regular engagements on TV shows, and 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. 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 was 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 - dubbed the Ape Bomb - spawned a series of sequels. 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 Sacha Jhoota.
Brownie, a lean dog, wrecked revenge for his slain master Jackie Shroff in Teri Meherbaniyan. And Ballu the Eagle, flapped away on the shoulders of Amitabh Bachchan, to serve as the mascot of Coolie.
India’s retort to Walt Disney’s brand of children-friendly films - Sandow MMA Chinappa Devar - produced the delightful Haathi Mere Saathi, extolling the loyal instincts of elephants for the under-stress couple enacted by Rajesh Khanna and Tanuja.
Subsequently, Devar reduced Shashi Kapoor-Raakhee (Jaanwar aur Insaan) and Shatrughan Sinha-Jaya Bhaduri (Gaai aur Gori) to portraying amazed bystanders. A pet dog of the household has often been a prominent quotient in the films of Sooraj Barjatya. And of late there was Vidyut Jaamwal, playing a vet in Junglee, combating elephant poachers.
Ah, Zippy, Pedro and Company never needed Twitter accounts or publicity campaigns, They just did their jobs with their incredible feats and are still cherished and live on in the Bollywood archives.