My Goodness Gracious Me, Tarzan.
I do feel guilty — honestly! — about the fact that practically any time I write about any movie from outside the America-Europe Axis of Evil, be the point of origin Japan, the Philippines, or India, I seem to be picking not some classic of world cinema, but some piece of ludicrous nonsense. The fact that I like ludicrous nonsense is a slender defense. Still, there was absolutely no way I was going to NOT write about TOOFANI TARZAN. It’s a film that seems to have been lying in stealthy wait for me since 1934, slowly fermenting and curdling and getting ready to pounce (I like my metaphors like my women: all mixed up and twisted).
TOOFANI TARZAN is a 1934 Indian movie which, as the title implies, heavily, remakes “One-Shot” Woody Van Dyke’s jungle loincloth extravaganza. Creative pilfering is a big industry in Bollywood. Or should that be, “Creative pilfering is a big industry CALLED Bollywood”? One of the first B’wood movies I saw turned out to be a fairly exact carbon copy of LETHAL WEAPON, only with musical numbers. Naturally, I preferred it to the original.
There’s a certain amount of singing in TT too, but it doesn’t quite tip over into being what you’d call a musical. Just a song-enhanced Tarzan movie, then. Made by pioneering director Homi Wadia, it’s obscure enough to have no IMDb entry, but celebrated enough to warrant a restoration and a Channel 4 screening. Go figure.
A pretty full-blooded romp, complete with man-in-a-suit killer ape, elephant (Indian modified to look African?), savage natives (Indian extras in blackface) and its full compliment of vine-swinging action, TT is funny for reasons that go beyond any kind of patronizing distance we might assume over 30s cinema or Indian cinema. It’s interesting that for reasons of exoticism, the filmmakers locate their tale in Africa, rather than using their own jungles and fauna, but that isn’t in itself hilarious. The matte paintings, by “Minno the Mystic,” are charming and commendable. The funny stuff comes in with the movie’s attitude to Africans, which is about 1,000 times more deplorable than in the original Hollywood version, which was hardly enlightened.
The fact that a lack of available real Afro-Caribbean talent led the filmmakers to break out the shoe polish and artificially darken a cast of thousands already lifts the film into a misguided stratosphere of offensive stupidity, without any malice or insensitivity being intended. But the fact that a lack of available chimpanzees has caused them to substitute for Cheeta a comic African sidekick, played by a shambling bit-player in minstrel-show blackface, with a set of mannerisms reminiscent of the late Spike Milligan playing an idiot, punches the movie right into orbit. “This is the real stuff,” as Werner Herzog says in JULIEN DONKEY BOY.
What was anybody thinking? WAS anybody thinking? Racism is, by its very nature, deeply, deeply stupid, and therefore would be laughable if it weren’t so foul. The fact that India has not, to the best of my knowledge, played a serious role in oppressing Africa, makes this misguided stereotyping a little less sinister than it might be, which is possibly why I was rolling on the floor laughing my white ass off during much of this movie. But now somebody’s probably going to tell me about some Indian massacre of natives in the days of the British Empire, and I will feel bad.
I feel bad already. But that guy cracks me up.