For Film Companion’s second birthday, I thought we should consider a very particular subset of the finest friends in the masala universe: animals. And nobody does animal companions like the great masters Manmohan Desai and his frequent screenwriter Prayag Raj. In Desai’s films, the suspension of disbelief that grants to heroes talents and strengths far beyond normal capacity is also extended to animals, mostly taken as unremarkable by characters in the film.
And why not, I say! If a hero can flatten a fleet of baddies on his own, why shouldn’t a troop of monkeys be able to do the same? To me, this trope falls in the same realm as the supremely convenient coincidences that drive masala plots: it’s a manifestation of events that humans often wish for but rarely experience in reality. In some cases, this is only a fur’s breadth away from real life; creatures like dogs are often in tune with people’s mental and even physical well-being, and surely if they had the ability to hunt down traitors or reunite families, they would gladly do so.
Appearing years before Desai’s monster hits of the late 1970s, Sachaa Jhutha (1970) has a wonderful dog named Moti (almost as common a name as Vijay or Prem). Moti is probably my favourite Hindi film dog: he leads his crippled mistress around big, bad Bombay, tracks her when she gets kidnapped, outsmarts a bunch of armed henchmen, and gives testimony at a trial. This Moti is worth a dozen dopey human sidekicks.
Bhai Ho To Aisa (1972) would be a fantastic snake movie if Desai had cut out all the sanctimonious blathering by Jeetendra (the good brother to Shotgun’s bad one) and Indrani Mukherjee (the doormat sister-in-law). The snake at the family temple can tell the difference between family members and outsiders, chasing traitors and biting criminals. It’s so feared by the baddies that they lock it in a room and replace it with an apparently much less intelligent snake who cannot tell good from bad, and our serpent saviour, sensing wrongdoing, uses its tail to smash a pane of glass in the door and slither out to protect its humans. The divine snake is helpful again in Desai’s last, Ganga Jamuna Saraswati (1988), although the star animal in that film is the very unfriendly crocodile in the finale.
Hema Malini is the snake’s favorite; see her fantastic snake dance pleading for its help, complete with spangly outfit, here.
Roti (1974) has an unusually bleak animal storyline, in keeping with its distressing end for its human characters. No human harms an animal, but a very loyal pet dog sacrifices all trying to protect Rajesh Khanna from a huge police Doberman. This beast proves to be more evil than the officers; it pursues Kaka as relentlessly as a big-league criminal boss. This sequence is very well filmed, with the dog, the hero carrying a mortally wounded heroine, and the background score all growing weary as they trudge through deepening snow. Rarely in Hindi films are animal characters so determinedly evil, and Roti reads as a bit of an experiment in form by Desai and Raj in their exploration of reform and essential nature, while also making clear that this dogged canine is no family pet.
Roti also uses animals to represent the divine. When Kaka — a self-described atheist, by the way — asks Hanuman for assistance in a very unfair fight, thunder crashes and a dozen monkeys leap down viciously on the henchmen, causing all sorts of chaos as the hero looks on with an expression of utter confusion that his plea has worked. Natural and divine powers respond to the plight of a righteous human, and they’re all subject to the logical and moral order that Desai loves to unravel and then restore.
Chacha Bhatija (1977) does not depend on animals as much, but at least Randhir Kapoor’s otherwise moronic character is somewhat redeemed by his skill with horses. At first, this ability is just his connection to high society, but horses play a remarkable role in the big brawl in the finale of the film, leaping over a bus and a train and climbing endless flights of stairs in a skyscraper to take our heroes to their endangered mother.
Despite what Hitchcock thinks, in Desai’s world, feathered creatures make wonderful friends. There’s Sheroo the Wonder Bird — use his full title, if you please — in Dharam Veer (1977), who swoops in for a mid-air rescue of a royal baby tossed from a palace window by scheming villains, and of course Allarakha in Coolie (1983), who snatches away guns and delivers garlands at just the right moments.
These are things humans just cannot do, and instead of inventing superheroes, these films extend human reasoning and empathy to creatures who already have the right physical powers.
One of the special tricks of the Desai-Raj team is including animals who perform feats so outrageous that not even 1980s Amitabh Bachchan does them. Mard (1985) is the biggest zoo. The hero has not one but two very faithful animal friends, the horse Badal and dog Moti. His father also has a wonderful horse named Bahadur, who saved the infant hero from the British, picking up the corners of the baby’s blanket in his mouth and carrying the bundle like a stork to safe adoptive parents, surviving enemy gunfire in the process.
Moti is the star performer, dancing and whistling when the British are bashed by his human friend and then urinating on the colonial master, embodied by Bob Christo with his head smashed through a broken sign declaring “Dogs and Indians are not allowed.” Watch the video here
From the undomesticated animal kingdom, there’s also a tiger in Mard, invoked from a distance by the hero’s worshipful song to Maa Sheronwali. The tiger fights off soldiers pursuing his actual mother (named Durga, because of course) and leads her by her sari to escape. When Maa silently thanks the tiger with a namaste, it politely returns the gesture. The animals provide companionship, compassion, and humour in these films — far more enjoyably than some of odious comedy uncles—but they also underscore messages about the meaning of subjugation, freedom, and loyalty.
Desai and Raj aren’t the only champions of the animal kingdom. Tuffy from Hum Apke Hain Koun, the pigeon in Maine Pyaar Kiya, and even the horrifying animated parrot in Main Prem ki Diwani Hoon are unforgettable. We can only hope that the magnificent crocodile in the trailer of Mohenjo Daro signifies the current generation of the Roshan dynasty returning to the form of Khoon Bhari Maang.
(To read more about these furry and feathered friends, browse the “Animalympics” posts on the blog of Todd Stadtman, author of Funky Bollywood: The Wild World of 70s Indian Action Cinema.)