Zanjeer’s Sher Khan And The History Of Tigers In India

Take a look at this iconic Bollywood film from the perspective of a wildlife historian
Zanjeer’s Sher Khan And The History Of Tigers In India

Zanjeer (1973) remains one of the most iconic Bollywood films of all time. From a wildlife historian's point of view, it has some very interesting references to the natural history of tigers. This is primarily due to Pran's character named Sher Khan, a benevolent Afghan Pathan don who is reformed as a result of his friendship with Inspector Vijay Khanna (Amitabh Bachchan).  Directed by Prakash Mehra and with a screenplay by the legendary duo of Salim-Javed, Zanjeer became one of the biggest hits in the careers of everyone associated with the movie including the leads Bachchan (birthing his 'angry young man' persona), Pran, Jaya Bachchan, Ajit as well as the supporting cast. 

There's another interesting detail from Vijay and Sher Khan's first meeting, which has the two men snarling at each other. They end up having an all-out street fight in a bylane — which neither wins — and at the end, Sher Khan, "Aaj zindagi mein pehli baar Sher Khan ki sher se takkar hui hai."

The official English subtitles of the movie translate this dialogue as, "For the first time in my life, I've met a lion-hearted man". The use of the word "lion-hearted" makes me briefly segue into the etymology of the word "sher". In Urdu, "sher" refers to the tiger, while the word "shir/sher" means lion in Persian. On the other hand, the word "babr/shir-e-babr" means tiger in Persian while "babbar/babbar sher/sher-i-babbar" means lion in Urdu. Thus, if one looks at the Persian meaning of the words, Pran's dialogue translates to, "For the first time in my life, Lion Khan [since Shir/Sher = Lion in Persian] has squared off against another lion". But if you look at the Urdu meaning of the words, his dialogue becomes, "For the first time in my life, Tiger Khan has squared off against another tiger". In India, since Urdu/Hindustani had trumped Persian, becoming the language of the masses from the 19th century onwards, 'sher' always means 'tiger'. 

During the making of Zanjeer and just a year before its release, the tiger replaced the lion to become India's national animal. Until November 17, 1972,  India's national animal was the Asiatic Lion. However, on November 18, 1972, at a meeting of the Indian Board of Wildlife (IBWL), the tiger was selected because it was found in 11 out of the then 16 states of India.  

At one point in the movie, the henchmen of Seth Dharam Dayal Teja (Ajit), the movie's antagonist, approach a reformed Sher Khan (who now works as an auto mechanic at his garage), offering a 'supari' (blood money) to kill Vijay (not knowing that Khan and Vijay have become friends after an initially hostile introduction). An enraged Khan throws the money back at the henchmen and says, "Sher Khan sher ka shikar nahin karta. Waise bhi humaare mulk mein ab sher bahut kam reh gaya hai. Humne suna hai ke hukumat ne bhi sher maarne ki mumaaneat kar di hai (A tiger doesn't hunt another tiger. Moreover, as it is there are very few 'tigers' left in our country. I have even heard that even the government has prohibited the hunting of tigers)." 

This is a remarkable dialogue for many reasons. Of course, "very few tigers being left in our country" alluded to there being few men with the courage of tigers, but metaphors aside, the entire dialogue is also factually true. Tigers are rarely known to cannibalise in the wild and there is nary an example of one tiger hunting another as prey. However, it's the other factually accurate half of the dialogue (alluding to the declining tiger numbers and their hunting ban) that is most interesting, especially given the year the movie was released. With this, another brief tiger conservation history lesson is in order.

The depleting tiger numbers was a major reason of concern among naturalists, conservationists, and wildlife scientists both in India and across the globe in the Sixties. In 1969, Kailash Sankhala, an Indian Forest Service (IFS) officer of the Rajasthan cadre studying the natural history and status of tigers under a Nehru Fellowship, estimated the number of tiger skins in Delhi's fur shops alone to be not less than 500. Sankhala gave a mean all-India tiger estimate of about 2,500 (2,724 to 37,00) animals. The same year India became a member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and hosted the 10th General Assembly of IUCN in New Delhi. At the end of it, the tiger was included in IUCN's Red Data Book, earning it the tag of an endangered species for the first time. A resolution calling for a ban on the killing of tigers was also adopted. 

Courtesy "Sanctuary Nature Foundation Photo Library"
Courtesy "Sanctuary Nature Foundation Photo Library"

IBWL met immediately in the General Assembly's aftermath and recommended a nationwide ban on all tiger shooting for a period of five years, effective from July 1, 1970. Simultaneously, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi personally intervened and working with chief ministers of the states, enforced a total ban on tiger hunting in India by July 1970. The export of tiger and leopard skins and products made thereof was banned on September 8, 1970. The ban was upheld by Delhi High Court in February 1971 after those whose business interests were hit by the ban – shikar companies and fur traders – challenged the order in court. In 1972, India enacted the Wild Life (Protection) Act which outlawed hunting by law. With this, the era of tiger-hunting, which had continued in India since antiquity and had become especially prominent during British rule, finally came to an end. 

I assume that when Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar were writing the screenplay for Zanjeer, all these happenings regarding the precipitous decline in tiger numbers and the consequent ban on tiger hunting would have been playing out in the news, and the writer duo remarkably decided to incorporate these developments into Pran's dialogue where he talks about very few tigers being left in the country and the "mumaaneat" (prohibition) on tiger-hunting by the "hukumat"(State). I still marvel at the genius of such a deft weaving of a rather non-mainstream news subject into the dialogue of a fictional character (who they named after a tiger) at a very opportune moment in the movie. 

Now let's move on to another interesting bit on tiger ecology that Javed Akhtar and Salim Khan incorporate into the movie. After Teja's henchmen are kicked out by Sher Khan, he heads off to warn Vijay. When Vijay dismisses Sher Khan's concerns, he says, "Oye hum jaanta hai tum bahadur hai, diler hai. Lekin ye na bhulo ki 12 jungli kutte mil kar sher ko phaad daalte hain (I know you are brave and fearless, but don't forget that a pack of 12 wild dogs can rip even a tiger apart)." The tiger obviously alluded to Vijay and the wild dogs to Teja and his henchmen. 

As a natural historian, this dialogue sequence amazed me because it is a fact that Indian wild dogs, also known as Dholes or 'Whistling Hunters' (called so because the pack members utter a whistling sound while chasing their prey), have been recorded on rare instances to kill a tiger. Of course, such battles where the tiger was killed also inflicted a heavy toll on the pack with the death of a majority of the dogs, but the tenacious hunters did manage to overcome the adversary. It may be also worth mentioning here that the parallel between wild dogs and ravenous criminals in the aforementioned dialogue is very interesting to me because wild dogs during British rule and even in post-independent India until 1972, were declared as "pests" and "vermin" This belief that wild dogs were the "criminals" of the animal world was believed in by naturalists, hunters and forest officers. 

Here's an extract of a fascinating account from October 15, 1943, of a face-off between a tiger and a pack of wild dogs. Authored by W. Connell, it appeared in the Journal of Bombay Natural History Society. By the end of this epic clash, there were a bunch of dead wild dogs and a dead tiger (who was then polished off by the surviving dogs). How many dead wild dogs you ask? Twelve!

Only Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar can tell us if they had read this BNHS paper or a similar account somewhere before writing that dialogue for Pran or had heard this tale from some naturalist or shikari acquaintance of theirs. Incidentally, perhaps the earliest visual representation of a face-off between wild dogs and a tiger was by painter Samuel Howitt who painted a scene titled "A tiger hunted by wild dogs" in 1805 for a book called Oriental Field Sports by Captain Thomas Williamson published in 1807. The caption for the painting said, "A tiger in a clearing, approaching from all sides by a pack of dogs, one of which lies dead in the centre."

Ok, so back to Zanjeer and onto our final observation related to the natural history of tigers in the movie. Due to the devious machinations of Teja, Vijay gets convicted in a false bribery case and is jailed for six months. He was also fined Rs. 5000, which was an exorbitant amount at the time. Sher Khan tries to help Vijay raise the money by going to a moneylender, Lala, who asks if he has anything to mortgage. "Haan, ek cheez hai," Sher Khan tells him, "agar tum uski qeemat pehchaano toh (Yes I do have one thing to offer, but only if you realise the value of it)." He then twirls his mustache and says "Sher Khan ki moonch ka baal (a strand of hair from Sher Khan mustache)!" A tiger's whisker! This dialogue is remarkable because few know that many of India's forest-dwelling communities accorded great reverence to a tiger's whisker in the days of tiger hunting. In the dialogue, the moustache is a symbol of honour, but among these forest communities, the tiger's whisker was believed to have magical powers (which could be both evil and to ward off evil). Most Adivasi shikaris used to fear the tiger's whisker as poison and thus immediately get rid of them as soon as a tiger was killed, while others believed that burning off the whiskers stopped the spirit of the dead tiger from haunting the forest and bringing a curse upon its killers. The positive belief systems included using them as amulets to ward off the evil eye, while some communities believed that the possession of the tiger's whiskers conferred the person with magical powers that made him capable of winning the heart of any woman he desired!

The one bone I have to pick with the makers of Zanjeer is this – why oh why did you not name Ajit's character "Loin" (rather than naming him so in Kalicharan)? If they had, then in Zanjeer the face-off between Ajit and Pran's characters would have given us an encounter between Sher Khan and "Loin King"! 

And with that, it's time to conclude this thread. For those of you who read through till the end, I am really grateful and I hope it was worth your time. 

You can find an unedited version of this thread here

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