NA Ansari: The Indian Sherlock Holmes

In 1959, NA Ansari directed Balraj Sahni as Agent Rajan in an adventure that comes straight out of Arthur Conan Doyle's famous series. With a scheming professor, manipulative heroines and hilarious Johnny Walker, Black Cat is a quirky film that offers a unique Indian take on the famed detective. On his 99th birth anniversary, we take a look at Ansari's style of filmmaking that involved nuanced noir and ridiculous science fiction.

Shriram Iyengar

At one point during the peak of his fame as the writer of Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle was so angry that he decided to kill the supersleuth.

It was not to be. The public clamour that arose calling for Holmes's rebirth surprised the author himself. It is a testament to the popularity of a character who has gone from being a British symbol of rationality and logic to the new 'sex' symbol of a social media generation.

Benedict Cumberbatch, Robert Downey Jr., Ian McKellen, Jeremy Brett and Basil Rathbone share the pedigree of having brought the immortal ingenue of Holmes alive on screen. To put Balraj Sahni alongside these names would sound like an exaggeration. Yet, the accomplished actor, better known for his gritty, realistic characters, played a version of the famed detective on Indian screens in NA Ansari's Black Cat (1959).

Nisar Ahmed Ansari is one of those filmmakers whose achievements find praise among cinephiles or cult film lovers. Over his career, the character actor and director worked in films that bordered on nuanced noir and ridiculous science fiction.

While films like Gunahon Ke Raste (1970) and Mr. Murder (1969) bordered on noirish indulgence, the ambitious Wahan Ke Log (1967) is probably the first science fiction Indian film that dealt with an alien invasion.

Among directors who would choose to eschew anything out of the ordinary, Ansari was Ed Wood, daring to go where no man had gone before; at least in Indian films. Therefore, it is no surprise that he attempted to resurrect an Indian version of Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty's eternal rivalry on screen in Black Cat.

Playing the bipolar Professor Gupta, who enjoys an after-dark gig as the nefarious Black Cat, Ansari displays an abandon that is rare among Indian actors.

Opposite him as the intelligent, sharply dressed police officer, Agent Rajan, is Balraj Sahni. The actor who is better known for his portrayals as a struggling labourer or graceful and noble uncle and father is put into unknown territory playing a police officer chasing a villain.

Not only does Sahni have a villain to deal with, but there is Minu Mumtaz, who plays his love interest. In one scene, Sahni does a Veeru by shooting down a fruit to impress his love. Not many films where this flamboyance is on display!

In his role as the inspector, Sahni shows the same determination that defines his acting. As for the Sherlockian connection, Agent Rajan dons a long coat and a fedora, and smokes a pipe when chasing his villain. Thankfully, imitation is the best form of flattery.

Black Cat was a hit on its release in 1959. The idea that a gentleman could be a killer and a thief in his free time offered audiences a vicarious thrill. Knowingly, or unknowingly, Ansari had recreated a character that was just as brilliant and popular back in the Victorian age — Moriarty. Doyle's Moriarty too was a mathematics professor who made plans of establishing a criminal superpower in his spare time.

But this is not the only similarity with Holmes that Black Cat shares. Enter Johnny Walker as Detective Popat. Armed with a magnifying glass and an eye for the invisible detail, Detective Popat sifts through the dust to help Sahni's Agent Rajan find his way to Black Cat.

Of course, where there is Johnny Walker, there are laughs galore. The mix of these elements makes Black Cat immensely watchable. This and the magnificent grace of Balraj Sahni. If there had been a race to cast an Indian actor as the great detective, Sahni would have done wonderfully. With his aquiline nose and tall stature, the actor provides NA Ansari's deceiving professor with a capable nemesis.

If Holmes were to watch the film, however, he would be astounded by the logical fallibility of it. It would take a Watson to explain the idea of 'suspension of disbelief' effectively to the famous highly functioning sociopath.