The Indian adventures of Tarzan: 1937 to 2016

As The Legend of Tarzan, starring Alexander Skarsgård and Margot Robbie, swings into international theaters this week, we chart the history of the jungle’s most famous resident in Hindi cinema.

Sonal Pandya

Since 1937, nearly 25 films have been produced featuring the iconic character first created by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Even Hollywood brought Tarzan to India, producing a 1962 hit directed by John Guillermin, Tarzan Goes to India, which consisted of Indian actors Feroz Khan and Simi Garewal. First introduced in 1912, Tarzan leapt onto the pages in Burroughs’s novel, Tarzan of the Apes. Nearly 200 global films and 25 serialised books later, the legend of Tarzan lives on. Here are some of the notable films which popularised Tarzan in the country.

Toofani Tarzan (1937)

One of Wadia Movietone’s star players, John Cavas became famous with his portrayal of Tarzan in Toofani Tarzan (1937). Cavas was called the Indian Eddie Polo, the action hero of the silent era. While Wadia is best known for path-breaking stunt films featuring Fearless Nadia, Toofani Tarzan went on to become the studio’s biggest grosser. Later, the studio produced ‘desi’ versions of the legend of the jungle with Zimbo (1954), Zimbo Comes to Town (1960) and Zimbo Finds A Son (1966), directed by none other than Tarzan John Cavas himself.

Toofani Tarzan (1962)

Director AR Zamindar’s take on the jungle legend, Toofani Tarzan, kicked of a slew of similar films, mostly starring Azad as the title character. With screenplay by Raisa Khan, Azad’s Tarzan faced off against a sly magician, Samri, who was in pursuit of a hidden treasure guarded by him. Samri decides to use Tarzan’s own love, Sushma, played by Shanta Kumari, to trap him. It’s no coincidence that Toofani Tarzan was released the same year as Tarzan Goes to India.

Tarzan and the Gorilla (1963)

In Pyarelal’s Tarzan and the Gorilla (1963), the animal stars got equal footing on the film’s poster. Along with the human cast of Azad, Sheela Kashmiri and Helen, Pedro the Chimpanzee was featured on all the film’s publicity materials. But Pedro wasn’t the only ape in the film. Azad as Raja is raised amongst the gorillas with his best mate, Zippy. But when poachers come to the forest to get elephant tusks, Raja has to fend them off and save his lady love, Madhu, who keeps finding herself in life-threatening situations, including a capture by a giant gorilla.

Tarzan And Circus (1965)

This filmi version had Azad’s Tarzan as the long-lost son of a circus ringmaster, Nandan, who has to go up against the unscrupulous manager Keshav. Here, he had not one but two love interests. Directed by Shiv Kumar, the film was largely shot using the New Prakash Circus as the backdrop and featured real-life wrestlers Lou Anderegg and Christine Keller. Azad’s co-stars were Chitra, Sheri, Rajan Kapoor, Sunder, Jeevankala and Kammo while the music was composed by famed composers Husnalal and Bhagatram.

Tarzan Comes To Delhi (1965)

Hindi cinema’s most famous strongman, Dara Singh, also got a shot to play the king of the jungle, though most of the action took place in a cosmopolitan setting. Hence the title. The film’s trailer proclaimed Dara Singh as essaying this Tarzan avatar for the first and last time. With the beautiful Mumtaz by his side, Singh’s Tarzan dances alongside Helen and Bhagwan, and fights goons as they threaten him and his friends. Tarzan Comes to Delhi was produced by Surinder Kapoor (father of Boney and Anil Kapoor) and directed by Kedar Kapoor.

Tarzan And King Kong (1965)

That same year, Dara Singh made a guest appearance in another Tarzan film, Tarzan and King Kong. Directed by A Shamsheer, the film starred Singh’s younger brother Randhawa opposite Mumtaz. She played Sharmilla, a young woman who is stranded on an unknown island after a plane crash, and receives help from Tarzan and his animal friends. The two brothers have a splendid cinematic fight which is followed up by a battle between Tarzan and an ape, who is nowhere near the size of Hollywood’s King Kong. Randhawa later married Mumtaz’s sister Malika.

Tarzan Aur Hercules (1966)

This next production was written and produced by its star, Hercules, while the film was directed by Mahmood. Tarzan teamed up with another muscle man, Hercules, to help the kingdom of Zingara. Later on, Hercules starred besides a previous Tarzan, Azad, in several other features like Sakhi Lutera (1969) and Khooni Saya (1970). He also appeared in a couple of Manmohan Desai hits, Amar Akbar Anthony (1977) and Dharam Veer (1977).

Tarzan Ki Mehbooba (1966)

The focus of this film was all about love. In Ram Rasila’s Tarzan Ki Mehbooba (1966), Azad as Tarzan romances Tabbassum and Kammo. He also protects the tribal chief’s daughter Nimoni (played by Tabbassum) against outside forces who want to take over the jungle. Director Ram Rasila gave himself a role in film, which was peppered with many comic elements by Tun Tun. Tabbassum was also a part of John Cavas’s, Zimbo Finds A Son (1966).

Tarzan Aur Jaadui Chirag (1966)

This bizarre reinterpretation combines two legendary tales, that of Aladdin and his magic lamp with the King of Jungle. Directed by Baboobhai Bhanji, the film has Tarzan staple, Azad, as the young abandoned prince who grows up in the jungle. He discovers magic via a very convenient magic lamp placed just so in the river where he was first found. The jovial genie manages to save Tarzan as the villagers and usurper of Tarzan’s throne want him gone. With a one-eyed monster and a pretty damsel in distress, Tarzan manages to save the day with the genie and his trusted elephant friends.   

Adventures Of Tarzan (1985)

Only after 20 years did the interest in exploring Tarzan rise again. Filmmaker B. Subhash decided upon the film while in between projects, waiting for his hero, Mithun Chakraborthy, to give him the necessary dates. Using the only available 3D camera in India, Adventures of Tarzan was cast with two little-known stars, Hemant Birje and Kimi Katkar, as Tarzan and his love interest, Ruby. The film became a huge hit for its actors and producers, with a best-selling soundtrack by Bappi Lahiri. A 2002 sequel directed by Pratap Singh and centred around Tarzan’s daughter, starring Hemant Birje, Ritika Singh and Raza Murad, was released.