Tiger Gang, is an Urdu film released in 1974. Sadly, it failed to catch the imagination of Pakistanis and in the parlance of current political speak turned out to be a ‘Big Nothingburger’. In fact, it is only remembered today by a cult of B-Movie fans as an off beat addition to the work of a popular team of European-American actors and directors who made a bunch of James Bond and John Wayne swizzles in the 60s and 70s.
The film’s director, Harald Reinl, got his start in the movie world in Germany’s pre-Hitler interregnum. In the 1930s German audiences went nuts about a genre of movies known as bergfilme (mountain films) which in their ‘Hero vs. Nature’ action themes were akin to the American western. As a bit player and extra in some of these films Reinl worked alongside Hitler’s favourite cineaste, Leni Riefenstahl, and developed a life-long love of the action film if not the Fuhrer‘s politics.
Throughout a long career that saw him direct nearly 50 pictures–most with invigorating titles such as The Green Devils of Monte Cassino, Apache Gold or No Gold for a Dead Diver— as well as gain an Oscar nomination for his aliens-visit-the-earth documentary Chariot of the Gods (1970), Reinl also teamed up with American athlete/stuntman Brad Harris and Italian model-turned-actor Tony Kendall (Luciano Stella) to film the final instalment of a series of movies based on the prolific and popular Eurospy Kommisar X books by German pulp fictionist Paul Alfred Mueller.
Kendall and Harris were for a number of years the ‘Kings of Eurotrash’ movies. Playing FBI agent Tom Rowland (Harris) and private detective Joe Walker (Kendall) the duo made movies that relied on action, mateship, dumb humour, mild sexual titillation and heaps of references to the American western and British spy films they so happily ripped off.
After years of struggle and development, the late 60s saw the Pakistani film industry feeling confident. With movies from their main competitor, India, banned a large homegrown crop of actors, directors, writers and musicians had developed strong fan bases. The industry was making money at last. Not surprisingly, Lahore and Karachi attracted would-be stars from surrounding countries and with its ‘wild west’ borderlands Pakistan appealed to European film makers looking for something new.
Mueller, with typical Teutonic efficiency, wrote more than 600 Kommisar X novels but only 7 were turned into films with Tiger Gang drawing the series to a close. Like so many films of this genre several versions were made in various languages (in this case German, Italian, English and Urdu) and in the available copy of the Urdu version several scenes slip (unintentionally) between Urdu to English leaving one to delight in Mohammad Ali’s American accent one moment and Brad Harris’s fluent Urdu the next!
[Posters for Italian and German versions of the film]
Rowland much to his grumpy annoyance is sent off to Karachi to try to find the illusive New York mafia don Frank Stefani who is running a large international drug smuggling operation across the Afghanistan border. Unexpectedly, Walker is also in town investigating the death of a friend’s husband and the two old colleagues once again team up. Superintendent Ali (Mohammad Ali) of the Lahore Police department provides local intelligence while his lady friend (and in real life, wife) Shireen (Zeba) works as the secretary of one Professor Tavari (Ernst Fritz Fürbringer) who unbeknownst to everyone until the final 15 minutes of the movie is actually Frank Stefani.
In addition to the German and Italian cast and crew, the Pakistani version of Tiger Gang brought in the skills of a new writer, Saleem Chisti, stunts coordinator, cameraman and director/producer Iqbal Shehzad, brother of two Pakistani test cricketers. Shehzad, perhaps sensing that the local audience would require something more than a couple of goras beating up Pakistanis to create a hit, brought a clear middle-class sensibility to the effort. Whereas Rienl had been contracted to deliver another episode of a well-established action franchise, Shehzad saw an opportunity to make the film a bit more meaningful: an anti-narcotics family tragedy.
Chisti creates the character Hassan, played beautifully by Qavi, Shireen’s wayward brother. A nice Muslim boy gone bad thanks to the heroin and hash that these hippies with loose clothes and looser morals are graphically depicted shooting up in cheap Karachi hotels. This central subplot of orphaned sibling love gives the audience a chance to have their heartstrings delicately plucked, not to mention create an occasion for music director Kamal Ahmed to pop in a few songs and dances of which Mehkane Mein Shaam Hui (Nightfall in the Tavern) is the pick of the bunch.
Sung by a young and prolific Runa Laila, (in addition to her film work, she made pop records, performed live and was a growing sensation in India) the song, performed by a sexy vamp (Nisho), is a medium paced number driven by accordion and jazzy organ. Veteran poet Riaz ur Rahman Saghar’s lyrics of intoxication, nightfall, ‘parties’ and shocking glances suit the dual contexts of an upperclass dinner party as well as a dingy backstreet heroin den where Shireen goes to look for her troubled but beloved brother, Hassan.
Despite the best efforts of director, singer, composer, writer and actors Tiger Gang is never able to break free of its Eurospy action template. Though Zeba and Qavi turn in strong performances, Mohammad Ali plods through proceedings with little of the grace he is remembered for.
Perhaps ‘Nothingburger’ is too harsh. Sukhi roti, anyone?