The original Indian Tarzan and the stunt king of early Indian cinema, John Cavas was one of the greatest action stars of the silver screen. His muscular physique and determination to push the boundaries marked him out as one-of-a-kind. Actor, body-builder, writer and director, he became hugely popular in the 1940s and 1950s, acting in popular adventure films. Acting in action films such as Sher-e-Baghdad (1946), Sher Dil (1954), Diler Daku (1957), Hurricane Hansa (1937), and Miss Frontier Mail (1936) among others, he is also credited with directing Mala the Mighty (1948), Baghdad Ka Jadu (1956), and Zimbo Find a Son (1966), as well as with writing the films Mala the Mighty, Circus Queen (1959), Circus Ki Sundari (1959), and Zimbo Finds a Son.
Born in Jabalpur in October 1910 into a Parsi family, growing up, he was more interested in bodybuilding and fencing than education. He won the All-India Body Building championship in the year 1930. Moving to Bombay, he attracted the attention of Homi Wadia, the father of Indian stunt films, and joined the budding Bombay film industry. At the time, over-the-top adventure films were the rage. The Indian film industry had already understood the popular allure of action pictures. The famous Wadia brothers made a series of films based on train and jungle themes. Cavas started his long collaboration with them in this genre of action-packed, entertaining films. He made his debut with Hunterwali (1935), playing one of his most memorable roles of Ishar Singh, a flawless swordsman. Starring opposite the voluptuous Nadia, a pin-up favourite of the day, his Western looks and heroic exploits endeared him to India's growing cinema-going population. Reminding audiences of the dashing Hollywood stars, he made his entry into the public consciousness as the model of masculinity.
Toofani Tarzan/ The Storm of Tarzan (1937), one of the earliest portrayals of Tarzan in Indian cinema, became a career-defining role for him. He went on to play this character in various jungle film series such as Jungle Princess (1942), Jungle Ka Jawahar (1953), Jungle Ka Jadoo (1955), and Jungle Queen (1956).
Cavas unfailingly tried to raise the level of action by live-action stunts, combined with special effects. Babubhai Mistry’s trick photography and special effects enhanced the experience of films. His films boasted larger-than-life action sequences that were spectacular to watch. Onscreen, Cavas fought with burglars, ruthless cannibals, and wild animals, only to give a heart-warming ending that the world is still a good place despite its imperfections. The plot could very well be called the precursor of today’s ‘masala’ films.
Onscreen, Cavas shared a natural chemistry with his co-stars like Nadia and Leela Gupte. They fought the villains together, and made it seem like a cakewalk. This is seen in films such as Baghdad Ka Jadu (1956), a story of two witty thieves in a faraway land. In Jungle Princess (1942), they fought with actual lions in a story set in a mysterious kingdom. Cavas played a smooth undercover cop in Circus Queen (1959), saving the day by using both, his brain and muscles.
More than just an actor, along with a muscular physique, he aimed to push the boundaries. In the late 1950s, he rebooted the Toofani Tarzan franchise with the Wadia brothers, and created a trilogy of Zimbo films. He was an assistant director in the first Zimbo film – Zimbo (1958) - and later, went on to direct the others – Zimbo Comes to Town (1960) and Zimbo Finds a Son (1966). Zimbo was a remake of Toofani Tarzan (1937), and several sequences in these films were exactly similar. His last film was Khilari (1981).
A genial man, he was well-liked by his film crews and supporting casts. His passion for stunt films stayed with him till his end. Alongside the Wadia brothers and Fearless Nadia, equal credit goes to John Cavas for making action films popular.
John Cavas passed away on 4 October 1993 in Bombay. He was 83. His daredevilry on screen has ensured that he will always be remembered as one of the greatest action stars of Indian cinema.