Tracing Sean Connery’s India Connect Through The Years
Sean Connery through the eyes of a member of his supporting cast, Milton Reid.
As part of training at the National Academy of Direct Taxes, the tax probationers are taken on a ‘Bharat Darshan’. The idea is to expose the tax probationers to the rich heritage and history of the country , while at the same time understanding the workings of industry. I was one such probationer. The year was 1984.
By the time we reached Bangalore, we had already covered, amongst others, a fertilizer plant and Southern temples, and a recording of the title music of a Tamil film. During a cocktail hosted by the local officers at a hotel bar, I came across one fascinating slice of film history, hitherto unknown and still not widely known, to wit: an Anglo-Indian ‘ villain’ in Sean Connery’s James Bond 1962 film Dr No ( the first of the series ). He almost acted in another Sean Connery Bond film Goldfinger (1964) and acted in two more Bond films – the 1967 parody Casino Royale (David Niven) and the 1977 The Spy Who Loved Me (Roger Moore). For good measure, he even acted in the 1977 Bond spoof No. 1 of the Secret Service.
The roles were modest. In Dr. No , he played Dr. No’s henchman on Crab Key; in Casino Royale , a temple guard; in The Spy Who Loved Me, Sandor – an enforcer – who has a rooftop fight with Roger Moore; in No. 1 of the Secret Service, Eye Patch – the henchman.
At the bar, I met Milton Reid who played these roles. He was sitting at a table with some friends and asked me and some other colleagues to join them.
He told us that he was born in Bombay in 1917. His father was a Scottish-born Customs and Excise inspector who had married an Indian lady. Milton moved to London in 1936. During the War, he was a cavalry trooper. It was during this period that he appeared in the army propaganda feature The Way Ahead (1944). After the War he trained as a wrestler, turning professional in 1952.
His breakthrough came in 1959 when he was required to shave his head for a film role. He remained shaven headed for the rest of his career, also changing his wrestling image to that of ‘The Mighty Chang’, an oriental giant. He became a popular and familiar character actor in dozens of films and television shows especially requiring exotic roles or menacing villains.
When we met him, he still looked hugely fearsome – somewhat like our own Shetty. One could appreciate why he was chosen for his roles – there was a threatening aura about him because of his bulkiness and transfigured looks. But he had a heart of gold, and liver the size of a beachball. Even at the age of 67, he out-drank most of us (then in our mid 20s). The alcohol opened him up and he regaled us with his experiences in the film industry.
Though he acted very briefly in Dr. No, Milton was all praise for Sean Connery. He had a style, wit, and charm. Tall, dark, and handsome, he truly embodied James Bond. Did he travel to Jamaica for the shooting? He had a hearty laughter. Unfortunately, no, it was in Pinewood Studios in England.
He said that Sean Connery was the perfect fit for the role of James Bond. It appeared as if Ian Fleming had created the character keeping him in mind. Sean Connery was truly in accord with Ian Fleming’s notion of how Bond should look and conduct himself.
But wasn’t Sean Connery a racist? In Dr. No, didn’t he ask Quarrel (the Jamaican) to fetch his shoes? But he was only playing the character, he said.
During the brief shooting that Milton was involved in, Sean Connery never exhibited any airs and was completely down to earth and enquired about everyone’s welfare. At the time of Dr No, Sean Connery had already done about ten films (he had been acting since 1954). As he grew in stature with subsequent films, Milton had heard that he never exhibited any air of entitlement and remained friendly and solicitous.
He then told us something truly extraordinary – how he tried to bag the coveted role of Odd Job in Sean Connery’s 1964 Bond film Goldfinger. Odd Job was the henchman to the villain Auric Goldfinger. Milton challenged ‘The Great Togo’ (Harold Sakata) to a wrestling contest to decide who would play the role. Unfortunately for Milton, he had already been killed off as a henchman in Dr. No, so the producers were forced to pick Sakata and the contest was not needed. What a novel idea, we praised him.
But didn’t he act in other Bond films? So where was the need for ‘continuity’, we asked? Besides his role was minor. It was not that the characters playing ‘M’ or ‘Q’ had been killed and a new actor needed to be selected. He shrugged his shoulders. But imagine our Hindi film villains deciding roles this way, he laughed uproariously. Incidentally, in the film, James Bond playfully tosses Odd Job a golf ball, and Odd Job easily crushes it to bits in his palm. But that was make-believe. We had no doubt that this giant before us could do it.
He did seem disappointed though. This was a role that could have catapulted him to a higher level in the pantheon of Bond villains. I could have done a great job in Goldfinger (1964), Thunderball (1965) and You Only Live Twice (1967), he claimed. Besides, it would have been a great honor to have worked with Sean Connery.
What did he think of George Lazenby who acted as Bond in only one film – On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969). He was nothing compared to Sean Connery. The difference in class was so obvious, he remarked. Are you aware that at the time of audition, Lazenby accidently punched a professional wrestler who was the stunt coordinator, impressing the producer with his display of aggression and securing the role? If it had been me, Lazenby would not have got away, accident or no accident, and they would have had to find another actor to play Bond, he stated. We believed him.
About Roger Moore, he said that while Sean Connery was rugged without being overly muscular, Roger Moore did not have any significant physical presence. Additionally, he never took his role seriously.
Milton’s work did not earn him much wealth. Having retired from wresting and with film parts becoming fewer, Milton decided to try his luck in Bollywood and in 1980 returned to India; Bangalore to be specific where his mother and sister resided. He had run-ins with the police regarding tenant dispute, servant assault and others. He also turned violent when the police tried to detain him. Once you play ‘The Mighty Chang’, the lines between ‘reel’ life and ‘real’ life sometimes get blurred. However, with our tax crowd, he was all sociable, and garrulous.
Did he speak at all in the Bond films, we asked? "There was only one word I uttered while dangling over the roof of a building in The Spy Who Loved Me," he answered. I played Sandor -the enforcer employed by wealthy industrialist and criminal, Karl Stormberg, and an assistant to his top assassin, Jaws. The word was ‘Pyramids’ in response to Bond’s query about the location of ‘Fekkesh’, with Sandor desperately holding on to Bond’s tie. As soon as the answer is given, Bond knocks his hand away and he falls to his death. “What a helpful chap”, Bond says while straightening his tie.
Milton could not succeed in India. Even his death remains a mystery. He died in obscurity in India during the early part of 1987 (three years after we met him), although no death certificate or confirmation has been received by the family.
Of course, the Bond franchise had other connections to India too. 1983’s Octopussy (Roger Moore) had a significant Indian connection (much of the film was shot in Udaipur) and Kabir Bedi played the villain’s bodyguard. The film pulled no stops in fueling the typical exotic Indian motifs in Western minds. So much so that the producers of Daniel Craig’s Skyfall (2012) approached the Indian Railway Ministry to shoot a train sequence in India. They refused to accept the Ministry’s condition that they would not show passengers travelling atop the train. "There will be a scene where James Bond is going to fight on the roof of the train. Otherwise, why would we come to India", they countered.
The other Indian connection is the James Bond theme music. The iconic tune almost ended up in a different movie. Composer Monty Norman, who did the score for Dr. No, wrote some original Caribbean-inspired tracks that would appear in the movie — but for the famous introduction theme, he turned to a piece of music he had already written, a snippet from a musical-theater adaptation of the V.S. Naipaul novel A House for Mr. Biswas – which tells the story of an Indo-Trinidadian.
The song did not make it into the play, so Norman decided to turn it into the Bond theme by adding electric guitar and a funkier sound.
Sean Connery’s Indian connect is through the 1975 film The Man Who Would Be King adapted from the 1888 Rudyard Kipling novella of the same name. The film follows two rogue ex-soldiers from the British Army, who set off from late 19th-century British India in search of adventure and end up in faraway Kafiristan, where one is taken for a god and made their king. Ironically, the film was not shot in India, but in England, France, and Morocco. Saeed Jaffrey also featured in the film. In The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003), Sean Connery worked with Naseeruddin Shah.
Sean Connery visited India back in 2007 and spent his Valentine’s Day with wife Micheline Roquebrune at the Taj Mahal.
And finally, Bond’s creator Ian Fleming also had an Indian connection. He visited India twice: dressed in only a tropical suit in Delhi, in the winter of 1945, he felt it was far too cold; and in 1958 in Mumbai, he found it impossible to get alcohol.
Sean Connery died on 31st October in the Bahamas, in the same Caribbean region as Jamaica, where the James Bond journey began. All of us mourn at the passing of one of the true greats of cinema. However, no film can do without the supporting cast, however minor. And I am transported back to that memorable evening in Bangalore!
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