If you’re a child of the ’80s, you probably still see his face etched in your nightmares: As Indiana Jones (and a nation of teenagers) looked on in horror, this man watched as his own beating heart was pulled from his chest, and then he was lowered face-first into molten lava. Credited only as “Sacrifice Victim” in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, this poor, hopeless soul was played by an accomplished theater actor of Parsi descent named Nizwar Karanj. To celebrate the 30th anniversary of the film’s May 1984 release, we tracked down Karanj, 58, who’s now retired and living in Mumbai, India. (The scene’s heart-ripper, famed Bollywood star Amrish Puri, passed away in 2005.) Read on to find out how they filmed that volcano scene (It involved real fire.), which shot had to be removed because it was too gory for the censors, and what Indiana Jones means to Karanj now.
So you were discovered by the casting director while you were doing a show at the Royal Court Theatre in London.
That’s correct. I briefly met Steven Spielberg for about 10 minutes in an office in London. I didn’t hear from them for a while after that, and then my agent said they’d “penciled me in” for Indiana Jones. All I was told was, “You’ve got to go to Elstree Studios [in the U.K.] three weeks before filming because they had to make a body cast.”
Wait, back up — they told you nothing about the role but made you go in for a full body cast? Did you think this was just par for the course with American movies?
I asked them specifically, “Why is this happening?” And they said, “Because there’s going to be a scene where your body goes into molten lava, and we’ll be using this cast.” Actually, they made a lifelike face of mine for the film, including glass eyes. That was because, once the cage was lowered into this pit of molten lava, my body would disintegrate and you would see my face floating. But that scene was too gory for the censors, so they cut that! [Laughs.] If you ever get a chance to see the uncensored version, that will be there.
Did you ever receive a script for Temple of Doom?
No, I was never given a script. At all. The first day that I arrived on the set of Elstree, I was introduced to Steven and the rest of them, and they said, “Look, this is what it is: You’re a Thuggee and you’re going to be sacrificed, OK?” That set, with the Kali statue, was really incredible. And they said, “OK, you’re going to be in that cage. And they’re going to pull you towards it, and you’re going to die and you’re frightened. So: What would you say?” I said, “Well, I think I’d say ‘om namah shivaya.’ It’s a prayer type of thing that you say before you die; you pray to the god Shiva.” And then they checked that with Amrish Puri, and he said “Yeah, yeah, that’s right.”
You two could have conspired to say something completely ridiculous.
Yeah, I mean, this was all Greek to everybody, right? [Laughs.] The first shot was actually me in the cage being lowered into this molten lava. They had live flames in the pit, and a huge big arc lamp shining up at me. They had a nurse standing by. Really, it was quite a dangerous thing, because they had flames underneath me, and the cage was being lowered right until I started thinking, “It’s getting too hot.”
Was Harrison Ford on set the whole time?
Very much so. He was there right throughout. And at that time, Barbra Streisand was dubbing the film Yentl at Elstree, and she came on set one day. And you won’t believe it: Carrie Fisher came on set as well! I still remember her; she was in this skimpy black dress, and she was sitting there on her haunches, and the whole set was just looking at her legs, you know? [Laughs.] But it was just a nice, homey atmosphere.
What was your reaction when you actually saw the movie?
It was weird seeing it, but it was fine. I’ve got friends right here in Bombay and they have this little clip on their iPhones, so whenever they meet me they just put it on and say, “Hey, here, we’ve got you,” you know? [Laughs.]
You’re fair-skinned, and they basically darkened your complexion with makeup for this role. Did that happen to you often back then?
Well, it did. I did a small TV film called Glory Boys; they cast me as a maintenance engineer, and even then, they put a turban on my head and they browned me up. And one of my first television jobs was The Jewel in the Crown, and they did the same thing there as well. It happened quite a few times. I took it in stride at the time, but then on reflection I didn’t think it was very nice. But that’s the way it goes.
Did you get other offers from Hollywood following Indiana Jones?
Out of the blue, I was called to a casting thing with George Lucas, who was producing [the TV movie] Lace 2. But again it was a turban, and again it was a stereotype Indian character, except this time he was a prince. So when my agent actually called me up, I turned that down. And then I never heard anything from Hollywood again. Theater was giving me much better parts, and I felt much nicer doing it. And I’m not trying to blow my trumpet or anything like that, but I was a pretty talented actor!
Has Indiana Jones resurfaced in your life in any interesting ways over the years?
It follows me everywhere I go! I look back on Indiana Jones, and I really enjoyed it. If you tell somebody you were in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and they say “Which scene?” and you say, “Human sacrifice,” they all know it. In my own small way, it’s a sort of immortality, yeah?
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