Actor Diljit Dosanjh and film-maker Anurag Singh of 'Super Singh' talk about what it takes to make a low-budget Punjabi superhero movie
Super Singh isn’t the first Sikh superhero in the movies. A Flying Jatt, which had Tiger Shroff donning a suit made by an overbearing Punjabi mom (played by, who else but Amrita Singh) with her Usha sewing machine, gets that title. Released last year, A Flying Jatt showed, for the first time, an Indian superhero who didn’t take himself too seriously.
Is Super Singh then the first regional superhero movie? Tamil director S. Shankar’s Anniyan, although more vigilante than superhero, could qualify as a contender for this title.
But if Super Singh, which released on 16 June, can indisputably lay claim to something, it’s to being the cheapest superhero movie made in India. It had a budget of around Rs10 crore—the kind of money generally reserved for just the marketing of an average Hindi film (A Flying Jatt reportedly cost Rs45 crore). And yet, it took about two years to find a producer for Super Singh, says Diljit Dosanjh, who has starred in this film as well as Hindi films such as Udta Punjab and Phillauri.
We meet at the Juhu office of Balaji Motion Pictures, where a man wearing a Superman T-shirt serves tea and snacks.
“Three years back," continues Dosanjh, “this wouldn’t have been possible. And even today, it wouldn’t have been possible had Balaji not agreed to produce it. None of the Punjabi producers said yes."
Why? Because the lowest-budget superhero movie is also, quite possibly, the most expensive Punjabi film ever made. “Punjabi cinema doesn’t have that kind of budget, neither do we have that many screens or a wide audience," says Dosanjh. The 33-year-old actor and the director, Anurag Singh, with whom he has worked thrice before, have delivered some of Punjabi cinema’s biggest blockbusters—Jatt & Juliet (2012) and Jatt & Juliet 2 (2013), made with a budget of Rs3 crore and Rs6 crore, respectively. They are considered to be among the recent Punjabi movies that have rejuvenated the local film industry.
“We are a small, nascent industry. I think it has got to do with the fact that the state has gone through troubled times politically," Singh says later, over the phone. “Another reason is that the kind of films that were being made were the B-grade, action-movie types which sent the audience, especially the family audience, away. As a result, a lot of theatres started to shut down."
It may be a stretch but one could argue that this may have had something to do with the fact that the mainstream Hindi film narrative has been skewed heavily towards Punjabi representation. And that it fulfilled the cinematic cravings of its local audience.
In the last few years, however, things have been looking up for the Punjabi film industry. The prospect of an emerging new film market would have attracted Balaji to produce Super Singh despite the fact that last year’s production, A Flying Jatt, wasn’t a commercial success. “There has been a late multiplex boom in the state. Places beyond big cities, such as Moga, Kotkapura, have multiplexes of their own," says Singh.
It is not surprising then that the budget shaped the kind of superhero film Super Singh would become. “Had we had a bigger budget, we would’ve made another kind of superhero film. It would’ve probably been darker," he says. Instead, Dosanjh and Singh decided to make a light-hearted movie.
It all started with a joke. “Some fans had superimposed my face on to a superhero costume. Somehow, the idea of a Sikh superhero seemed improbable and funny. I found it interesting," says Dosanjh. For instance, you don’t feel the baffling absence of a super-villain in the promo of Super Singh because the gags, set to a bouncy, pop soundtrack, seem fun, original and localized. One scene has Dosanjh, all suited up, scratching his back with a stick before taking the plunge from the roof of a skyscraper in Montreal—it makes both cultural and business sense for modern Punjabi films to take their hero to Canada. In another scene, an aunt suggests he should think of branding himself better, like Batman, or Doraemon.
When asked about the superhero movies he likes, Dosanjh picks Deadpool (adding Hancock, as an afterthought), whose casual self-awareness—if not its morbid adult humour—seems to have rubbed off on to the family-friendly Super Singh. “It’s not that I don’t like the others, like The Dark Knight, but Deadpool made me realize that this is how it could be done as well. Why so serious?" says Dosanjh, who has seen quite a transformation himself—from a folk artist to the region’s biggest movie star.
However, the real test of a superhero movie is the action scenes involving special effects. In the scenes where Dosanjh is seen chasing a rocket or saving a ship from sinking, the special effects look solid. The movie, says Dosanjh, has used minimal VFX. “We couldn’t let our imagination run wild and had to strike a balance between what we wanted and what was possible. We worked with a small studio, Flying Flames, who were involved with us right from the start and gave their 200% to it," says Singh. Dosanjh adds, “One thing we were careful about from the beginning is that we didn’t want the special effects to be laughed at."
I bring up Baahubali 2: The Conclusion , the recent box-office behemoth that is supposed to have changed the game for regional cinema in India. Has the phenomenon of S.S. Rajamouli’s Telugu blockbuster, and last year’s Marathi film Sairat, opened up possibilities for a regional film beyond its linguistic border?
With about 700 screens worldwide, says Singh, Super Singh is billed as one of the widest Punjabi movie releases. Dosanjh and Singh are careful about comparisons—“Baahubali 2’s earnings are much more than the entire valuation of the Punjabi film industry," says Singh—but agree that a regional film doesn’t have a limited life, as it used to.
“Today, our audience is watching everything on Netflix and the Internet," says Dosanjh. “Even when we are making a Punjabi movie, we are always aware that we don’t know who is watching us."