In search of the Indian superhero
‘A Flying Jatt’ did not win many hearts, but a slew of Hindi film-makers are working on superhero stories. Are we ready for a new Indian superhero on screen?
A woman clad in salwar-kameez, her hair tied in a braid, stitching something for her son on her Usha sewing machine in Remo D’Souza’s A Flying Jatt, is a typical Indian middle-class moment. Yet it’s the first time we’re seeing a superhero getting his suit sewn by his mother—a distinctly Indian twist to an American idea. The suit, when ready, is blue, just like the traditional dress of Sikh warriors.
The superhero ends up with pepper spray in his eyes while trying to protect a woman from eve-teasers. He has a fear of heights, is self-deprecating, and rooted in a local context. These are qualities that have been missing from the Indian superhero film. A Flying Jatt might not mark the genre’s coming-of-age in India, but it at least indicates growing levels of maturity, of engaging with the constantly evolving language of a genre whose rules are being subverted increasingly by Hollywood. The film collected Rs.27.5 crore during its extended weekend (all collection figures are industry estimates provided by Ormax Media).
It’s also an improvement on earlier Hindi screen superheroes. Films such as Shiva Ka Insaaf (1985), Superman (1987) and Toofan (1989) had tacky special effects and plots lifted from Hollywood films, and are worth remembering only for their camp value. In the late 1990s, there was Shaktimaan, a derivative but popular TV series broadcast originally on Doordarshan. For those children at the time who hadn’t yet seen the Superman and Batman movies, it was an initiation into the world of costumed men and intergalactic battles with evil geniuses.
It wasn’t until Krrish in 2006 that the Indian superhero returned to the big screen. The film, with its reasonably impressive special effects, was a success, credited with elevating the genre’s “B-grade” status in Hindi cinema. Drona (2008), Ra.One (2011) and Krrish 3 (2013) followed, each making half-hearted attempts at Indianizing the genre. Drona’s disastrous sherwani-like suit is an heirloom from his ancestors, while Krrish’s only link with Indian mythology is its title. The plots fused worn-out Hollywood tropes with the trappings of a Bollywood entertainer—family, romance, song and dance—but the films were ultimately as shallow as their campy predecessors.
Perhaps they should have taken a cue from director Shekhar Kapur’s Mr India (1987): a great example of how to observe the rules of a superhero film while following a traditional Hindi film narrative. Mr India, played by Anil Kapoor, an Everyman reeling under the effects of corruption and inflation, discovers that he has extraordinary powers. “A superhero must have one great fallibility that can bring him down even when he is at the height of his powers,” says Kapur, referring to Mr India’s visibility when seen through a prism of red. “It could be like kryptonite for Superman, or psychological, like Spider-Man’s guilt over being responsible for Uncle Ben’s death.” In comparison, Krrish, Drona and G.One (the superhero in Ra.One) are largely infallible and, therefore, less intriguing.
In the guise of the superhero cape, these were Bollywood star vehicles. The characters were extensions of the image of their leading men—morally upright Hrithik Roshan; brooding, dour Abhishek Bachchan; and Shah Rukh Khan, gadget-loving global citizen and doting family man.
In the past few months, a series of superhero films have been announced in short succession, to be helmed by directors such as Vikramaditya Motwane, Ayan Mukerji and Amole Gupte, courtesy production houses Phantom Films, Dharma Productions and Eros International, respectively. A Flying Jatt producer Balaji Motion Pictures is making a Punjabi superhero film starring Diljit Dosanjh, directed by Anurag Singh.
“The problem with Hindi films has been that whatever genre we attempt, we end up making one genre: Bollywood,” says Motwane. His Chakra: The Invincible has for its protagonist Chakra, that was launched as an animated superhero much before the movie was announced, and is being developed by Stan Lee, the legendary creator of Spider-Man, Iron Man, Hulk and The Avengers, and Sharad Devarajan.
Devarajan, the chief executive officer of the Bengaluru-based comic book firm Graphic India, says the film will explore the contradictions of Indians living in the time of globalization. “The story of India today is how ideas from the East and West meet. When our brightest scientific minds go home, the first thing they do is puja (pray).” The protagonist’s superpower involves a device that activates the seven chakras (energy centres) of the human body.
Comic book superheroes are socio-political allegories that hold a mirror to their times. Superman and Batman were born as symbols of hope during the Great Depression in the US. The X-Men has its roots in the African-American civil rights movement. Captain America fought Adolf Hitler in his first outing.
What conflicts will the Indian superhero resolve? For a country like India, the priorities may be very different, says film-maker Sumit Roy, who has written two superhero-based scripts and is in talks with production houses. “My superhero may not be able to fly. So what will he do if he is stuck in traffic?”
Indian superhero films so far have failed to excite the young adult market. Bollywood has made superhero movies for children, ignoring the fact that comics—and comic book films—can also be dark and sexy. Films with dark or weird protagonists—Christopher Nolan’s Batman, Deadpool—have proved extremely successful, yet Indian cinema has never given its superheroes complex shadings.
One can, however, be cautiously optimistic. Motwane, Mukerji and Gupte are mainstream Hindi film directors with original voices, who claim to have a deep fondness for superhero and fantasy genres. On the Film Companion website, Mukerji wrote about making his film in the “global spirit (of) Marvel and Game Of Thrones”. Though he writes he isn’t making a superhero film, insiders claim it is a big-budget trilogy called Dragon, featuring Ranbir Kapoor and Alia Bhatt, where the protagonist can shoot fire. Although not a superhero film in the strict sense, Gupte’s film, tentatively titled Sniff, is about a specially abled child who becomes a secret agent after he acquires superpowers.
Film-makers and studio and production house executives say these aren’t one-off attempts. “Everyone’s talking about it, that it is time to find our own superheroes. The recent success of Hollywood movies is only helping that trend,” says Ajit Thakur, chief executive officer of Trinity Pictures, a label of Eros International dedicated to creating franchise films.
The need for Indian superhero films is also an economic one. Hollywood provides a steady stream of big-screen spectacles, with little competition from Hindi cinema. “The way Hollywood is performing here, they are going to eat us up,” says Motwane, who is currently shooting his urban vigilante film Bhavesh Joshi. Earlier this year, the total India collections of Deadpool (Rs.28 crore net) were higher than Fitoor (Rs.19 crore), which released on the same day. Similarly, Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice (Rs.32 crore) did better business than Rocky Handsome (Rs.22 crore). Last year’s Avengers: Age Of Ultron collected Rs.74 crore.
“Ticket prices are going up and footfalls are coming down. The rise of video-on-demand services like Netflix and Amazon Prime mean that in the next five years people are going to watch a lot of content in their private home theatres. They will go to the theatres only to watch The Jungle Book or a Salman Khan movie. Our animation is already dead. If we don’t buckle up and make more genre movies and create visual spectacles, we stand to lose a large share of the pie,” adds Motwane.
The good news is that it’s easier to create special effects now. The number of Indians working in the global VFX industry may be an added advantage. According to Kapur, S.S. Rajamouli’s Baahubali: The Beginning (2015)—the sequel will release next year—has proved that it is possible to make a successful, home-grown visual spectacle.
It’s going to be at least two years before the films just announced come out. Devarajan says they are looking at the genre as a long-term investment, and as a chance to create an ecosystem, not just of superhero films but ones with fantasy elements. Graphic India has come up with an animated Web series featuring Amitabh Bachchan and a Web-based graphic novel in collaboration with Kapur. By building familiarity and a culture around home-grown comics, Devarajan hopes to make movies on these. Devarajan and Lee’s Chakra is already playing on cartoon channels on television. Trinity Pictures is setting up its own Marvel Cinematic Universe—Eros Trinity Brahmand—where it has employed a group of writers to create “universes and characters before they write scripts”.
Many believe that aspects of superheroes—ideals, science, war, supernatural and existential themes—are all present in Indian history, mythology and literature. All that’s needed is an update. “Even if you leave aside the usual suspects like Hanuman, Ram or Krishna, there are so many other fascinating characters,” says Thakur.
It is important to note that India also boasts of a small but vibrant comic book culture. But its following is limited to the Hindi-speaking parts. Raj Comics’ characters Doga, Nagraj and Super Commando Dhruva mix mythic Indian elements with characteristics of the Western superhero. Considering a large section of writers and film-makers from Bollywood have grown up reading these, it’s surprising that none of the comic book characters have been adapted into a movie. Anurag Kashyap had spoken about making a film on Doga—a vigilante killing machine in the style of Marvel Comics’ Punisher—but the project was shelved after his Bombay Velvet flopped. Raj Comics co-founder and studio head Sanjay Gupta, who has had a number of unsuccessful meetings with producers and studios, says Bollywood is yet to warm up to the idea of licensing comic book characters that come “with detailed universes and visuals ready for the screen”. Raj Comics will be launching its own film production house next year. “We want to start with animated Web series first. We are expecting to make our first live-action film the year after.”
Mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik, however, says there is a fundamental difference between Indian and American heroism. In the former, there is no place for angst, a key element of the genre. The only Indian heroic figure born out of angst, he says, was Bachchan’s Angry Young Man, but that ended with the “licence raj”.
“Changing the world is not a priority in India. We’re seeking magical perfection from the harsh realities of our world. We are more interested in marriage and family, finding love, or to feel macho and proud. Trying to mimic Western structures in Indian narratives is doomed to failure as there’s no emotional connect,” he says. If Pattanaik’s theory is to be believed, the idea of an Indian superhero is an oxymoron. So it will be interesting to see the Indian superhero films figuring out their own idiom.