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The Return of The Super-Sadhu?

The Return of The Super-Sadhu?

September 05, 2011

Part 2 takes a peak behind the superhero mask and finds there may be an Indian there.

Click HERE to read part 1 of this piece.

Indian audiences are quite satisfied by the larger than life, testosterone fuelled images of sturdy Indian men and woman of the soil - it would seem - to yearn for yet another “Uber-Mensch” (in a cape & mask), when ours will do.

While we may have a surfeit of mythologies to need any more heroes, it’s also true that the technological age we live in is spawning new mythologies. This may also explain why America, more than any other country, originated what we now accept as the “Superhero” genre.

Mythologies lead to superstition, and hence, food for the imagination, and this may explain why there are regional takes on pushing the cinematic envelope into more extreme areas, like fantasy. “Bollywood” has actually been slow on the uptake, favouring “realist” cinema over outright fantasy - recent films, like the Dhoom series, drift close, avoiding the taint of masks and capes, but the inspirations are clear.

A more appealing concept arrived in the 60’s with “James Bond” – a superhero propelled by technology, testosterone, his wits and not requiring a Blue-Screen. This in turn inspired numerous “Bollywood” films featuring secret agents and super-villains in high-tech underground lairs during that era, like Golden Eyes: Secret Agent 077 – culminating (and ultimately fizzling out) in Mr India and its villain, Mogambo.

The journey of the “Superhero” takes in a whole raft of influences – persecution of minorities, the overthrowing of tyranny, writers like Mary Shelley ('Frankenstein') & Nietzsche, 'The Golem' and a bit of Orientalism – all underpinned in the “Modern Age”, by science & technology - not mythology.

When Marvel artist Jack Kirby took to portraying “SuperGods”, it’s clear (to me) the influences are inspired not so much by technology  as the Eastern European folk tales & mythologies which inspired him and a heady mix of Orientalist ideas swirled up in the lava-lamp crucible of the 60’s & 70’s “Counter Culture” era. Perhaps not surprisingly, Kirby went on to design an un-filmed adaptation of sci-fi writer Roger Zelazny’s novel 'Lord of Light,' in which gods of the Hindu pantheon are projected into a futuristic sci-fi setting,  and where magic and technology become indistinguishable – something reflected later in Lucas’ Stars Wars films.

The chief innovation in the Superhero genre in comics or film, seems to be the concept of the masked hero, where before gods and deities went about their business in full view (and often naked). This could be traced to several sources  - the need to hide exceptional qualities which may not be appreciated by wider society, a syndrome which is common in immigrant communities, or sociopathic tendencies arising from some trauma, or alienation.

There is an essentially Judeo-Christian monotheistic outlook which defines, in human form, an invisible, all powerful and mysterious god, but at the same time a borderline sociopath with vengeful tendencies, represented by the masked hero / vigilante of many Superhero comics and films.

The concept of a sociopath, though they undoubtedly exist in Indian society, is a fundamentally alien one to Indians or one that they would prefer to ignore. This is probably because Indians see themselves as living in communities, where nothing is hidden, expressed in the idea of the extended family - rather than loners.

However, this is changing as people become more mobile, move to cities where the population is less homogeneous and become self-sufficient loners - a fertile breeding ground, in fact, for the kinds of paranoia and self-loathing that most superheroes seem to stem from.

Several of the above influences can be seen in recent additions to India's growing interest in the genre and emerge from the urbanized, contemporary settings of modern India, with its growing reliance on technology. In terms of a specific local example of the kind of "outsider" who has existed in Indian society at its fringes for perhaps millennia, you can only really point to the sadhu. And who really wants to be saved by a half-naked guy with a beard and a begging bowl?

In Krrish, the film makers engineered the social outcast as a handicapped child / man, interestingly, placing him (in both films), outside of the typical urban setting of the genre, but cleverly fusing both the masked “avenger” and selfless “saviour” into one – a nod in the direction of 'Superman.'

Where once a singular, all powerful, hero might have sufficed, the genre has grown to encompass the idea of a pantheon – of identifiable gods who existed before the arrival of the all-seeing one-god of the scriptures.

I'm sure that Indians look at all this and think, well, we had a pantheon of super-gods way before the 'X-Men,' and none of them had to wear silly masks. Perhaps it’s merely a matter of time before filmmakers in India tap into these mythologies, over simply following the lead of a Western template translated to an Indian setting.

Where the Western model diverges to create a "family" of vastly different but usually teen-aged angst-ridden outsiders, sometimes held together by a paternalistic leader, the Indian model might only be able to accommodate the idea of a superhero pantheon in  the context of the family. For example, superheroes in the West rarely have relationships (which last) and if they do, they are often troubled. However, pretty much every Indian god had a de-rigueur "consort" - a yin to balance the yang, again, something reflected in both Krrish and Robot. Pixar's The Incredibles was well received in India due to its novel theme of a superhero family.

One thing seems to mark out the Indian approach to superhuman feats, it’s that unbridled over-the-top-ness that only Indians can do so well, it seems. It's the quality that marks out Robot, a film that is gaining followers amongst curious Westerners for its almost naïve cartoon-like approach to superhuman feats and a sense of wonder.

You can imagine a conversation in the ancient world as ideas and mythologies were traded across continents: “So Hercules killed the Nemean Lion? – well, Hanuman lifted a whole mountain…there, top that!"

The cherished dream of Indian film makers and comic artists alike is the crossover, a character or story that reaches Western audiences equally. So far it hasn’t really happened – there’s always a cultural brick wall for Indian Spiderman to slam into and a legacy of negative Western stereotypes of sinister “Orientals” to breach.

Indian superstar Shah Rukh Khan’s superhero film, RA.One, due out this autumn – suggests, visually, an interesting collision of Iron Man and Tron, clearly tapping into the obsessions of an increasingly technology dependant Indian middle class. Very little has been released on what the film is about or how Khan's character becomes a “superhero” beyond some intriguing jump-cut previews of the stupendous feats that are promised.

The clever, if clunky, reference to the Ramayana’s Raavan, with RA.One (“Random Access One”) in the title plays on recognisable Indian archetypes while visually referencing Western superhero films.

Being a product of “Bollywood,” somehow I doubt he will be a loner / sociopath. He will probably cut a mean pose on the dance floor and sing like a rockstar, all with the unmistakeable hint of “Chilli cheese toast” Indian filmmakers do so well and in other hands would just look camp.

So, even if Indian cinema can't legitimately produce its own lasting superhero, I guess we can come to another conclusion - Superman is actually Indian

1 Comment

  • nasreenwaris
    05.09.11 10:29 PM
    nice,i like this article.

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