Let’s face it, up until the last decade, the “Indian Superhero” was in a pretty shabby state, post the global success of Superman in the early 80’s, which proved without a doubt that this type of genre had the potential for runaway box-office success. Indian audiences had to make do with a long line of paunchy, baggy panted, poorly blue-screened contenders who would probably never get past one round with your average Mexican masked wrestler.
You can still see several laughable (but strangely entertaining) examples on YouTube – stand-out films include Shiva Ka Insaaf, with Jackie Shroff as a part-time caped avenger with quasi-mystical powers, and Mr. India, which starred Anil Kapoor as a Chaplinesque tramp who finds an invisibility ring.
Mr. India isn’t properly a superhero film, if you take the view that a superhero is some kind of masked vigilante, perhaps with superhuman powers. However, it does owe a lot to comics, and it was a big success in terms of this type of story gaining acceptance from an audience whose loyalties sat squarely with the song and dance romance film which typifies “Bollywood.
Prior to the 80’s, it’s not as if the idea of the superhero simply never entered the minds of Indian cinema goers. While on holidays in India as a kid, I can remember reading comics picked up at train stations, by now already yellowed by the sun. Those comics helped relieve the boredom of long journeys as the train rumbled across the dusty Ghats, filling my head with the exploits of 'The Phantom & Mandrake,' etc & more familiar 'Superman.'
These inspired several attempts at home grown superhero comics, and had typically inventive lurid cover art.
It’s only in the past decade that anyone in Indian cinema has seriously considered the idea of a “home-grown” superhero, which is odd considering the rich legacy of mythology which features characters whose exploits are superhuman, to say the least. I guess it’s inevitable, when you take on board the issue of creating a character that will resonate with an Indian audience, that you build in the appropriate cultural sign posts that will hopefully lead to acceptance.
The film makers of the 60’s and 70’s were defeated by jerry-built blue screens (made from household blue paint mixed with pork fat to aid adhesion, if a British VFX supervisor who worked in Indian films is to be believed) & second rate scripts, not so much the A & B list actors who they had roped in to add conviction to an already shaky & derivative patchwork of ideas pilfered from whatever Western fantasy film was current.
As with most contemporary superheroes, technology finally came to their aid in both crime-fighting and film-making. Suddenly gymnastics and spandex were given a whole new dimension as the technology caught up with the light-years-ahead imaginations of decades of comic strip artists.
Hard on the heels of Hollywood superhero extravaganzas, we have seen the hugely successful Koi Mil Gaya and Krrish, by Rakesh Roshan. Both films set a benchmark for quality visual effects alongside strong writing, as the third film in the series is being eagerly awaited by fans. More recently, there was the genre mash-up blockbuster Robot – a thundering juggernaut of a film taking no prisoners when it comes to tackling superhero and sci-fi genres alongside the more recognisable USP of typical “Bollywood” masala.
Right now, Indian film makers are wetting themselves in anticipation to take advantage of international tie-ups with the originators of their favourite superhero films to spin-off more local flavoured content. Disney, for example, have recently released a kids superhero film entitled Zokkomon in India.
Interestingly, despite being thought of as a genre for kids, it has taken two films geared towards the general audience before anyone thought of tackling a superhero film aimed specifically at a younger audience. But that can only be a good thing, since, in line with the development of comics into a more “mature” art form in the West, it’s more likely to be taken seriously as a genre.
As superhero characters appear in cinema in India, comics and graphic novels of a home-grown variety are also springing up in their supersonic wake, leading to the growth of fan conventions and self-published comic art – all of which feed into other media. All good stuff, but my only beef is the lack of distinctly “Indian” superhero characters that don’t just riff off the already established Marvel / DC, and therefore very American, brand of superhero, and don’t require the strapping on of a rocket-pack in the form of an international tie-up.
In comics, books and films that have emerged from India to date, the influences are more than obvious, and have been swirled into the end product with varying degrees of success & artistry, while struggling to retain the crucial cultural reference points required to avoid alienating the audience. Personally speaking, I think the comics have been less successful than the films, which is a curious inversion of how comics & films developed elsewhere.
Where the films appear to be more sure-footed in their depiction of superhero characters in an Indian setting, the comics have struggled to reconcile local mythology with elements which derive from American comics, resulting in something which, for me, sits uneasily on the page.
The Indian film tendency to borrow, often wholesale, visual concepts from Western cinema, usually due to a lack of decent writing – leads to a sense of deja-vu – even in the most successful recent genre films. Much the same problem exists with the few (but growing) genre writers in India. Some recent re-imaginings of Indian mythology in a fantasy setting can’t avoid simply transliterating scenes from Western fantasy films to fill in the gaps instead of trying to come up with something new.
Superheroes tend to be born in an hour of need, whereas gods are ever-present & immutable. As tastes and threats change quicker than the iterations of Batman’s costume, one casualty is the popular notion of Indian film stars as minor deities, so perhaps they need to up the ante. But what values remain for them to uphold? What new threats are they required to respond to, by donning a mask and a gimmicky outfit? I think we need to call the Bat-Phone…
To Be Continued….