It was advertised as “The Star event you have been waiting for!” When Amitabh Bachchan was at the peak of his career in the 1980s, he was launched as a crime fighting superhero called Supremo in a comic book series published by India Book House. Other titles under its Star Comics banner included Laurel and Hardy, Superman and James Bond 007.
Adventures of Amitabh Bachchan was the result of an incident that IBH publisher Pammi Bakshi witnessed while she was standing in the balcony of her flat (or so the story goes). Bakshi saw a group of children playing in the compound of a neighbouring building. One boy declared he was Superman and could fly. Another said he was Batman and could scale any building. A third declared he was Amitabh Bachchan and could beat up ten baddies with one hand.
A little while later, in 1983, Bakshi met Bachchan on the sets of the movie Pukar in Goa, where she convinced him to lend his name to the comics. Bachchan’s Pukar co-star, Randhir Kapoor, used to call the actor Supremo, and the moniker seemed like a memorable name for a comic-book character.
Bakshi recruited her friend, the writer and director Gulzar, to be a script consultant on the series. It was more difficult to convince Pratap Mullick, an illustrator with Amar Chitra Katha, to agree to draw the comics. Mullick was not interested in popular cinema, and had not even watched any of Bachchan’s films.
Once Mullick had been persuaded, he watched Bachchan’s movies and devised between eight and 10 costumes for Supremo’s character. Bachchan approved one – a pink, fitting outfit with a wrap and holster and a pendent around his neck. Supremo does not have any obvious super powers, but simply happens to possess the right combination of strength and intelligence.
The series took off with an adventure called The Lost Idol. Supremo discovers an old ship at the bottom of the ocean and rescues an idol that had been stolen from a temple in 1660.
The Phantom comics were among the most popular in India at the time, and the Supremo series could not escape the influence of the Ghost Who Walks. Supremo wears large sunglasses that hide his eyes, just like the masked man from Bangalla, and owns a private island with various animals living in harmony.
In a tribute to Bachchan’s screen persona, Supremo looks after two boys, named Vijay and Anthony after the actor’s most iconic characters. When Supremo is in his non super-heroic avatar, he is seen shooting with Manmohan Desai or Prakash Mehra, both directors who shaped Bachchan’s career. He is even seen making a film with Gulzar, a partnership that had no parallels in real life.
The comic series also borrows a character from Desai’s Coolie: the falcon Allahrakha. The bird is rechristened Shaheen and often carries news of a new assignment to Supremo.
While Gulzar wrote the initial comics, actor Sudha Chopra and others worked on subsequent issues under Gulzar’s tutelage. Initially, the scripts were sent to Bachchan for approval, but he never interfered with the text or the illustrations in any way. He did make one request: that the comics be sent to hospitals, orphanages and welfare organisations.
Other episodes saw Supremo rescuing a planeload of children from hijackers, saving the world from aliens, preventing himself (that is, Amitabh Bachchan) from being kidnapped, stopping a child adoption racket, and reforming the dreaded dacoit Malan Devi. The highlight of the series is Supremo discovering the secret of the lost city of Atlantis – a city that according to the comic, faked its own disappearance.
Adventures of Amitabh Bachchan was published for two years. But after Bakshi got married and left India, the series came to a halt.
The series inspired similar comics in southern India, featuring Rajinikanth in Tamil Nadu and Mammootty in Kerala. The sporting superstar, Sunil Gavaskar, got his own set of adventures as a crime fighter, but Sunny the Supersleuth folded up after three issues. After all, not even Little Masters can match the Big B.