The August 25 release A Flying Jatt features Tiger Shroff, fresh from the success of the martial arts comedy Baaghi in April, as a masked vigilante with special powers. Shroff joins a small club of Indian superheroes who can clean cobwebs from unreachable corners when they are not saving the planet faster than you can say “Kick-Ass.” If the Swacch Bharat campaign needs more Bollywood touches to boost its efforts, we recommend this trailer.
Remo’s film is probably hoping to shatter the general perception that the superhero genre that has Hollywood in a vice grip does not always work in India. Our cinema doesn’t need its heroes to conceal their fortune-fuelling faces behind masks and squeeze their abs into shiny suits to defeat their adversaries. Sometimes, a mere look is enough to blow off the baddies.
India has a rich tradition of highly imaginative folk tales, fantasy fiction and comic book culture, but not one truly indigenous superhero. Popular Indian comic book characters, including Doga and Super Commander Dhruva, have not yet inspired meaningful movies. Talk of a Doga adaptation has been doing the rounds since 2008, but the vigilante who wears a canine mask and takes down organised crime in Mumbai has failed to fly off the pages.
Film fans accept insanely high levels of preposterousness from their heroes, but they are generally wary of seeing them in capes and eyepieces. Perhaps this has something to do with the ghastly special effects, derivative plotlines, and unintended parody associated with such films as Shiva Ka Insaaf (1985) and Superman (1989). Both productions are poor Indian cousins of the original Superman movies. The most noteworthy aspect of Raj N Sippy’s Shiva Ka Insaaf is that it was the first Hindi film in 3D at the time after Jijo Punnoose’s Malayalam movie My Dear Kuttichaathan (1984). Jackie Shroff plays the brooding masked hero in a black costume with a trident motif. Press releases drawing connections between this movie and A Flying Jatt, featuring Shroff’s son Tiger, have already flooded mailboxes.
In Superman, writer and director B Gupta puts Puneet Issar in the same suit into which Clark Kent disappears. Gupta, who is also credited with the special effects, rips off the Hollywood original so shamelessly that it is almost endearing. Dharmendra, clad in a blue silken gown, abandons his Krypton-like planet and sends his son in a cardboard star-shaped cradle to Earth to spread the message of peace and love. Issar has visions of his father in his dreams, and he puts his powers to use for the first time when he rescues a hijacked plane. From there on, he is unstoppable.
The other big superhero film of the year soared above the Indian who wears his underpants on the outside. Shekhar Kapur’s Mr India, a supremely entertaining caper with nods to Invisible Man and Superman, stars Anil Kapoor as Arun, a violinist who shelters orphaned children and tries not to get in the way of his grouchy tenant, the redoubtable reporter Seema (Sridevi). A magic bracelet that can make Arun disappear brings him in the crosshairs of the Bond-type villain Mogambo, who wants to nuke India out of existence.
Even Amitabh Bachchan could not resist the lure of the supersuit. During his slump years in the late 1980s and early ’90s, Bachchan appeared as a masked vigilante in Tinnu Anand’s Shahenshah (1988), Ketan Desai’s Toofan (1989) and Shashi Kapoor’s Ajooba (1991). With predictable plots and visual effects creakier than a door that hasn’t been oiled for decades, the films were embarrassments, but not before giving us unforgettable visions of what the Hindi film world considered to be superhero behaviour.
Bachchan’s character doesn’t have magical powers in Shahenshah. He plays a paan-chewing corrupt police inspector by day who slips into chain mail and leather by night and carries a noose to hang around the necks of the unfortunate specimens who dare cross his path.
In Toofan, Bachchan plays twins, one of whom is brought up by a magician. The other boy acquires a magical bow and arrow via the direct blessings of the god Hanuman. Thus equipped, Toofan rides into the heart of trouble along with the dust storm that invariably announces his entry on a horse, his black and saffron cape marking him as a divine soul. Perhaps the best use of his powers is in the climax, when he uses his arrow to hitch himself to an airborne helicopter that carries the man who had killed his father.
In Ajooba, Shashi Kapoor’s beleaguered Indo-Russian co-production, Bachchan plays another masked vigilante in black robes and a silver mask who catches arrows with his bare hands. The character has been rescued from near death by a friendly dolphin, which springs out of the water ever so often and goes by the name “Maa” – thereby proving that whenever Bachchan is around, a strong maternal figure will be somewhere in the vicinity.
Perhaps scarred by these experiments, and awed by the increasingly sophisticated superhero films being churned out by Hollywood, Hindi filmmakers stayed away from the genre in later years. It took improved budgets, and gumption to revisit a film category that is usually associated with B-grade thrills in India. Rakesh Roshan borrowed heavily from Spielberg’s E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) for the family-friendly Koi…Mil Gaya (2003) and followed it up with the classic masked superhero films Krrish (2006) and Krrish 3 (2013). Both movies feature Hrithik Roshan as the black leather-clad vigilante who saves the Earth from peril with lessons from various Hollywood movies, including the X-Men titles.
Abhishek Bachchan also threw his mask into the ring with the disastrous Drona (2008). Directed by Goldie Behl, Drona features Bachchan as a warrior with cosmic powers who can do just about anything except save the movie from being a washout.
The allure of playing a magically endowed hero has seduced Shah Rukh Khan (Ra.One, directed by Anubhav Sinha in 2011) and Salman Khan (Kick, by Sajid Nadiadwala in 2014). One Khan failed where the other succeeded. Ra.One is best remembered not for Shah Rukh Khan’s attempts to play a robot, but for the foot-tapping song Chammak Challo sung by Akon. Kick is yet another Salman Khan movie, in which it makes little difference whether his Robin Hood-inspired character Devil is wearing a mask or not.
Despite the mixed track record of the Indian superhero film, Hindi cinema’s leading men continue to be drawn to the genre. Ranbir Kapoor will star in an upcoming trilogy, no less, by Ayan Mukerji, while Vikramaditya Motwane’s under-production Bhavesh Joshi, starring Anil Kapoor’s son Harshvardhan, is also rumoured to be have a superhero theme.
One of the wittiest perspectives on Indian superheroes is from the documentary universe. Faiza Ahmed Khan’s Supermen of Malegaon (2008) explores the tiny cottage industry of spoof-based films being made in the Maharashtrian town Malegaon. Shaikh Nasir, the director of Malegaon Ke Sholay and Malegaon Ki Shaan, is embarking on the shoot of Malegaon Ka Superman, and Khan is at hand to capture his struggles. The documentary is filmed with tongue firmly in cheek, but Khan is also empathetic towards Nasir and his crew. As Nasir stumbles through the town in his ill-fitting costume in an attempt to get his film off the ground, he provides a vivid snapshot of why the genre will always be an also-ran in a country where the simplest of things requires superheroic effort.