In the major cinemas of the world, the superhero myth has, not unexpectedly, evolved to incorporate local or regional ethics or dictates. Hollywood movies transplant the American creed of championing an underdog and a triumph of anything that stands for democracy.
French films veer into a more evolved, post-modern spin on individual liberties often celebrated through human emancipation from economic, social, or even sexual conventions. Hong King cinema, meanwhile, reflects a disenchantment with authoritarianism, and showcases heroes who stand in for a powerless communal spirit that strikes back by employing cunning skills (often based on martial arts) to overcome villains who invariably represent shades of bourgeois hegemony.
To put the Hindi film superhero in perspective, it helps to sketch out a brief historiography of the Indian subcontinent. With a 5,000 year-strong Hindu socio-religious experience that never had a formal “founding,” India developed a highly vibrant and complex religious dogma that established Hindu belief as a core social contract and yet no organized rituals to carry out that belief. The end result was common knowledge; but getting there was somewhat murky. Theoretically, at least, there are as many different ways of “practicing” Hinduism as there are Hindus!
The evolution of Indian mass entertainment in general, and Hindi-language cinema based in Mumbai in particular, can be summed up by a tradition of mirroring core Hindu beliefs manifested in myriad ways. Hindi cinema has its own peculiar persona that adheres to the broader sub-continental mass experience. Therefore, some core convictions can be postulated that are most frequently represented in Hindi films. These are:
• Reincarnation is par for the course. It can be a cosmic pathway for attaining an alternate identity, sense of self, or supreme liberation.
• In the Hindu pantheon, inanimate objects can, and often do, harbor divine energy.
• Characters that coalesce the anthropomorphic and the divine are very common. It is not just cool, but a frequent plot device to have animals take on anthropomorphic or divine characteristics.
• Women, who can often be powerless in the real world, can channel the divine female energy to break social convention and triumph over evil.
In the Beginning: Demi-gods, God-men and Smoke Screens
Starting at the beginning of the 20th century, when the nascent Hindi film business first struggled to get on its feet under a colonial yoke, and approximately up until WWII and India’s independence, the most common vein in Hindi movies was the theme of Hindu mythology. Fantastic tales of myths, fables, legends, and living histories were borrowed from any of the Vedas, theMahabharata or the Ramayana and were produced by the ox-cart loads.
D. G. “Dadasaheb” Phalke is widely credited as having founded Indian cinema. Phalke’s opusRaja Harishchandra (1913) was the first feature-length Indian movie that, incidentally, resonates with superhero glory even today. Even though Phalke failed to break the first taboo of Indian films—the social observance that women could not appear onscreen—Phalke’s all-male cast reenacted a popularMahabharata legend of King Harishchandra’s interplay with the immortals. While teaching archery to his son, the king strays into the dominion of the immortals and is therefore banished. During his banishment, the gods send down three fiery sirens—celestial beauties—to tempt the king into giving up his mortal domain. Unfazed, the king takes on the challenge, wages war, and is just about to lose an epic battle when a deus ex machina—a celestial vehicle literally carrying the gods—descends from the heavens to explain that the entire staging was to test the king’s resolve. Mercifully, the divines restore favor for mankind and peace returns to the cosmos.
As movies evolved, so did filmmaking techniques. A finer tuning for how to deliver power to a mortal character—effectively making them super-powered—and the gadgetry required for special effects seen onscreen became a cottage industry of sorts. Prominent in this field was Gujarat-born Babubhai Mistri, who became the F/X guru for his times. Mistri’s work is evident in Vijay Bhatt’s myth-making adventure Khwab Ki Duniya (1937) which turned on Mistri’s handiwork in a scene where a character become invisible right in front of the camera, making it a sci-fi entry that even modern filmmakers and audiences would admire.
Mistri later started making his own movies, featuring his own trademark special effects. One of Mistri’s better known works was Sampoorna Ramayan (1961), with B-film star Mahipal as Lord Rama. Mistri’s M.O. was the shape-shifting, transitional scene where, for example, the demon Raavan would transform himself into a wise forest-dwelling sage. A puff of smoke in mid-frame and, viola, the hated villain became a wandering mendicant. This tactic was also widely employed to create the onscreen magic of transforming flora into fauna and vice versa.
In Hindu lore, an especially derided figure is that of Surpanakha (“sharp-nailed one” in Sanskrit), the villainess many credit with having ignited the cosmos-shaking battle between good and evil in the epic Ramayana. One of the most striking special-effects scenes from that era, also from Mistri’s Sampoorna Ramayan, featured Surpankha, love-stricken and grotesquely ugly, silently stalking Lord Rama as he forages in the forest. This chilling scene brilliantly foreshadowed a similar chase sequence in Vikram Bhatt’s 2011 3-D horror entryHaunted.
Mistri’s biggest hit was the sensational Parasmani (1963) with the role of Paras played by Mistri’s favorite lead Mahipal. The super-powered Paras must retrieve the fabulous Parasmani diamond from the clutches of the powerful witch queen of the underworld. As a telling sign of special effects to come, Paras’s tasks included dueling with his father on what appears as a cross between a low-tech spaceship and a magical flying carpet. Later there was Vijay Sharma’s Jai Santoshi Maa (1975). What started as a classic B-movie became a cult and box-office mega hit. A faithful devotee of the goddess Santoshi (Anita Guha), a minor immortal in the Hindu pantheon, unwittingly incurs the wrath of the consorts to Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, who in turn make the devotee suffer tribulations to prove her devotion. A highly agitated Santoshi takes to shaking up the pantheon to finally make the Supreme Beings acquiesce—effectively proving that a lesser divinity could intervene on behalf of a mortal to alter fate.Jai Santoshi Maa also showed that the divine class was not impervious to having cat-fights!
Monkey Business: The Tailed Ones Rule
The vastness of the Hindu experience in India also more readily accepts the anthropomorphic transfer of special powers to members of the kingdom animalia. In this context, animals acquire human characteristics—and, depending on who is holding their figurative and literal reins, can be powerful agents for both good and bad. In mythological genre, this power extended to the hansa (swan-like mythical bird), used in Eugenio De Luguoro’sNala Damayanti (1920), and naga (cobra) in Phalke’s Shri Krishna Janmaa (1917), KaliyaMardan (1919) and the Sridevi vehicle Nagina(1986), while the simhan (lion) motif was used both by the great Homi Master in his masterpiece Lanka Ni Ladi (1925) with the depiction of a lioness feeding milk to the story’s wounded shepherd-hero, and R. S. Choudhary’s Piya Pyare(1934) where a cheetah steals away an infant to a brighter future.
The horse has also been a faithful standby for many masked avengers down the years. Indian cinema’s most famous stunt actress-heroine “Fearless” Nadia (born Mary Evans, in Australia) had the ever-present equine Punjab Ka Beta (son of Punjab) as her lighting-speed mount. Punjab Ka Beta was cunning and could “communicate” with head gestures and body language, and was even reliable for nudging Nadia into decision-making within a narrow, astute span of reason. In Wadia Movietone’s Hurricane Hansa (1937), for example, the horse gently pushes La Hansa’s would be paramour (Master Mohammed) into the pond where Hansa is bathing. For Mehbood Khan’s exciting action flick Deccan Queen (1936), while lead Aruna Devi dons the masked-avenger tights to restore her family’s honor, it is her love interest, played by Suresh, who is shackled to train tracks by villains as a speeding locomotive hurls towards him. Suresh is saved in a cinch by his faithful horse that uses his teeth to rescue his master from certain doom. The horse-companion theme continues to modern times which even Bachchan falling back on horse sidekicks in both Mard (1985) andToofan (1987).
There were others. Nanabhai Bhatt (father of Mahesh Bhatt) was a famed B-movie filmmaker who often partnered with F/X master Babubhai Mistri. Their special-effects heavy Sinbad the Sailor (1952) featured a show-stopping scene involving two invisible men in a sword duel seen only through the movement of the swords. In Bhatt’s Police Detective (1960), Pedro the chimpanzee, clad in a tuxedo, was a valuable sidekick in aiding lead cop Sudesh Kumar in solving a murder. Friendly canines have also been used repeatedly as a substitute for singular acts of bravery that transcend their master’s onscreen personality.
Ramanand Sagar’s Zindagi (1964) had Rajendra Kumar’s obedient German shepherd rescuing Vyjantimala after an earthquake. In the drawn out romance between Salman Khan and Madhuri Dixit in Rajshri’s Hum Aapke Hain Koun(1994), a furry, pint-sized pooch stood in for Cupid, ferrying messages between the love-lorn.
Perhaps the two most popular animal tracks in Hindi cinema are those derived from variations of a theme proto-rooted in the garuda (eagle-like vehicle of Vishnu) and vanar (monkey), personified by Lord Rama’s foremost disciple Hanuman, the brave monkey-king. While garuda was seldom depicted as being grounded, the vanars were not beyond getting help in flying, effectively preceding the Winged Monkeys from The Wizard of Oz by about a couple of thousand years. In the ancient texts, a garuda in flight was massive enough to block out the sun. In contemporary lore, an eagle or a hawk most often substitute for the winged compatriot to a key character. Both Pran in Manmohan Desai’s Dharam Veer (1977) and Bachchan in the joint Indian-Russian entry Ajooba (1991) utilized a trained hawk as their trusted sidekick.
On the other hand, the vanar-monkey theme can be entirely summed up by the Hanuman character’s presence in the mythological genre. In Ramanand Sagar’s 1990’s mega-hit TV serial Ramayana, Dara Singh, by far the biggest B-movie stunt actor of Indian cinema, again reenacted the Hanuman character, the same role Singh took on in Veer Bajrang (1966) and Bajrang Bali (1976). The Hanuman character’s super-human strength and obeisance to Lord Rama are fantastically put on display in Mistri’s Sampoorna Ramayana. A jaw-dropping moment—a favorite of every child that has ever heard the Ramayananarrative—is when Hanuman single-handedly lifts up an intact Mount Dronagiri and flies the entire mountain that bears the herbs that will aid an ailing Lakshmana, Lord Rama’s brother. When Hanuman’s faith is put to test, the monkey-faced patron of exclusively-male muscle-building cults both ancient and modern, in a gasp-inducing scene, willingly splits open his own chest to reveal a miniature image of Lord Rama resting there. Surely no other superhero can outdo that!
Girl Power: The Ladies Step Up
Even though women were not allowed to appear onscreen in the earliest Indian movies, as this social curtain began to be lifted, some of the strongest female characters in any genre anywhere took to the screen almost as if in vengeance. As the talkies arrived in the 1930s, the novelty took the sub-continent by storm. The most popular names, each a superstar in their own right, were Durga Khote, Devika Rani, and the popular sisters Zubeida and Sultana. On the superheroine battle-front, meanwhile, exciting films were being made.
When male characters played superheroes, British-controlled censors often took exceptions, especially when male “Indian” characters reacted to aggressive social or jingoistic oppression in thinly veiled commentary against the British Raj. Female leads doing the same dare-devilry that male character were frowned upon were, interestingly enough, slightly more acceptable to the censors. This strange form of “freedom” for female expressions of onscreen aggression played a huge role in emancipating the heroines for our story.
The biggest stand-in for a superheroine from that era was the afore-mentioned “Fearless” Nadia. Her big screen persona was a magical combination of exotic beauty (given her Western looks) and daring-dos. Nadia personified a sublimated sexuality imbedded in the gori (white) “English mem” mentality which played into the “foreign” (hence unattainable) beauty myth. Nadia became an instant box office star and, in era preceding Playboy, a pinup hottie. Not surprisingly, Nadia’s largest fan base was made of male audiences in rural areas!
Nadia’s escapades were chronicled in an unusually prolific career spanning four decades beginning 1933. Partnering with filmmaker Homi Wadia, who Nadia went on to marry, Nadia’s big-screen adventurous served a fitting backdrop to an era leading up to and even after Independence. With entries such asHunterwali (1933), Miss Frontier Mail (1936), Punjab Mail (1939) andHimmatwali (1949), Nadia solidified a whip-carrying, horse-mounted avenger who delivered rescue from a variety of oppressions. Making a social stand inHurricane Hansa (1938), an orphaned Hansa is initially known as “Harijan Hansa,” relegating her to being socially ostracized until she grows up to take her vengeance and becomes known as “Hurricane Hansa.”
Over the years, other leading names have also followed into Nadia’s footsteps. Nadira turned superheroine in Madame Zorro(1962). Not to be outdone by Sridevi taking on superheroine status in Harmesh Malhotra’s Nagina (and its sequel Nigahein), Dimple Kapadia took on the baddies in Avtar Bhogal’s Zakhmi Aurat (1988) and the Ramsay Brothers’ Mera Shikar (1988). No one else, however, has been able knockout “Fearless” Nadia from her perch.
Mask? Check. Cape? Check. Payday? Double-check.
Superheroes of the male variety over the ages have spun off their own trademarks of chivalry, grace (and sometimes disgrace) under pressure and every imaginable outfit. In the age of a long-gone studio system where the biggest starts threw their lots behind lucrative exclusive gigs with a major studio, the biggest name to cash in on the genre—and by far the biggest stunt superstar in Hindi and Marathi films—was the dashing Master Vithal. Starting out with a bit role as a dance-hall girl in Baburao Painter’s Kalyan Khajina(1924) back when onscreen girls had to be, er, boys, Master Vithal went on to follow the Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckling mold and then eventually capitalized on his own delivery of a masked daredevil champion of the oppressed.
Over a 50-year career, Master Vithal’s most prominent roles captured a quintessential, fully fleshed out superhero in every sense of the term. In Sharda’s Suvarna Kamal (1926), Master Vithal offered himself as a masked adventurer on a magical quest for a golden lotus that would be used to neutralize the wrath of the angry goddess Mahakali. The special effects—considered spectacular at the time—featured the superhero battling 100-feet tall, realistic-looking genies that, understandably, were not ready to relinquish their treasure. After Master Vithal, there was Dara Singh, Master Vithal’s B-film counterpart. With an incredible array of cheaply churned stunt entries (Tarzan Come to Delhi, Tarzan & King Kong, King of Carnival), Singh’s playbook was nothing short of prolific. In Babubhai Mistri’s King Kong (1962), his best known role, Singh played a mysterious strongmen discovered in a forest. The muscleman must battle the local king, who, unbeknownst to the youth, is really his father.
The arrival of television to rural India in the 1960s and 70s, in a proliferation that transformed the subcontinent’s entertainment, led to an openness—and even a slight Westernization—observed in the myths and cultural spaces that the superhero milieu was allowed to explore. Better special effects were also being experimented with. There was Shantilal Soni’s Mr. X in Bombay (1964), one of the best known Hindi sci-fi entries—thanks mostly to Kishore Kumar rendering an especially creepy invisible dude stalking Kum Kum while crooning the classic number “Mere Mehboob Qayamat Hogi.”
In the 1980s, with the first true relaxing of trade barriers brought about by Rajiv Gandhi, there was wholesale import of international influences that mixed with local flavor for some memorable superheroes. Bachchan’s masked-avenger turns in Tinnu Anand’s Shahenshah (1988) and Ketan Desi’s Toofan (1989) finally raised the superhero to the megastar perch. Shekhar Kapoor’s Mr. India(1987) unleashed the invisible-hero motif to a box office sensation and even Dharmendra got into a masked-avenger alter-ego in T. Rama Rao’s Khatron Ke Khiladi (1988). In an unusually transparent homage to a Hollywood icon, B. Gupta’s Superman (1987) offered Puneet Issar in the lead. Sent into intergalactic exile by his well-meaning father (Dharmendra) from their home planet and adopted by a benevolent farmer (Ashok Kumar), the hero-child grows up to take a newspaper reporter job while secretly battling the dreaded would-be usurper (Shakti Kapoor).
Over the last decade, the biggest superhero entries have been Hrithik Roshan, acquiring superpowers in Rakesh Roshan’s Koi Mil Gaya (2003) and Krrish(2006), and Shankar’s Robot (2010) with Rajnikant and Aishwarya Rai. All these entries were huge box office hits, proving that the superhero genre, an Indianized amalgamation of values, beliefs and dogmas unique to the subcontinent, are both alive and can thrive without ever endangering the breakneck pace of modernity India as a country is otherwise chasing.
This then brings us to Anubhav Sinha’s Diwali 2011 release Ra. One, starring Shahrukh Khan. Yes, Ra. One features the biggest Hindi-language superhero entry to date. Yes, it also has the biggest marketing tie in and the—relatively new for India—merchandizing tie-ins that include everything from caps to notepad PCs with the film’s logo. Yes, Ra. One, the title, is a play on Lord Rama’s ancient nemesis, the dastardly arch-demon Raavan from theRamayana. Held up against the mirror of the millennia, however, and barring a special effect or two, surely Ra. One can not truly offer anything that unique under the sun. And yet, we’ll all likely go see it!
Globe trekker, aesthete, photographer, ski bum, film buff, and commentator Aniruddh Chawda writes from Milwaukee.
Aniruddh’s Top 5 Hindi Superhero Flicks
1) Deccan Queen (1937): Mehboob (Mother India) Khan’s hit stunt entry featured a princess/superheroine who takes on a secret identity to vanquish her kingdom’s power usurper. Her vehicle of choice: a faithful horse.
2) Mr. X in Bombay (1964): Surprisingly well-made sci-fi entry with a disappearing hero and a first-rate Laxmikant-Pyarelal songfest.
3) Koi Mil Gaya (2003): A coming of age of the disabled youth who turns the tables by transforming himself with the help from a cuddly extraterrestrial.
4) Mr. India (1987): An erotically charged Sridevi dance (“Kaate Nahi Kat Te”) in a show of longing for an invisible hero and Amrish Puri’s Mogambo, the most memorable villain of the 1980s. Who can ask for more?
5) Parasmani (1963): A swashbucking B-movie that hit the box office in an F/X extravaganza with a chart-bursting Laxmikant-Pyarelal score.