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Reinventing the Superhero for Bollywood

Reinventing the Superhero for Bollywood (photo)

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The highest grossing movie in Hindi film history is 2008’s “Ghajini,” the story of an amnesiac who carries out his revenge against the people who killed his beloved with the help of an elaborate system of Polaroid pictures and tattoos. Sound familiar? “Ghajini” is actually a quasi-remake of Christopher Nolan’s “Memento,” one of Bollywood’s many unauthorized, Indianized editions of Hollywood films, which include everything from “Jagged Edge” to “Powder” to “Fight Club.” Being a huge nerd, my first thought when I discovered the American influence on Indian cinema was: what does a Bollywood superhero look like? Turns out the characters themselves closely resemble their American counterparts, though their movies bear some striking differences.

In India, superhero flicks are also very much masala films, which freely combine various (and, for Western audiences, incongruous) genres in the fashion of the blend of spices from which the term comes. Tragedy and comedy commingle in a world that can be a broad farce in one scene and a violent thriller the next, with those signature musical numbers thrown in. The motivation’s the same as the one that drives most Hollywood tentpole filmmaking: to create a movie that caters to the widest possible audience. But where Hollywood tends to go for broad appeal by smoothing out any and all idiosyncrasies in their product, a good masala film revels in quirkiness — each movie literally tries to be everything for everyone.

Take, for example, “Mr. India” (1987) one of the earliest and most endearingly popular superhero films. Faster than a speeding bullet, the opening careens through enough genres for five movies: police and government officials discuss a crime wave, a cartoonishly evil supervillain announces plans to destroy India, a professor teaches his class about the theoretical possibility of turning a man invisible, a poor violinist cares for a house full of orphaned children and a frustrated newspaper editor yells at a reporter. The main character is actually Arun, a violinist (played by “Slumdog Millionaire”‘s Anil Kapoor), who, as it turns out, is the son of the professor’s colleague who actually invented a bracelet that could turn the person wearing it invisible, and who, as it turns out, lives on the very plot of land that the supervillain Mogambo (“Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom”‘s Amrish Puri) needs to take over the entire country, which, as it turns out, also happens to be the spot where the troubled reporter (Sridevi) winds up living as a boarder, despite the fact that she hates kids and Arun’s house is full of them. Gah, even just typing it, I’m out of breath.

As a hero, Mr. India fits into the Spider-Man mold: a scientific experiment grants an average Joe with a mess of responsibility the power to do something about it. In this case, Arun acquires his father’s long lost invisibility device, declares himself “Mr. India” and sets out to stop Mogambo from stealing his land and ruining his country. Like Spider-Man — and the rest of the heroes we’ll discuss in this piece, not to mention most superheroes in general — he’s driven by father issues; losing his father at a young age inspired Arun to become the caretaker for as many orphans as he could rescue from the streets of Bombay.

07102009_Mr_India.jpgThat army of wretchedly adorable tots highlight just how wildly the tone can shift in a masala film. In America, any movie with a dozen sprightly kids riding bicycles built for 12 and singing songs would get auto-categorized as a movie for children. But “Mr. India” has some content clearly aimed at adult audiences, including gruesome fates for several characters and a shockingly sensual musical number between an invisible Kapoor and rain-soaked Sridevi that culminates in a roll in the hay both literal and figurative. Credit director Shekhar Kapur, who went on to direct “Elizabeth” and “The Four Feathers,” for blending all the disparate elements into a satisfying meal.

Interestingly, beyond his bedazzled invisibility bracelet, Arun has no special crime-fighting costume. While this might make him the first superhero in international history to defeat his archenemy while wearing a sport coat and rumpled fedora, the unusual sartorial choice carries its own thematic weight. As it develops, Mr. India’s battle with Mogambo takes shape as a metaphorical class war, with the villain representing a greedy, exploitative upper class as the hero proudly announces himself to be “an ordinary Indian.” Dressing their Mr. India in indistinct clothes only emphasizes his status as a regular guy fighting the good fight.

The following year, Bollywood offered a more traditionally attired (though similarly opinionated) superhero, the title character of “Shahenshah” (1988), played by Amitabh Bachchan. By day, he’s Vijay, a bumbling police inspector. By night, he’s Shahenshah (which means “king of kings” or “emperor”), a brutally serious vigilante who corrects the corrupt Indian judicial system’s oversights. If you’ve ever called B.S. on Lois Lane not recognizing Superman once he dons a pair of glasses, you’ll love Shahenshah, who goes the whole nine yards to fully disguise his secret identity, including a gray wig and spirit gum beard to go along with his leather and chainmail getup. It’s a realistic and clever way to hide his face — one I’m surprised that American comics haven’t adopted. Shahenshah’s even got a signature weapon: the noose that his father used many years earlier to hang himself. Seriously: Shahenshah is hardcore. Do not mess.

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Hacked In

Funny or Die Is Taking Over

FOD TV comes to IFC every Saturday night.

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We’ve been fans of Funny or Die since we first met The Landlord. That enduring love makes it more than logical, then, that IFC is totally cool with FOD hijacking the airwaves every Saturday night. Yes, that’s happening.

The appropriately titled FOD TV looks like something pulled from public access television in the nineties. Like lo-fi broken-antenna reception and warped VHS tapes. Equal parts WTF and UHF.

Get ready for characters including The Shirtless Painter, Long-Haired Businessmen, and Pigeon Man. They’re aptly named, but for a better sense of what’s in store, here’s a taste of ASMR with Kelly Whispers:

Watch FOD TV every Saturday night during IFC’s regularly scheduled movies.

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Wicked Good

See More Evil

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is on Hulu.

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Okay, so you missed the entire first season of Stan Against Evil. There’s no shame in that, per se. But here’s the thing: Season 2 is just around the corner and you don’t want to lag behind. After all, Season 1 had some critical character development, not to mention countless plot twists, and a breathless finale cliffhanger that’s been begging for resolution since last fall. It also had this:

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The good news is that you can catch up right now on Hulu. Phew. But if you aren’t streaming yet, here’s a basic primer…

Willards Mill Is Evil

Stan spent his whole career as sheriff oblivious to the fact that his town has a nasty curse. Mostly because his recently-deceased wife was secretly killing demons and keeping Stan alive.

Demons Really Want To Kill Stan

The curse on Willards Mill stipulates that damned souls must hunt and kill each and every town sheriff, or “constable.” Oh, and these demons are shockingly creative.

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They Also Want To Kill Evie

Why? Because Evie’s a sheriff too, and the curse on Willard’s Mill doesn’t have a “one at a time” clause. Bummer, Evie.

Stan and Evie Must Work Together

Beating the curse will take two, baby, but that’s easier said than done because Stan doesn’t always seem to give a damn. Damn!

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Beware of Goats

It goes without saying for anyone who’s seen the show: If you know that ancient evil wants to kill you, be wary of anything that has cloven feet.

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Season 2 Is Lurking

Scary new things are slouching towards Willards Mill. An impending darkness descending on Stan, Evie and their cohort – eviler evil, more demony demons, and whatnot. And if Stan wants to survive, he’ll have to get even Stanlier.

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is now streaming right now on Hulu.

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SO EXCITED!!!

Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”

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IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?


Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!


Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.


Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 

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IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.