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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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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.

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Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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