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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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Rev Up

Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Give Back

Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.



Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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GIFs via Giphy

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.

via GIPHY

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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