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January 08, 2020

Why Indian Superheroes Aren’t Faring Well On The Big Screen

Karthik Keramalu examines the causes behind a failing genre in a booming industry

Ever since Dadasaheb Phalke’s silent film, Raja Harishchandra, released in 1913, Indian cinema hasn’t looked back. Over a century, the number of films and genres has steadily increased, and the country now produces around a thousand movies every year, in a spectacular range of languages. While Bollywood easily churns out around 200 Hindi films in a 365-day-period, the Tulu film industry in Karnataka tries to come up with at least 10 to 15 pictures. Films of all scales are made in India — with budgets ranging from 10 lakhs to 500 crores.

Even though the country is catching up to its neighbour, China and to the US, with fantasy and science-fiction productions, the one genre that hasn’t picked up steam is the superhero action thriller. Though Shekhar Kapur’s Mr. India (1987) opened the gates to the idea of a superhero three decades ago, writers seem to be hesitant to continue along that path. The Krrish series, starring Hrithik Roshan, which simply required the character to put on a flimsy mask and save the ordinary folk is, perhaps, the only game-changer that brought some weight to the genre.

Nevertheless, Mr. India did inspire a generation of directors. And, Telugu film-maker K. Raghavendra Rao, who made one of the grandest superhero movies, Jagadeka Veerudu Athiloka Sundari (1990), is no exception. It has great music, impeccable chemistry between the leads, and terrifying villains. The Chiranjeevi- Sridevi starrer has the right mix of fantasy and superhero tropes. For Sridevi, who appeared in Mr. India also, Rao’s vision must have been a cakewalk. While Anil Kapoor as Mr. India was the one with the power of invisibility, in the Telugu film, however, Sridevi’s character was the ‘chosen one’ as she happened to play an angel. The words athiloka sundari, in the title, refer to her beatific features. With the help of a finger ring, which doubles up as a sign of her identity as a non-human, she wreaks havoc on the villains and even brings a young girl back to life from the brink of death.

The Absence Of Coherence And Magic
Many a time, Indian directors treat superhero films as regular masala ventures; they don’t put in enough effort to create an atmosphere of awe and wonder. And, the action looks awfully bland since little care is given to the finer details. The superhero (played by Tiger Shroff) and supervillain (played by Nathan Jones) in Remo D’Souza’s A Flying Jatt (2016) take off to the moon in the film’s final showdown. It has uninspiring special effects and scenes where the two characters argue about pollution — which is what powers the villain.

If you compare this to Boyapati Srinu’s Telugu action film Vinaya Vidheya Rama (2019), in which the hero (played by Ram Charan) single-handedly kills 300 men, you’ll understand why Indian writers don’t need to specifically create superhero films to confer special abilities on their protagonists and antagonists. The need for a hero to wear a mask and suit and have an alter-ego doesn’t arise at all if the protagonist can put 300 weapon-wielding men to death in a matter of minutes without using any otherworldly tricks.

From Clark Kent (alter ego of Superman) to Peter Parker (alter ego: Spider-Man), most of Hollywood’s superheroes follow a code of conduct wherein they don’t reveal their real names. Indian cinema, which has often looked to the West for inspiration, has been trying to make pictures on similar lines, albeit often with an eye on issues concerning corruption and dacoity. These are actually vigilante films dipped in superhero tropes. Vikramaditya Motwane’s Hindi film Bhavesh Joshi Superhero (2018) and Mysskin’s Tamil film Mugamoodi (2012) both have heroes whose strengths include nothing but self-defence, as they’re both practitioners of martial arts.

Unlike the hero of A Flying Jatt, the men in such vigilante films don’t fly or attack their enemies from outer space. They just have a knack of not getting killed while acting as a messiah. And to begin with, they are mere mortals who come into their own to take revenge against the doers of professional malpractice. Their superhero outfits are part of a plan to fool the people standing on the wrong side of the law.

The Fate Of Women
Despite new-age attempts to break the barriers, Indian cinema still hasn’t made room for women in superhero movies. Most of the narratives focus on heroes and villains who’re all, undoubtedly, men. There’s absolutely no space for women’ to ever make their presence felt. Even when there’s Kangana Ranaut in Krrish 3 (2013), she’s not the prime baddie; she’s simply an assistant who follows the commands laid down by a male boss (played by Vivek Oberoi). And she’s made to fall in love with the superhero and become a softie by the end of the runtime. And the only other woman with considerable screen time, Priya (played by Priyanka Chopra), keeps needing the help of Krrish to save her from the clutches of the bad guys.

In Anubhav Sinha’s Hindi offering, Ra.One (2011), the women (Kareena Kapoor Khan and Shahana Goswami) are ignored largely. Kapoor Khan is at least seen shaking a leg in the sizzling number Chammak Challo. Goswami doesn’t get that slice of the pie either. If not for the former’s scintillating steps in that catchy song, nobody would have missed her in the terribly written-and-directed Ra.One.

Roles for women of all ages, in general, are more often than not classified under the ‘love interest’ category in various genres. The situation is just worse in this particular style of moviemaking, as the writers and producers haven’t yet looked towards women as saviours, or perpetrators of crime and violence. They are, without an exception, the victims whose cries pinch the hearts of the heroes. And as is the custom, their pains-and-sufferings are absorbed entirely by the good-natured men so that their decision to squeeze the life out of the thugs, in the climax, is justified.

Hollywood has started training its cameras on female superheroes nowadays. The list is a very short one, but it’s a step in the right direction. In American films, like Wonder Woman (2017) and Black Panther (2018), women have been cast in leading roles or as supporting characters, where they have their own arcs. These ladies get into the battlefield all by themselves and stay till the end. Meaning: they are real heroes who win the wars for their people. How many times has that happened in the Subcontinent?

Indian cinema should find a way to include women, children, and minorities – religious and sexual – of all sizes, shapes, and colours in their stories sooner rather than later. We can’t wait for others to set precedents. We’re certainly capable of being the front runners.

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