Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Asli Superhero

[This was written for Lifestyle Trends - on the stands now, with an abridged, edited, slightly different version:]

Some people like their lives humble, unfervored and unexaggerated. Others are fans of Bollywood. It is for these others that I intend my blanket declaration:

There is a Hero Hiralal in each one of us.

Someone who loves films simply, with a glad heart and starry eyes. Someone who can suspend all belief but in the heroism of the hero.

Of course, like all other heroes, our Bollywood heroes perform good and noble deeds. They enroll in universities to protect damsels. They refuse to elope with lovers until families consent. They let fiancées go to be with their true loves.

However, they are usually doing something more, something greater than the merely extraordinary: something far beyond the abilities of us ordinary mortals. Take Amitabh Bachchan in Mard, who is seen performing the goddess' aarti using his palm as a lamp. We wouldn't try this, not unless we're crazy. Or Captain Planet.

The Americans understand why certain figures violate the laws of physics. They're blessed with powers and abilities beyond those of normal humans that let them fly, see in the dark, lift off entire buildings and hurl boulders - and with great power, we know, comes great responsibility: that of being Superheroes. But Bollywood heroes are neither relocated extraterrestrials nor rich do-gooders with cool accessories. So what gives?


The earliest films made in India centred round the legends of gods and goddesses, spirits, sages and demons. This mythology, through centuries of telling and retelling, grew into a "universal psyche" that allowed Indians to be comfortable with the existence of superhuman powers. It was also the most accessible source for creating new ways of storytelling about a new principal: the Indian film hero.

The American superhero emerged in the 1930s, a decade shaped by economic and political crises, as a protagonist of escapist adventures where the American public could imagine a world not trounced by forces beyond their control. He was usually a white, middle to upper class, heterosexual, professional, young-to-middle-aged man, ready to pull his weight to do good and fight evil, but clearly privileged.

The Bollywood hero comes into his own in the 1970s, once more a decade of economic and political turmoil. Yet again, he magic carpets the audience to a universe illusory - but located among the People. He is either a migrant from a small town or village or the lost son of atycoon, and becomes the voice and the muscle of the marginalized.


The one cliché that marks out a superhero in the American comic book is his secret identity. His credibility is assured by a colorful persona complete with a colorful name and a colorful costume.

Indian heroes, however, do not need a secret identity. Bruce Wayne might need one to protect his loved ones from retaliation from his enemies, or Peter Parker, to preserve a private life. But such considerations have never bothered the Indian film heroes. There can be no "private life" in India shorn of obligations towards the family, society and state, and it is desirable that each hero willingly join the pantheon of inspirational figures for the young. What, if not this, is the point of heroism?

Further, our heroes are far too valiant to battle under false pretences. I can imagine Sunny Deol gagging with embarrassment and contempt at the thought of needing a disguise to protect his mother. My brawn, he would drawl, can beat any adversary upfront, face to face.

Mr. India, of course, has been an exception to this rule, but this is because it was a conscious parody of masala elements from Superman, James Bond thrillers, Disneyesque adventures as well as The Invisible Man. Its release in 1987 was closely followed by the only othercredible Bollywood superhero films: Shiva Ka Insaaf, The Indian Superman and Shahenshah.


Another media where numerous superheroes spawned in the 1980s was the Indian comic. With liberalization under way, there was an altogether new class whose children aspired to know Superman and his indigenous counterparts better. What is incredible is how so many indigenous superheroes derived their inspiration from Amitabh Bachchan, the reigning megastar. The most famous of them all is Bahadur, a shaggy-haired, bell-bottomed dude in Diamond Comics, but there were also Anthony Gonsalvez and Supremo (with sidekicks Vijay and Anthony).

There is no room for doubt about the Indian public's emotional attachment to its heroes. And why not? Jai of Sholay may not be any more or less courageous than Spider-Man, but he blows up bridges and decimates thugs without spider-webbing wrists. This makes him moreobviously heroic. He also dies soon after, and this makes him more poignantly heroic.

The thrall of ordinary mortals with extraordinary abilities: that's the thrall of Bollywood. Heroes who are content saving a family, a village, a girl; who don't obsess about saving the world. Heroes who don't look uncomfortable and itchy in costumes in fan-pictures takenwith us. Heroes whom we can look upon with affection and pride: jaise apne Dharam pa!

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