No film industry that lays claim to colorful escapism the way India’s does can do so without putting forward its fair share of ridiculously garbed costumed heroes. I’ve encountered quite a few of these magnificent creatures in my day (though I’m sure far from all of them), so I thought that -- given that I’m feeling a bit lazy in the lingering haze of the just completed Tweet-a-thon -- my doing an informal survey of the topic might be a good investment of the minimal effort I feel like devoting to it. Let’s proceed!
SUPERMAN: It’s no surprise that Superman is beloved in India, certainly not least because he is goddamn Superman. But also because his supernatural abilities so resemble those of the heroes of Hindu religious epics -- such as the awesome Hanuman -- who, through appearances in everything from movies to comic books, have also become fixtures of Indian popular culture. As far as I know, India’s first screen adaptations of the Man of Steel were a pair of low budget productions released in 1960, both of which starred the actor Jairaj in the title role despite being the products of completely different outfits. One of these was Mohammed Hussain’s pragmatically titled Superman, while the other, directed by Manmohan Sabir, bore the more puzzling moniker Return of Mr. Superman, a direct result of pressure put upon Sabir by the producer of Hussain’s competing version. As you can see from the pictures above, Return of Mr. Superman’s interpretation of its titular hero (that’s Mr. Superman to you) stays well shy of honing too closely to the original source material.
Far less liability-averse were a couple of adaptations that came along during the 80s. These included the 1980 Telegu language version that is often referred to as "Telegu Superman" (and which is helpfully reviewed here by my colleague Tars Tarkas), and 1987’s notorious “Hindi Superman”, which went so far as to swipe actual special effects footage from Richard Donner’s mega-budget Superman, The Movie.
GURU (1980): Though basically a remake of Dharmendra’s 1973 thriller Jugnu, this Tamil language film sought to set itself apart via the inclusion of the pictured pink garbed caped crusader, who shows up in one scene to dazzle a slack-mouthed gang of hoods with his acrobatic skills before disappearing from the picture altogether. Mission accomplished, Guru.
SHIVA KA INSAAF (1985): The mid 1980s saw something of a mini-boomlet in Indian superhero films, with Shiva Ka Insaaf standing out as something of an early adopter. Shiva Ka Insaaf was also India’s second 3D film, and its first in the Hindi language. Star Jackie Shroff appeals to the god Shiva for super powers and gets them, along with a somewhat ill fitting leather costume. Other than the religious overtones, this is another pretty straightforward retelling of the Superman story, complete with Jackie taking the guise of a socially challenged reporter and Poonam Dhillon taking on the role of a serially-imperiled Lois Lane figure. Given the 3D process involved, it will surprise no one that Jackie’s super powers mostly involve throwing things directly into the camera.
MR. INDIA (1987): The superhero boom of the 80s was no doubt due in part to the success of this charming crowd-pleaser, in which Hollywood’s current favorite Indian, Anil Kapoor, uses the power of invisibility to defend Mother India from a vaguely provenanced foreign boogeyman (is “Chino-stani” a word?) played by Amrish Puri. Hail Mogambo!
SHAHENSHAH (1988): The road back to superstardom after his ill-advised detour into politics was a hard one for Amitabh Bachchan. Perhaps hoping to piggy-back on the success of the aforementioned Mr. India, his rapid-fire spate of late 80s comeback vehicles included not one, but two costumed hero capers. The first of these was the moderately well received Shahenshah, in which Bacchan played a Batman-style costumed vigilante. Unfortunately, I have yet to see this film -- though I intend to remedy that in 2012 -- and thus have yet to review it… by which I mean make fun of it.
TOOFAN (1989): But I have made fun of this one! Here Amitabh prays to Hanuman to aid him in avenging his father’s murder, and, in return, the monkey god turns him into a caped crusader complete with a nifty crossbow that looks like it came fresh off the rack at Sports Chalet. This is one of those movies that sounds like it would be a hoot when described, but in reality is a dispiriting slog. Avoid yar!
AJOOBA (1991): And rounding out Amitabh’s trilogy of cinematic superheroism is this odd Russo-Indian co-production, in which the Big B plays a righteous masked rider. But what you’ll really want to see this movie for are all of the bizarre creatures and weird special effects, which are plentiful. The happy ending to all of this, of course, is that Bachchan did eventually regain his foothold on superstardom and has not looked back since. Since then, he has refrained from playing any superheroes, but he has played the Progeria-stricken child of his own actual son, so I’ll let you be the judge of whether that’s a change for the better or not. (Both MemsaabStory and Beth Loves Bollywood are big fans of Ajooba, and are happy to tell you all about it in their equally erudite and entertaining reviews if you just follow the links.)
KRRISH (2006): Either I’ve missed out on some Indian superhero movies from the 1990s, or audiences of that era were having a hard enough time dealing with Karisma Kapoor’s outfits without also having to confront the spectacle of grown men in day-glo tights. In any case, in the 00s the superhero returned to India’s theater screens in big budget style with this loose sequel to 2003’s Koi… Mil Gaya. Heartthrob Hrithik Roshan plays Krishna, the inheritor of super powers that were given to his father by an E.T. Graced with enough state-of-the-art CG effects and wire-assisted stunts to make it almost indistinguishable from a crap Hollywood film, Krrish met with enough favorable audience response to merit two sequels -- which makes me wonder why I only barely remember watching it.
RA.ONE (2011): Admittedly I have yet to see this one, in which Shah Rukh Khan apparently plays a hero with some kind of Tron-based powers. Though I never thought about it before, the advent of Ra.One made me wonder why SRK waited so long to take this route.
DARA SINGH: It’s impossible for me to compose a list like this without mentioning beloved wrestler-turned-stunt-film-king Dara Singh. Although I don’t know of Dara ever starring in what could be described as a traditional superhero film, the man is something of a superhero in his own right, and, in keeping with that, many of his films have a fittingly comic book-ish feel. Included in these are pictures in which he played everything from Tarzan, to Flash Gordon-style space jockeys, to Zoro-like masked riders, all of which guarantee that, mask or no, his are films that provide all the breezy, cheesy thrills that any superhero movie fan could ask for.