Friday, September 19, 2008

Return of Mr. Superman (India, 1960)

Long before more notorious Bollywood interpretations of Superman there was Return of Mr. Superman, a no-budget feature written, produced and directed by Manmohan Sabir. Unfortunately for Sabir, there was also Superman, another take on the apparently not so-all-American-hero directed by Mohammed Hussain during the very same year, which, like Return of Mr. Superman, also featured Jairaj in the title role, in addition to Nirupa Roy. Sabir's film originally bore the same title as Hussain's, but after that film's producer, Ram Dayal--evidencing a very selective attitude toward the primacy of intellectual property rights--raised objections, Sabir changed it to the somewhat confusing moniker that it's known by today. I say "confusing" because Return of Mr. Superman is by no means a sequel, and devotes quite a lot of time to the retelling of the already oft-told tale of how the Man of Steel came to be.

But before that retelling, Return opens in classic Z movie fashion, greeting the audience with a deluge of miscellaneous stock footage that lasts a full seven minutes. Much of this is comprised of "savage nature" type scenarios in which animals are shown attacking one another in the wild, and, sadly, the VCD's lack of English subtitles prevents me from relating to you just how exactly the voice-over narration ties all of that into the story that follows. Once the film library has apparently been exhausted, we're shown how little Jai crash lands on Earth and is taken in by a kindly farmer who raises him as his own. In the following scenes depicting the early manifestations of Jai's nascent superpowers, audience expectations are lowered appropriately in preparation for the special effects-free anti-spectacle to come--this being a Superman film in which we don't get to actually see Superman fly until the very end, and then only very briefly. Young Jai, it seems, is able to wrestle children who are slightly older than him quite well, and also to cause a stock footage cobra to slither away by blowing at it. Oh, and there's also the X-Ray vision.

Jai, we'll see, never loses his baby fat, and grows up to be portrayed by Jairaj. Now a big city reporter, Jai spend his downtime romancing his comely office mate Usha--the film's version of Lois Lane played by Shiela Ramani--but when trouble rears its ugly head, dons his Superman garb and takes to... well the nearest anonymous-looking rural location for some pretty uninspiring fisticuffs with some amateurish stuntmen. Interestingly, Jai's super garb is comprised of an aviator's cap and goggles and coveralls, which makes this version of Superman look--if you'll allow me to go into Full Nerd for a moment--more like the World War II era comic book hero Spy Smasher. My guess is that this change is the result of a desire less to avoid infringing copyrights than to avoid the expense of making a Superman suit by just using whatever was at hand. Anyway, the villains here are that unstoppable scourge of India, smugglers, and, as Superman foes go, they're a pretty pedestrian lot--nowhere near the caliber of Lex Luthor, though certainly more appropriate to the downsized scale of this particular rendering of our hero.

From start to finish, Return of Mr. Superman's brims with visual evidence of poverty row production values, from the cramped cardboard sets to the aforementioned tendency to stage action sequences in indistinct open fields like in a low-end old school kung fu movie. Those action scenes, furthermore, are very few and far between--certainly much less that one might expect in a movie putatively concerned with Superman--and lead to a lot of padding in the form of long scenes of dialog, as well as quite a few musical numbers. The songs, credited to "Santosh-Bakshi-Kaif-Sabir", are mostly pleasant but unremarkable, though Jairaj and Ramani share an acappella number that is quite lovely and disarmingly sweet in its picturization. Choreography is, not surprisingly, bare bones--and those lured to this one by the promise of Helen will be disappointed. Despite most sources--including the VCD sleeve--crediting her as a performer, she's nowhere to be seen. (She is, I believe, in the Mohammed Hussain Superman film, which I think accounts for the confusion.)

Though the siren song of Return of Mr. Superman's novelty might be hard to resist, I'd file this one in the "Todd watched it so I don't have to" pile. It has its share of ramshackle charms, but I think you'll find that they've been stretched mighty thin by the end of the two hour running time.

Superman mocks your attempts to watch his movie.


Anonymous said...

LOL @ "ramshackle charms"---must remember that one.

And actually once again, your funny review is no doubt better than the film. Thanks for making it possible for me not to have to sit through it :-)

Todd said...

My pleasure. (Well... you know what I mean.) We all have to take one for the team sometime. Given your enthusiasm for mining the obscure, I'm sure you would have gotten to this one eventually if I hadn't. And you know what? Even if you had panned it as badly as I did, I probably would have watched it any way. It's kind of a sickness, really.

Anonymous said...

Argh! If Spy Smasher Superman ever tried to save me from evildoers, I think I'd prefer to take my chances with the evildoers coz I don't think my nerves could handle that face, um, mask.

As for the opening montage of unfriendly animals - could it be something akin to the opening monologue of Tridev? In which case Superman isn't just an intergalactic refugee with a messiah complex, but a real full blown messiah who has come to deliver earth from its current state of bestiality.

Todd said...

That's an interesting idea. But if this fellow is the messiah, we're in even worse trouble than we thought.