Marvel’s Avengers: The Age of Ultron comes out in India this week, well ahead of its American release on May 1. This is good reason for superhero movie fans to get excited. However, lest we get starstruck by Marvel’s big budgets and special effects, it’s not as though Hollywood is the only place where superheroes are bred.
Bollywood has been concocting its own set of swashbuckling saviours ever since Superman appeared on celluloid. While you wait for the Avengers to reconvene, here’s our selection for the desi version of Avengers, whose awesomeness could easily make Ultron short circuit. Supermen, snake-women, a man who fights stuffed toys, a quasi-alien chap who bends mathematics – the earth has nothing to fear when these heroes are near.
Richard Donner directed Superman in 1978. Two years later, NT Rama Rao decided Telugu cinema needed its own Superman. The costume had same colours although instead of S, there’s H emblazoned on the shirt (maybe it stands for hope?). Bonus: the Telugu Superman has a paunch and more expressive eyebrows than any Hollywood superhero.
Inspired as Hollywood as it may be, the challenges faced by NTR’s Superman were very distinctly local, like men in checked suits and an evil, lustful villainess who raises monsters by slashing her arm and letting her blood drip on the earth. This causes a mini earthquake, out of which emerges a chap who lumbers around, wearing a priest’s cassock and a mask. Don’t miss NTR’s fighting moves.
If you look up B. Gupta, you will realise this is the man who provided the special effects for legendary examples of kitsch, like Jaani Dushman and Bees Saal Baad. Gupta directed only one film, as far as IMDb records show, and it is Superman. It starred Puneet Issar as the hero who can run faster than a train and who was born on another planet where everyone wore hospital gowns.
After seeing Dharmendra in a shiny blue gown (the enormous armholes of which reveal his naked torso from time to time) and Ranjita Kaur in a tiara – they played Superman’s biological parents – one can’t help but feel relieved that their planet imploded.
The dialogues of Superman includes gems like, “Our flight has been hijacked. Please bear with us.” Whether or not they’re more tacky than the action is a matter of personal taste. It’s rare to find a kitschy film that becomes unwatchable even when condensed into 1 minute 23 seconds on YouTube, but this is one of them. You want to make Ultron’s artificial intelligence explode? Make him watch B. Gupta’s Superman.
Sridevi doesn’t get enough credit for having managed what Amitabh Bachchan couldn’t – make a successful superhero movie. (Bachchan had a disaster with Ajooba. See below.) In Nagina, Sridevi played an ichchhadhaari naagin, or a snake that can take human form and the film was an massive hit.
Cursed to become a snake at least once a day, Sridevi’s Rajni is a good wife by day and contact-lensed snake-woman by night. Hunting her down is the evil tantrik, played by Amrish Puri, whose weapon of choice is the been.
The film had all the elements that are now staples of the superhero genre and Sridevi also had some unforgettable dance moves in the song, “Main teri dushman”. Nagina spawned an entire genre of serpentine films, including Mallika Sherawat-starrer Hisss. Move over, Black Widow.
This film had one heck of a star cast: Jeetendra, Rekha, Rishi Kapoor, Mandakini, Anupam Kher and Danny Denzongpa. Jeetendra played one half of a magical snake couple who in their human forms unearth buried treasure (he and his partner have beams coming out of their temples and these beams make the ground split wide open to reveal gold coins etc. No doubt the Archaeological Society of India wished they had Jeetendra’s Sheshnaag while digging around Unnao).
Rekha played an abused wife and devoted sister whose body is possessed by the snake that is actually Jeetendra’s partner. In character, Rekha has some crazy make up and crazier outfits in this film, particularly in the dance sequence near the end. This is the woman you want on your team, Avengers.
Sheshnaag also throws up an optional villain for the desi Avengers: Denzongpa’s evil Aghori. It’s to Denzongpa’s credit that he managed to keep a straight face while saying lines like, “Aghoris were made by Satan. A thousand Satans were killed and set on fire. Their ashes were mixed with the blood of a thousand lizards. A statue was made of this mixture. That statue was covered with crocodile hide. Instead of fingers, it was given scorpion’s stingers and that’s how the Aghori was born.”
Ultron suddenly sounds so bland, doesn’t he?
In this film Amitabh Bachchan as Ajooba did something no superhero as ever done: he fought a stuffed toy. At a climactic moment, Ajooba shows up in a dungeon that is guarded by a tiger. What can he do but fight this ferocious, prowling beast? And so, Bachchan rolls around a dusty floor, hugging an enormous stuffed tiger.
Ajooba was made with a lot of hope. It’s quite obviously an expensive production for its time. One look at the costumes and it seems all the fancy soft furnishings stores were emptied of their jazziest fabrics. Palaces and forts and dungeons were constructed. Plush toys were bought and real animal footage – dolphins and elephants play critical roles in the film – was procured. Oh, and a star cast was assembled: Amitabh Bachchan, Rishi Kapoor, Dimple Kapadia, Sonam, Shammi Kapoor, Saeed Jaffery, Amrish Puri and even Dara Singh.
Ajooba (Bachchan) is the prince of the fictional Bahristan. He is smuggled out when the evil Wazir (Puri) overthrows the king played by Shammi Kapoor. Being a magical kid, Ajooba can’t be strangled or poisoned. And he can fight a stuffed tiger. What more do you need?
Krrish (2006, 2013)
There’s probably an angry rant to be written about Iron Man and Mystique turning into Scrap Heap Man and Chhipkali, sorry Chameleon Woman, in Krrish 3’s Third World context, but rather than expend our energy on negativity, let’s instead celebrate the wonder that is the Krrish saga.
It all began with Koi…Mil Gaya (2003), Rakesh Roshan’s take on Steven Spielberg’s much-loved E.T. The Extraterrestrial. The film’s alien Jadoo was clearly the first cousin of James Cameron’s Na’vi (blue-skinned, big eyed, has healing powers, loves nature – Cameron totes copied Roshan). Thanks to Jadoo, an autistic young man named Rohit became super-intelligent, paving the way for a superhero to be born.
Rohit’s son Krishna made his entrance in Krrish. He’s a very special young man. For one, his appears to be an immaculate conception since his mum was in India getting pregnant while his dad was living in Singapore. Krishna has an IQ that’s off the charts and super strength. With the help of a black raincoat and a cracked mask, he becomes the superhero Krrish. Krrish/Krishna dismissed mathematical logic and returned in a film that should have been Krrish 2 but was titled Krrish 3. In it, he was seen whirling at great speed, leaping across great distances, wrestling with giant tongues and showing off his sculpted bod.
More pertinently for the Bollywood version of Avengers, Krrish 3 had a collection of “maanwar”, or animal-human hybrids. Rhino-man, Ant-man, Cheetah-woman, Frog-man (named Striker) and Chameleon-woman (Kaaya) were an excellent set of baddies. Get them a decent and properly evil leader, and the Bollywood Avengers are set. Ultron, they’re all yours.