CURIOUS HISTORY OF A HIGH-FLYING MOVIE GENRE THAT FAILED TO TAKE OFF IN HINDI CINEMA
The superhero genre may be the most profitable in the world right now, but Bollywood has mostly taken missteps over the years.
That is why most can’t name any film beyond Mr India or Krrish when it comes to great Hindi cinema superheroes. But this week’s big-budget Bollywood release Brahmastra is hoping to change all that with a special-effects laden spectacular about a young man able to manipulate fire, who takes on dark forces of evil. Ranbir Kapoor, Alia Bhatt, Amitabh Bachchan and Nagarjuna headline a film that could potentially be a game-changer for Indian cinema. One of the main reasons for this is because Bollywood has got it horribly wrong for so many decades and this could be a turning point.
The first famous caped crusader of Hindi cinema appeared in 1935 action movie Hunterwali, which saw stunt heroine Fearless Nadia playing a masked vigilante. The successful film spawned a sequel and a series of similar movies with a high-jumping heroine. Other stars not being able to do similar acrobatics meant the exciting genre got stifled.
Then with invisible man movies Mr X (1957) and Elaan (1971), Bollywood added a sci-fi element to the extraordinary hero. Both films were surprisingly ground-breaking for the time but couldn’t kick-start the craze of superheroes. Reasons for this included high costs involved with special effects and the lack of ideas.
Producer-director Rajkumar Kohli decided to make something music-loving Hindi audiences could connect with by looking at Indian mythology for his 1976 film Nagin and delivering what was essentially the first anti-superhero. The story of shape-shifting cobra, able to transform into a beautiful woman and going on a revenge mission, became one of the year’s biggest blockbuster hits. The lead protagonist transformed in the same way a superhero would and had deadly powers. Nagin had a huge star cast, akin to what is seen in successful superhero films today. This would inspire other successful snake-inspired films and smash hit TV serials. Perhaps wrongly, it was not seen as part of the superhero pantheon but ticked those same boxes.
Action being the dominant genre during the 1970s and Amitabh Bachchan the biggest star by far led to an interesting innovation in the early 1980s. The short-lived comic titled Adventures of Amitabh Bachchan saw him have a superhero alter ego named Supremo. The comic, which ran for two years, became hugely popular and saw him go on various superhero adventures.
The popularity of the comic, available in both Hindi and English, combined with superheroes taking off in Hollywood with films like the Superman franchise, led to Bollywood producers trying to get some of the high-flying action.
Unfortunately, a lack of budget and ideas led to a series of heroes in camp costumes that were cringe-worthy and unintentionally funny.
Jackie Shroff played a Zorro-like character in a mask in Shiva Ka Insaf (1985), which was billed as Bollywood’s first 3D film. Unfortunately, the film had ropey special effects and a silly costume, which is what happened with other bad films of that era. This included Amitabh Bachchan box office disasters Toofan (1989), which was a rubbish crossbow-wielding Hawkeye-type of hero, and the Arabian Nights-inspired Ajooba (1991).
Meanwhile, Dharmendra attempted a Batman-style vigilante character named Teesri Adalat in the film Khatron Ke Khiladi (1988), which was a surprise hit despite his ridiculous costume and lack of any superpowers.
For the 1988 film Dariya Dil, Govinda and Kimi Katkar dressed up as Superman and Spiderman in laughable costumes for the song Tu Mera Superman. That song has widely been ridiculed across social media in recent years.
But the genre hit rock bottom in Bollywood with the truly awful Superman (1987). An unofficial remake of the 1978 Hollywood film of the same name, it destroyed an iconic superhero with a silly costume that looked like novelty pyjamas, awful special effects, and a wooden lead actor, who generated laughs instead of excitement. Silly comedy, musical numbers, and horrible sets made this an absolute stinker. The naughty producers even lifted a few clips from the Hollywood original.
The popularity of romance and comedy in the 1990s killed off the superhero genre from evolving (and not being laughable).
Govinda attempted to reignite it with Maharaja (1998), where he played a hero who could control animals. Unfortunately, he looked more like a comedic Crocodile Dundee than any kind of hero.
Just when audiences thought the science fiction genre was over, Koi Mil Gaya (2003) took everyone by surprise and introduced the first alien into Hindi cinema. The Rakesh Roshan-directed blockbuster was a significant game-changer because of the great special effects and hit sequel Krrish (2006), which introduced the first proper Bollywood superhero and correctly ticked all the boxes. This was followed by the less successful Krrish 3 (2013) and a fourth instalment is on the way. Muscle bound hero Hrithik Roshan playing the role added credibility to it.
Alag (2006) tried introducing a paranormal aspect to the genre, but largely failed due to the poor choice of leading man and ropey screenplay. That momentum was halted badly by epic disaster Drona (2008), which intended to kick-start a franchise and merchandising. But the film was so bad that it did huge damage to the superhero genre and largely killed the career of lead star Abhishek Bachchan.
Shah Rukh Khan attempted to add a new element with the ambitious Ra.One (2011), but the interesting idea, unique superhero, and impressive special effects were let down by awful writing that didn’t make much sense. The film and any hope of a franchise died.
Marvel legend Stan Lee co-created Indian superhero Chakra: The Invincible, which premiered on TV in 2013, but it was short-lived and didn’t make that intended big leap to movies.
Zokkomon (2011) offered something new with a kid superhero, but poor directing, and a lack of marketing made this a wasted effort, despite it having the right intentions. Other efforts like Mr X (2015) and A Flying Jatt (2016), were visually decent, but again let down by bad writing and directing.
Children’s film Sniff (2017) and vigilante action-drama Bhavesh Joshi Superhero (2018), interestingly, offered a new dimension with decent enough efforts, but just didn’t attract audiences.
All these hits, misses, and horrible misfires have led to Brahmastra. The mega-budget movie has been eight years in the making and has the kind of special effects never seen before in Indian cinema. If the film succeeds, then its effect will be transformative, but if it fails then it’s back to the drawing board.