Truth, Justice and the South Asian Way

This past weekend, like millions of fanboys (and fan girls) around the world, I went to see that hot new superhero movie -- not the one you are thinking about, the one with that guy from the planet Krypton. I went to see the other one -- Krrish. Krrish is what some are calling the first superhero movie to come out of India and it is playing across the United States -- not at the local multiplex or even the art house but in small ma-and-pa run theatres which cater to the local south Asian population. Most of these theaters don't advertise in your local paper so if you are wondering if it is playing in your city, check here. Krrish is a huge box office success in India -- having more than doubled its production costs in its first ten days in theatres -- and there is already speculation that it will be the first of a long running superhero franchise.

In its broad outlines, Krrish features much which will be recognizable to American comics and superhero fans: a larger than life, too honest to be true, ruggedly handsome protagonist who becomes a masked crusader while hiding behind a secret identity; a plucky female reporter with a tendency to get in over her head; an evil scientist bent on global domination; lots of high voltage action sequences; and a headline-chasing publisher/network executive who is more interested in unmasking the hero than celebrating his contributions to civic virtue. There's even a moment of painful choice when the protagonist has to choose which of two loved ones he will save from a certain death.

This being a Bollywood production, there was a lot more -- spectacular musical numbers (including one at a circus which quickly turns into an action sequence when the tents catch on fire), broad physical comedy, intense melodrama, romantic scenes, and so forth. What many western fans love about Bollywood movies is their tendency to bundle together as many different genres as possible and to play them against each other to create an extended (3 hours plus) evening of entertainment. Another pleasure is seeing familiar formulas get transformed as they are rethought for the Asian market.

An Indian Superboy?

Much like the western Superman who has been read as an embodiment of national myths and ideals, there is much which speaks to the specifically Indian origins of this particular story.

For one thing, the early signs that young Krishna may have superpowers come when he turns out to be a protégé at sketching and then confounds the teachers at his local school with a spectacular performance on his I.Q. exam. The American counterpart would have led off with his strength, his speed, or maybe even his X-ray vision but having a superior intellect has rarely been a prerequisite for becoming a superpower in the western sense of the term. Throughout the film, in fact, the other characters consistently cite his "talents" but rarely his "powers" as if he were destined to become an extremely gifted knowledge worker (and indeed, it turns out that the ethics of knowledge work for hire are at the center of this epic saga.)

His special powers are modest by western standards, though spectacular enough by local standards. Much like the original Superman, he covers vast distances through long leaps but doesn't actually have the ability to fly. He can scale a mountain peak as if it were a series of stepping stones. He can run faster than the local horses. He can reach into the river and yank out a fish with his bare hands. And he can speak with the animals and get them to do his bidding. And, in several sequences, he demonstrates his superiority, Gandhi style, by withstanding enormous physical and emotional abuse without resorting to violence.

As with the western Superman, his adventures begin when he lives the small town (village) where he was raised and move to the city but in keeping with the modern era of South Asian Diaspora, he goes not to Metropolis but to Singapore in pursuit of the woman of his dreams, who turns out to be not only a modern working girl but a Non-Resident Indian.

Krishna must adopt a secret identity in order to do good deeds when he comes to the city because he must remain true to a promise he made to his grandmother -- there's a lot in this film about the obligations the young owe to their elders. In a move almost as unconvincing as that bit when nobody recognizes Clark Kent as Superman because he took off his glasses, Krishna masks his identity by adopting the superhero name, Krrish. (Of course, there's something of a joke being made about Singapore's reputation for multiculturalism when the public is quickly convinced that the South Asian superhero might actually be ethnically Chinese and go under the name Christian.)

The villain turns out to be Dr. Arya, the heads of a global information technology empire, who has made his reputation for his contributions to wireless mobile telecommunications, but seeks to develop a supercomputer which will allow him to see his future. He has built the original machine by exploiting Krishna's father -- another supergenius, who like his son, gains his powers from contact with a visitor from another planet. The wonderful machine functions like the magic devices of so many classic folktales: it shows just enough of the future to convince people to tempt their fate but they are always blindsided in the end.

A Global Production

The film was conceived and directed by Rakesh Roshan, who had previously created Koi...Mil Goya which he claims to be the first science fiction film produced in India. We get some glimpses of that earlier film here through flashback sequences and there is much which will remind you of E.T. Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and the Green Lantern. As one Indian blogger notes, Krrish merchandise is holding its own across Asia with competing goods for the new Superman movie -- though she notes, both sets of products are actually made in China.

Westerners are going to be tempted to read the film as a symptom of cultural imperialism -- taking a strongly western genre and trying to sell it back to the American market. But that's too simple -- especially given all of the ways I've identified above that the superhero genre gets reworked to speak to specifically Asian values and concerns and the ways it gets mixed with other genre elements which are more closely associated with the Bollywood tradition.

Rather, we should think of this as a global cultural product, all the more so when you consider that the action sequences were directed by Tony Ching, the Chinese-born fight choreographer who worked on such PRC films as Hero and House of Flying Daggers; the special effects sequence were developed in collaboration with Marc Kolbe and Craig Mumma (whose work was featured in Godzilla, Independence Day, and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow) as well as a range of India-based effects houses, and the second half of the film is set amid the futuristic landscape of Singapore, including a sequence featuring the world famous Orang from the Singapore Zoo (who is identified in the film as Mao, perhaps appearing under a stage name).

As CMS alum Parmesh Shahani, a longtime observer of the Bollywood industry, explained to me:

This film has been made with loads of co-operation from the Singapore govt. Obviously some countries (Singapore, Switzerland, etc) have realized the vast reach of Bollywood - and want to tap into this. They are first movers and are thus gaining the tremendous equity that comes with this. Tourism is the most obvious thing that comes to mind that Bollywood films can promote - but bear in mind that Krrish also positions Singapore as a corporate center, a media center, and a center of cutting edge research and development - all the things that the Singapore authorities want to promote Singapore as internationally. So they're using Bollywood very savvily - as one more node to spread their very consistent brand message.

Hoping to capitalize on South Asian interest in the film, the Singapore tourism agency has organized a Krrish tour.

If you want to read more about this film, check out this New York Times story

Back Story: Indian Comics

The release of a South Asian superhero film comes as western comics fans are increasingly being drawn towards Indian comics. While comics are a worldwide phenomenon, superhero comics were until recently almost exclusively an American genre. Superman and Spider-Man's overseas appeal were totally dwarfed by the Phantom, an adventure comics figure largely forgotten in his home market but enormously successful across the southern hemisphere. The Indian comics market is dominated by Amar Chitra Katha, a comics publisher that primarily taps the country's rich historical and mythological traditions.

I have been told that there is also a lower-class local tradition of superhero comics -- many of them appropriated and reworked from western iconography -- but it is hard to get information on such comics here in the United States. (If there are any readers out there who know about such works, I'd love to hear from you.)

More recently, the American comics publisher, Marvel, collaborated with the India-based Gotham Studios to create Spider-Man: India, which depicted the adventure of the Mumbai-born Pavitra Prabhakar in his struggles against the Green Goblin who is the reincarnation of the ancient Indian demon, Rakshasa.

Even more recently, there was the announcement by Virgin of the creation of a new animation studio and comics publisher which will be introducing South Asian content into the global market. Japanese manga now far outsells U.S. produced comics even in the American market and other Asian publishers hope to follow their example. We can expect to see more Indian influences on comics in general and superheroes in particular in years to come.

And we can point to a growing number of western comics which have self-consciously displayed a South Asian influence, including Peter Milligan's Rogan Gosh, Grant Morrison's Vimanarama, Warren Ellis's Two-Step and Antony Mazzotta's Bombaby, the Screen Goddess.

Krrish is probably not the film that is going to open the western market for Asian-produced superhero movies (though there's lots to entertain western fan boys like myself.) But then, the Indian film industry outperforms Hollywood across Asia and many other parts of the world so they aren't exactly standing by and waiting for our approval. It's their party and they can fly if they want to.

Special thanks to CMS alums Parmesh Shahani and Aswin Punathamberkar for their help in preparing this post.