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.

Comments

  1. For those of us in Boston and Cambridge ths summer, Krrish is currently playing at the Somerville Theatre in Davis Square - take the Red Line to Davis, take the right-hand exit out of the T stop, step through the set of doors on your right, turn right a third time and wham! There you are. Great little indie theater, cheap tickets and really great popcorn to boot. Their site is here: http://www.somervilletheatreonline.com/

  2. saurabh says:

    Apart from Amar chitra kathas, there are many other local comic publishers, prime among them being Diamond comics(with ‘chacha chaudhary’,etc) and Raj Comics(‘Nagraj’,’Super Commando Dhruv’,’Doga’ etc.). You can easily find homepages for them on Internet through google.

  3. It was fun watching Krissh and Superman..

  4. don’t want to nitpick, but its actually Ah Meng the world famous orang utan from the Singapore Zoo.

    apart from that – great article.

  5. Re the other superhero comics you mention: there were a series of comics called ‘Tinkle’ (which may or may not be published by Amar Chitra Katha, since it was a big publishing superhouse in these matters. The name Amar Chitra Katha, by the way, is loosely translatable to something like “Eternal Pictorial Stories”).

    The Tinkle comics folks, if I remember correctly, ran a series called Chacha (Uncle) Chaudhury and Sabu, which is about the exploits of the wise old Uncle Chaudhury (a prototypical North-Central Indian village elder) and his giant friend/crony Sabu. The adventures of these two are strikingly different from either the Phantom comics (which I remember well from my childhood) style, which dealt with very human antagonists, and from the Superman style of fantastic superheroes and opponents. Chacha Chaudhury’s fantasy structures were as far as I can best recall rooted in Hindu mythological principles – while there were magic powers and feats of human (giant?) prowess, they were very much taken from the classical Indian mythologies and epics, as well as a good sprinkling of folktales. That is, to say, the relations between entities, and sources of power were immediately comprehensible in terms of the other quasi and religious narratives that we as children were familiar with, even though the settings in which these challenges were enacted were modern. As far as graphic style goes – I’m basing these on memories of more than 13-15 years ago – the settings were usually in a cross between metropolitan and small town places, detail free (the streets were clean and sparse, not a realistic depiction at all, and very similar to the pictorial styles used in introductory language textbooks for kindergarteners, probably because the same artists were employed in both cases), and carried no clearly identifiable urban/westernised symbolisms. The stories themselves were simple episodes, and rarely, if ever carried on over volumes.

    I believe there were also other such ‘superheroes’ in comic form, and again only rarely did these superheroes from different storylines meet each other, unlike the tightly intertwined storylines of the justice league(s).

    In addition to the mythological and quasi-urban superhero lines, there were also comics featuring anthropomorphized animals – these were very explicitly urban, and were of the usual (in an very indian style) children’s stories, detailing rather exquisitely I now think, the travails of a young child in a bewildering, confusing, and changing urban cultural landscape. It strikes me that many of these stories resonated with similar themes from the movie industry, and may even have been inspired by them, but that’s only my conjecture.

    Hope this helps. If you tap the Indian community a little, I’m sure you will be able to dreg up some copies of these now almost invisible – post Harry Potter – cultural artifacts.

  6. Oh, and another thing: Krrish may not actually be the first superhero movie to come out of India – but it may be the first in which the hero has inherent (as opposed to technologically provided) powers. Something like Mr. India may or may not count as a superhero movie (this one’s akin to Batman), but it certainly seems to fit the pattern.

  7. I blogged about Indian Superhero comics here.

  8. Patrick Redding says:

    The description of Krissh’s (comparatively “quiet”) superpowers reminds me a bit of Salman Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children”, which uses a number of superhero tropes metaphorically to explore 20th century South Asian history and politics. Well worth the read, particularly as an intro to Rushdie.

  9. chandra says:

    Why is henry jenkins important?

    There is a story about krishna, the indian god that EVERY lover he had saw a unique side of him and NOONE saw him completely.People who did were too devastated to be his lover any more.

    I was reminded of this story because, in his krrish writeup(academically sound as it is) you can see more bollywood love than actual depth in commentary.

    This is not a usual “NRI is irritated with the silly comments of a white guy” talkback, because I’m sure Mr jenkins is not an ordinary silly white guy,nor am I an NRI.

    The comment was prompted by an almost neo lawrencian (a techno-lawrencian?) tone to the review which like all orientilist critics of asian art is both alluring and irritating at the same time.

    Kudos for all the homework done, though….may your tribe increase.

  10. Krissh trailer can be seen here

  11. Yes, but did you like it? It was atrocious.

  12. in several sequences, he demonstrates his superiority, Gandhi style, by withstanding enormous physical and emotional abuse without resorting to violence.

    IMO this was’t so much Gandhian as Bollywood formula– the good guy has to be unequivocally white hat.

  13. The Indian blogger (youth curry) you linked to is “she” not he.

  14. zbelljegger says:

    “For one thing, the early signs that young Krishna may have superpowers come when he turns out to be a protégé at sketching…”

    I think you mean “prodigy”, not “protégé”.

  15. Diwakar says:

    Did you notice this? The Indian version of Spiderman wears a north Indian outfit. That’s north Indian narrowness for you. The villains are postmodern versions of rakshasas. A very Hindu thing.

  16. Actually, when creating Superman, the first thing written down was “A genius in intellect”. Strength was second to this…

  17. I’m in Bangalore right now and have been very curious about people’s conversations about both Krrish and Superman Returns. They’re both very much must-see movies for everyone I’ve met. (Given the people I’m likely to meet, this “everyone” is middle class.) Most have seen one or the other, with plans to see the one they haven’t, when they manage to get tickets. I’ll report back once I’ve seen them to say more about the scene and buzz…