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Thursday, July 07, 2022

Chacha Choudhary, Nagraj, Super Commando Dhruva: The league of extraordinary gentlemen

Two decades after Shaktimaan became a cult show on Indian television, a look back at desi superheroes who struck a chord with their audience. Will their time come again?

Written by Manik Sharma |
Updated: October 1, 2017 12:19:55 am
Something clicked about Shaktimaan from its premiere.

In September 1997, Indian television witnessed a curious phenomenon with the arrival of a desi superhero on the small screen for the first time. Shaktimaan, whose first episode was aired on Doordarshan on September 13, 1997, was the story of a caped superhero who went about saving the world from greed and evil. “Even the Mahabharata took a month or two to catch people’s attention. But something clicked about Shaktimaan from its premiere. In fact, once it took off, we realised that people, mostly children, wanted to listen to Shaktimaan’s opinion on real-life issues as well. So, we began incorporating a bit of that as well,” says actor Mukesh Khanna, who played the character on screen. Shaktimaan’s alter-ego was Pandit Gangadhar, a geeky photographer at a paper called Aaj ki Awaaz. His superpowers were the result of kundalini yoga, a meditational technique that activated the body’s chakras and helped summon power from the five natural elements.

Twenty years on, as Khanna prepares to don the red velvety suit again in 2018, he says Shaktimaan was a game changer for one simple reason: “It worked because it showed that even a common man could be a hero. It made him special,” says Khanna.

Khanna has a point. Long before Chhota Bheem and Mighty Raju took hold over young minds, Shaktimaan came to exert an influence that was unheard of at the time. After the 2001 earthquake in Gujarat, for example, Khanna was asked by the central government to distribute relief material dressed as Shaktimaan and organise camps for children. “I still remember, a woman came up to me in a school and said that her son did not drink milk until I talked about the importance of protein and calcium at the end of an episode. It was, as if, I wasn’t even an actor any more. I was, quite literally, Shaktimaan in their eyes,” he says.

But, as Spiderman would say, “With great power, comes great responsibility.” In Khanna’s case, this manifested in more ways than one. With time, the fandom turned ugly. Reports of children setting themselves on fire or jumping from rooftops so Shaktimaan could save them began appearing on national news. The offices of Doordarshan and the Information and Broadcasting ministry started receiving court notices about the violence shown in the programme. Eventually, Khanna was forced to do instructional monologues as part of the airtime. In 1999, the show was briefly taken off air.

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Shaktimaan eventually rolled into oblivion after over 400 episodes. Since then, the narrative of the Indian superhero has been waiting, quite literally, for a bright spark. But, that spark, if you look back in time, came well before Shaktimaan, even before the likes of the Star Trek-inspired Space City Sigma (1987) and films like Mr India (1987) had stamped the Indian conscience with ideas of futuristic gadgets and a more cerebral form of heroism. And, it arrived on paper.

In the summer of 1984, Sanjay Gupta and his brothers sat watching television in their home. Their father had founded Raja Pocket Books in 1982, a pulp publishing house that did brisk business. But for Sanjay and his brothers, Manish and Manoj, television had already fired their imagination. “We used to watch shows of Spiderman and discuss what an Indian superhero would look like and the powers he would have. One day, my father walked in on our conversation, and, some time later, Nagraj was born,” says Sanjay. Since then Raj Comics has helmed the superhero genre on paper for over 30 years.

Chacha Choudhary and Saboo Chacha Choudhary and Saboo.

Even though comics in India pre-dated the creation of Nagraj, they tended to either mine folklore as in the case of the India Book House-owned Amar Chitra Katha or humour as in Diamond Comics’s Chacha Choudhary.

In the years following the creation of Nagraj, the Gupta brothers and their publishing house went on to create several other superheroes such as Super Commando Dhruva, Doga, Bhokal and others. Though these characters seemed largely inspired by Western models such as Spiderman (Marvel Comics) or Batman (DC Comics), they occupied a definitively Indian space; from language to cities to the problems they solved. Super Commando Dhruv, for example, operated in the fictional town of Rajnagar, and unlike most other heroes in the Raj Comics universe, neither had superpowers nor an alter-ego — he depended purely on his athleticism and intuition. Doga, an orphan from the streets, turned into a vigilante crime fighter, wearing a dog mask to conceal his identity. And long before Harry Potter excelled in Parseltongue, Doga could communicate with dogs at ease. In fact, Doga’s fan following was such that film director Anurag Kashyap had long expressed his desire to shoot a film on him, until the project fell through in 2013.

The exploits of these superheroes skyrocketed the popularity of Raj Comics in the early Nineties. It set up distribution chains as far as Bangladesh and Nepal. Despite the southern part of the country having a relatively small chunk of Hindi readers, Sanjay, 50, who now runs the business along with his brothers, says the sales in the region were great. “A handful of editions went on to a million print runs. We had even started publishing in languages other than Hindi. We did special editions in Bengali, for example. At that time, our first print run was set at Rs 3 lakh. We always had re-prints available. If you count the fact that a large chunk of these editions were rented and not bought, the readership was probably higher,” he says.

With liberalisation and the advent of cable television and other forms of entertainment, however, Raj Comics suffered in the mid-Nineties. “I would say it was video games that distanced youngsters from superheroes to begin with. Of course, reading has declined anyhow. But a generation that had carried Nagraj and Dhruv on its shoulders had to now grow up, go to high school and give time to other things,” Sanjay says. The entry of foreign publishers and the mechanics of marketing and distribution brought challenges that were insurmountable for small-time Indian publishers. “When wealthy conglomerates came into the country, they offered shopkeepers the opportunity of higher profit margins. The margins on a bottle of Coke were higher than that on a comic. So, obviously they would stock that instead of a comic book. A child who could easily find a comic book near his house had to go far to get one,” says Sanjay.

India’s three-decade tryst with the genre, however, has not limited itself within the borders. Captain Nemo — or Prince Dakkar — a science fiction character created by Jules Verne, was re-modelled as a hero in Alan Moore’s DC Comics series The League of Extraordinary Gentleman in 1999. Nemo, born to the Raja of Bundelkhand, was captain of the Nautilus, a submarine far ahead of its time. The film adaptation of the comic, in which Naseeruddin Shah played Nemo, came out four years later in 2003 but sank without a trace.

Gupta and Khanna believe that the reason behind these failures is the self-defeating tendency of emulating the West. “We are 30 years behind the US. If your superhero wants to exist in the future, it cannot. We simply aren’t there yet,” Khanna says. But while Khanna believes that the Indian hero has to connect with those outside urban centres — something actor Anil Kapoor’s outing as an accidental hero in Mr India (1987) did with great success — Sanjay is of the opinion that the future Indian superhero has to be a global citizen; that soon, he or she will have to become powerful enough for a New York or a London to be saved by them.

Super Commando Dhruva (L) and Nagraj. (Courtesy: Raj Comics)

Thus far, the narrative of the Indian superhero was largely male-centric. With the exception of Anupam Sinha’s comic character Shakti (first appeared in 1998), Raj Comics stayed away from balancing the status quo; shows like Captain Vyom (1998) that tried to hitch its wagon to Shaktimaan’s popularity, continued in the vein of male heroism.

In popular culture, in order to tell locally-inspired stories, heroes have traditionally risen from circumstances of adversity. In India, these conflicts arose foremost through class inequality and the marginalisation of religious and caste minorities. “One of the things that the superhero comics are great at — as with other kinds of speculative fiction, such as sci-fi, fantasy and alternate history — is addressing serious sociological issues in a way which can avoid being preachy or didactic, yet still illustrate thoroughly and even entertainingly the problems,” says comic book writer Scott Peterson. In the 2000 Batgirl annual issue, a yearly initiative by DC Comics for its writers to explore new heroes from around the world, Peterson brought to life Aruna Shende, perhaps, the first Indian Dalit superhero. “It seemed to me a superhero series which addressed the caste system, if done skillfully, could be both enlightening and gripping. I spent a week reading every book on India our library had. Which is when I came across the concept of the Dalit for the first time. The moment I read about an entire enormous group of people who were (at least at one time, as I then understood it) literally untouchable, I thought, right, that’s my new hero’s background,” Peterson says.

In the comic, Shende, born to Dalit parents, is a stuntwoman in films by profession and a shape-shifting superhero on the side, who calls Mumbai her home. She assists Batgirl in saving a kidnapped child. Unfortunately, the character only appeared in three editions, as Peterson moved onto other things.

Back home in India, the arrival of Marvel and DC, whether it was in animation form or as books in the late Nineties gave something for the ambitious Indian filmmaker to aspire to. Rakesh Roshan tried reviving his son Hritik Roshan’s career as the flying superhero, Krrish (2006). Despite its mega-investment and star cast, it remained a city-only, multiplex-limited, urban phenomenon. Years later, Shah Rukh Khan’s Ra One (2011) fared even worse. Other instances of superhero films such as Drona (2008) failed outright. Though VFX, technology and the capacity to invest have improved, these metrics alone do not guarantee success.

Founder of Comic Con India, Jatin Varma, on the other hand, has a different opinion. “I think we need to understand what the superhero means to us. India needs its own unique superhero, not a copy of Batman or Superman. We have a treasure trove of mythologies and that can come in handy. Knowing your audience is crucial in India. Mythology can lead to the birth of heroes who are niche but who have an India connect — look at the success and popularity of Chhota Bheem, for instance; a poor copy of the characters of Marvel and DC will only make their futures unsustainable,” Varma says.

Aruna Shende was, perhaps, the first Dalit superhero.

Given the popularity of DC and Marvel in India, there are indicators that there may well be a potential goldmine at the end of this ongoing search, which delivers not only on the commercial front, but also in creating something truly memorable. With that in mind, New York-born media entrepreneur Sharad Devarajan, who brought DC and Marvel to India in1998, co-founded the company Graphic India (GI) in 2011. “I believe that in the same way the West has created superheroes or Japan, Korea and China have exported their anime, manga, manhwa and other original styles of storytelling to the world, India has the potential to become one of the biggest creative exporters of comics in the years ahead. The next JK Rowling, Steven Spielberg or Stan Lee (the man who co-created Spiderman, Hulk, Thor, Iron Man and the X-Men among others) is sitting somewhere in India,” Devarajan says. His company works across platforms (digital, paper, animation) and is most popular, for bringing to life the superboy Chakra, a character created for India by Marvel Comics’ editor-in-chief, Lee, in 2011.

Devarajan echoes Gupta and Khanna when he says that to draw superheroes that will live on they have to be someone people can care about. And for that, a sideways step can help. “We don’t see ourselves as people in the ‘comic book’ or ‘television’ business, we see ourselves as people in the ‘storytelling’ business. There has never been a better time to be in the storytelling business with so many ways to bring stories to an interconnected digital universe,” he says. A majority of the world that GI has been developing, he says, is inspired by Hindu mythology. “We have seen Greek myths permeate popular culture through numerous films such as the Clash of the Titans, The Immortals, etc. There is no doubt that the Mahabharata has the power to captivate a global audience if executed properly. Great stories like that don’t belong to any one culture,” Devarajan says.

That said, whether it is Chakra, empowered by a suit (that activates his chakras), or Shaktimaan who received his powers from the chakras, there is still a glaring emptiness of stories around those who, perhaps, need them most. Will the minorities of India get a hero of their own? Graphic artist Appupen, who has mined the superhero genre in his RashtraMan, says it won’t happen soon. “The prospect would definitely be more interesting if it helped ask new questions and weave new stories. But let us not forget that the genre itself is mainstream. Superheroes have become mascots for a certain kind of politics. So it will always tilt towards general stories. The only way I see it happening is if the stream itself ceases to exist at some point,” he says.

Sanjay admits that the future might indeed necessitate certain changes. “We have always wanted to keep our superheroes away from communal leanings. But, that might no longer be possible in the coming years. We might have to address issues of religion and caste and include these stories as well,” he says. Incidentally, Raj Comics is working on bringing out a web-series soon. Graphic India’s Chakra, too, will be made into a film or a webseries.

Perhaps, the proposed return of Shaktimaan next year will be an indication of the audience’s readiness to handle change and their capacity for nostalgia. Even though Khanna is far from the sprightly young man he once was, he is hopeful that the audience will still accept him as the ageing superhero. “Maybe, this time I will tell children to stay away from WhatsApp or social media, because I see that as the modern evil. So you see, the problems will change, but Shaktimaan’s soul will to remain the same. You don’t need a six-pack like the actors of today to play him. You need to think like him to play him, which I do,” he says.

Manik Sharma is a Delhi-based writer.

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