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404: Indian Superhero not found

Isn't it surprising that superhero movies in India haven't found their niche with the audience used to larger than life characters, pulling out stunts which they don't seem capable of? The fandom behind this genre is like a black hole which can swallow in almost everything you expose within its radar.

By shamelessly ripping off the westward icons, Bollywood has faltered all along the way. Indian Cinema has been unable to create a single superhero which the appropriated snake charmers could be proud of and continues to do so irrespective of a set vantage points, which enables Hollywood to churn out billions in the name of superheroes by creating numerous franchise and shared universes.

As the internet is clogged up with listicles that constantly remind us of the failures we have had with this genre, it's high time that we analyse the factors which have led to this void in our very own pop culture space.

Everything is a copy of a copy but still distinctive: If you try to point out that Indian superheroes are a blatant rip-off from their western counterparts, you might find that one individual reeked in nationalistic pride, retaliating with the argument that it is an inspiration rather than it being an act of plagiarism.

This point of view seems acceptable at first glance, as for a Flash there is Quicksilver or a Darkseid being a mirror image to Thanos in the west itself. But the fact remains that these characters were designed in a way that the essence of every reproduction felt different with the mythos created around it.

And here we are struggling to create one single character back home, let alone stories being reproduced. We don't live in David Fincher's nihilistic Fight Club universe wherein an inspiration or a ripoff could be simply put together under the same category as 'everything is a copy of a copy'.

In the established idea of a world which still thrives on hope, there is a thin line running between inspiration and rip-offs. The only thing that can be agreed upon in case of similarities is that a superhero movie needs to project a backyard to be protected, while the hero is most probably angst-ridden and has a weak point in a form of an object or a Past trauma.

Making a porridge of the western and the Masala: Not only Bollywood chooses to manufacture the assembled Xerox copy by compressing various superhero characters into one but also tends to add a dose of awkward song setups, unison dancing exercises and the family melodrama which results in movies like Ra-one and Krrish.

It can be agreed upon the fact that major section of the Indian audience would enjoy this so called 'Masala' stuff minus the photocopy. But by bringing both the aspects together, the production executives manage to heckle with the minds of two different set of audiences including the ones who are looking out for our very own indigenous superhero and the ones who are used to orchestra and dance moves at regular intervals in a family drama.

Samit Basu, a novelist who deals in superhero characters brings out the ridiculousness of infamous executive meetings in his anecdotal essay titled 'The Real Problem with Bollywood Superhero Movies' available online. In the essay, he describes a meeting wherein he pitches one of his original superhero storylines from his book 'Turbulence'. Turbulence deals with the story which follows the story of passengers on plane (that flew from London to Delhi), realising a week later that they have acquired superpowers corresponding their desires.

Soon after he pitched the story he was told that he should cut out the politics, fight scenes and overt presence of villain as it would not be suitable for the larger family audience. He was also asked to omit the part about the superpowers as the top brass deemed it to be ungraspable for our regular audience.

Not only did the producers try to sabotage an original and mature idea but also had the audacity to undermine the IQ of the Indian audiences. Though this scenario has started to change with films like The flying Jatt which had its moments such as hero donning the costume sewn by his mother and having a fear of height but then again, it goes back to the very same formulated superhero storyline during the climax.

This trend of growing sensibility is pointing upwards as big production houses such Dharma, Phantom and Eros are ready to invest in acclaimed filmmakers such as Ayan Mukherji (Wake Up Sid) Vikramaditya Motwane (Udaan) and Amole Gupte (Stanley Ka Dabba) for their ambitious superhero projects.

Overlooking the defined source material: It is a widely known fact that most of the western superheroes have their origin in the comic books and the film studios have latched on to it, as their vast comic book culture has documented the essence of major historical events such as Civil rights movement in the X-men storylines and societal changes of women empowerment through the iconic character of wonder woman and many more.

The comic book culture in the west dates to 1930's with two of its major publishers (DC and Marvel Comics) finding its way into the present. Both of these publishers combined have a plethora of characters and storylines which become the backbone for their superhero movies,which is tweaked on by the script writers to provide the relatability and context for the present times.

The Indian comic book ecosystem flourished in the late 1980's with the advent of characters such as Nagraj, Super Commando Dhruva, Doga, Angara, Tausi and many others, though their popularity was limited to northern India. But here again, we face the problem of characters bearing striking resemblance to multiple western characters. Nagraj, one of the most popular superheroes can be described as spiderman swinging between buildings with the help of snakes while his alter ego Raj has a striking resemblance to Clark kent, the spectacle wearing reporter at Daily planet, who happens to be superman's alter-ego.

Irrespective of this, Anurag Kashyap announced that he would be making a movie on Raj comics' character Doga because of its mass appeal as a masked vigilante who takes on the Mumbai underworld and crime syndicates single-handedly. Four years after this announcement, this film is currently shelved due to the failure of Kashyap's high budget project Bombay Velvet in 2015.

Even if our comic book culture lacks the authenticity, we have rich story ideas which can be adapted as we have an abundance of mythological works such as Mahabharata and Ramayana, unlike the westerners whose fair share of mythology are their comic books itself and their only popular known mythology boils down to a tooth fairy tale.

For instance, we can have best of protagonists in the form of modernised lord shiva and multi-dimensional villains such as Shakuni and Duryodhana in their modern interpretations even if we rule out the usual suspects such as Ravana.

Lack of creative participation in VFX and scanty recovery: One of the major aspects of a superhero movie is the use of special effect in an effective way so that the visual spectacle complements the script and brings out the superhuman element of the characters.

Hollywood has come a long way in respect to special effects and has its hands on the best infrastructure with abundant creative personnel at disposal. But in case of Bollywood, the VFX industry at its nascent stage and the only well-known studio setting up VFX lab is Shah Rukh Khan's production house Red Chillies Entertainment.

"Due to limited viewership for fantasy genre in our country and high cost for generating special effects, filmmakers in our country should adopt a script-driven approach which could be complemented by limited high-quality VFX shots," said Sathya R, Visual effects director at the Chennai-based Dark Arts Visual effect lab.

There have been only a few Indian superhero movies such as Ra-one or the south Indian blockbuster Enthiran which comprised of decent special effects. Budget issues imply fewer VFX shots but the main problem in our country is that the ratio of creative VFX artists to the clerical ones is negligible. The reason behind the substandard, over the top visuals, is the lack of knowledge about physics and fine arts at the same time which is evident in most of our movies.

"Lack of creativity in VFX artists can be traced back to the VFX institutes wherein the course is modelled around technical jobs such as keying and rotoscoping. The course is designed in such a way because Hollywood-based studios outsource the clerical services at large while keeping the creative control under their charge," added Sathya.

Budding VFX artists in India are deprived of creative learning at almost all the stages because they are trained to be mechanical. Their only other option to develop their creativity is to work as a freelancer on various projects wherein you get to meet the creative lucky artists at times.

"We are doing what we are told to do as freelancing is not so popular option in our culture and everybody is worried about job security," added Sathya.
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