Was Krrish the first superhero movie from Bollywood? No, no, it was Mr India! Or was it Shahenshah? Amborish Roychoudhury sheds light on the caped wonders of the Hindi film screen,the earliest two of which were women
The first (and as you’ll discover, the second) costumed superhero of Bollywood was a woman. Fearless Nadia. Born Mary Ann Evans, she was an Australian who came to India with her father who worked for the British Army,and ended up doing trapeze acts in a circus. J.B.H. Wadia — a giant of early Indian cinema, and the co-founder of Wadia Movietones — spotted the pretty white girl who could perform these stunning physical feats and offered her a role. Not long after, Mary — rechristened as Nadia — would feature in a series of films with her as a swashbuckling hero performing death-defying stunts on screen.
The most iconic one of her roles is of course Hunterwali (1935). The posters advertised: ‘Featuring Fearless Nadia’. Hunterwali made ample use of her acrobatic skills. Sporting shorts, a mask and wielding a bullwhip (‘hunter’), Nadia jumped off trains, leaped onto a moving cart and fought 20 goons single-handed, and performed all sorts of derring-do that her male counterparts couldn’t dream of attempting. The film was a hit and Hunterwali became a house-hold name. Fearless Nadia went on to do a number of such stunt-action films, both as Hunterwali and other characters. Till today, Hunterwali is a playful way of referring to fierce women. This is where it all began.
The second major superhero to emerge out of Indian cinema was not only a woman, but also the epitome of Bollywood ma-hood: Nirupa Roy! Some time back, the following picture was making the rounds of social networking sites and it was Naseeruddin Shah — among other people — who pointed out to me that Roy indeed played a superhero in the film (though it’s still shrouded in mystery whether she played the titular role — which would make her the only woman in history to play Superman). In the picture, she’s shown wearing a Phantom-esque mask, primed to toss a dagger at someone.
Return of Mr Superman (1960)
One of the earliest Indian avatars of Superman, the hero was markedly different from our Kryptonian friend — he had a headgear resembling a gas mask and wore his cape over a black sweater. P. Jairaj — one of Bollywood’s earliest action stars with a physique to match — played Superman as well as his Clark Kent-ish alter ego Jaykumar. Desi Jonathan Kent is farmer Ram Dayal who comes across a child in a spaceship-that-looked-like-a-cardboard-plane, adopts him and raises him as his own. The child obviously has superpowers (he uses super-breath to make an approaching snake slither away from him and his friends, helps his father discover buried treasure via x-ray vision) and grows up to be a journalist for Azad Desh, moonlighting as the masked Superman clobbering goons and grinning hideously beneath his mask. Director Manmohan Sabir had to rename the film due to conflicts with the other Superman movie mentioned earlier, which also starred Jairaj in addition to Nirupa Roy.
Awara Abdulla (1963)
In the 60s, Dara Singh became a genre unto himself. Back then Dara Singh was to Indians what Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson was to WWF enthusiasts in the 90s. After a successful wrestling career, he joined films and starred in a bevy of action-adventure spectacles that exploited his strongman aura. And his Greek-god looks didn’t hurt. In Awara Abdulla, Singh plays a masked hero resembling Zorro, who fights the rich and defends the poor.
Zorro again! This time, Navin Nischol plays Zorro. He plays a prince called Gunawar Singh who wants to right the wrong unleashed by his half-brother Vikram (Sudhir) and Senapati Shamsher Singh (Imtiaz), dons a mask and calls himself Zorro, ably assisted by the way cooler Sher Singh that is, Sheroo (Danny Denzongpa). The film was directed by Shibu Mitra, the Roger Corman of India. More on him later.
It was Amitabh Bachchan who played a costumed hero named Toofan, right? Well, a good 14 years earlier, Vikram Makandar donned a costume resembling — you guessed it — Zorro, and went by the name Toofan, fighting bad guys. Who is Vikram Makandar? He was known for playing the hapless lover-boy in the sleeper hit Julie, which released in the same year — 1975.
Shiva Ka Insaaf (1985)
In the ‘80s there was a resurgence of 3D movies. Shiva ka Insaaf was an early attempt at 3D in Bollywood, and it was promoted with a lot of fanfare and hoopla. Jackie Shroff played Shiva, blessed by the eponymous God. When it released, there was tremendous hype that developed around Shiva Ka Insaaf. More than a superhero film, the hoopla was about the fact that it was an early attempt at 3-D in Bollywood. Like many others in this list, Shiva didn’t have any specific superpowers, barring the fact that he carried Lord Shiva’s blessings and strength.
To most ’90s kids, the name Puneet Issar conjured up imagery of a muscular warrior straight from the pages of Mahabharata. Playing Duryodhan made him a household name, a tag that still clings on to him. But just a couple of years before that, he wore a light blue costume and red cape so identifiable the world over. In 1987, Superman hit the screens, with Issar playing the title role. Special-effects expert B. Gupta made the film, generously lifting scenes straight from Richard Donner’s 1978 version. Issar also played the alter-ego ‘Clark Kent’ character, Shekhar. with cheesy action sequences, campy dialogues, and performances that will leave you doubting that even the actors were taking themselves too seriously, the film somehow survived and has gained somewhat of a cult following over the years. Trashy film lovers will have a field day on this one. Watch out for Dharmendra playing a super-hammy Jor-El, effectively reprising the role Marlon Brando played in Superman (1978).
Mr India (1987)
This one is a classic. Mr India had Anil Kapoor starring as invisible man ‘Mr. India’, facing off against someone rapper-actor Riz Ahmed calls ‘probably the most famous supervillain in all of Bollywood’, Mogambo. Mr. India featured an array of spectacular ‘camera tricks’, a badass villain, and Sridevi. Nuff said.
It’s been almost 50 years, and the Bachchan legend still looms large in our collective imagination. Amitabh Bachchan came in with a whimper in 1969, but in just five years, he cooked up a storm that was to consume the entire nation. By the mid-80s, all of it was gradually waning but he was still very much the reigning superstar. During this period, Amitabh Bachchan did three superhero films.
The first and the most iconic of them, Shahenshah, had him sporting a grey beard, black tights and a chainmail arm — and roaming the streets of Bombay in the dead of the night. During the day, he was a timid cop, corrupt to the bone, who hobnobbed with the baddies — so Shahenshah could visit them later and break their backs…
“Yeh Shyam Jaadugar ka hate nahi, toofan ka hathoda hai!” Toofan is probably the most badass hero in this list. He rode around sporting a saffron jacket and black overalls, wielding a crossbow. Toofan derives his powers from Hanuman — the moment he arrives astride his white steed, it storms. He thrashes the bad guys like there’s no tomorrow, and while leaving, takes the storm with him. Instead of an alter ego, Toofan had a twin brother, a magician — the aforementioned Shyam Jaadugar.
Ajooba, or Vozvrashcheniye Bagdadskogo Vora in Russian, was an Indo-Russia co-production. It had a sizeable crew from both sides, curiously, each mouthing the dialogues in his/her own language. Go watch it and you’ll know what I mean. Interestingly, we had another Indo-Russia collaboration that year, a Mithun Chakraborty-Naseeruddin Shah-starrer named Shikari.
The film was directed by Shashi Kapoor and was a mish-mash of Arabian Nights, Thief of Baghdad and all other Middle-eastern sword-and-sorcery fantasies rolled into one. Ajooba is actually the wronged prince who has been brought up and trained to fight evil Vazir who usurped the throne from his father, the Sultan. His alter ego is Ali, who also has a sidekick, a happy-go-lucky romantic named Hasan (Rishi Kapoor).
Ah, the much-touted ‘India’s first superhero’. Clearly, in the process of our journey so far, we have refuted that claim. Nor was it India’s first sci-fi film. But one must agree that the technical finesse in the film was commendable by Indian standards. Our hero, a half-breed human-alien (no, it’s not what it sounds like. Krrish’s father was ‘gifted’ those powers by an alien), can leap long distances a la The Hulk, can move faster than mortal eyes can see — like The Flash, and of course, possesses superhuman strength.
The less said, the better. There was incredible hype surrounding the scale and Abhishek Bachchan’s preparation for the part, but the movie tanked spectacularly.
A Flying Jatt (2016)
Jackie Shroff’s progeny has already made a name for himself as an action star who dances well. In an age of multiplexes and bong-watching, Tiger Shroff is the new “massy” hero. A Flying Jatt featured him as a bumbling Punjabi youth with a heart of gold who gains superpowers. His mother (a delightful Amrita Singh) sews a costume for him, and he finds his mojo only when he sports a turban, an integral part of his costume.
Bhavesh Joshi Superhero (2018)
The fact that the director of Udaan was making a superhero film raised a lot of expectations. The first look and the poster added to the aura. A superhero movie with an indie heart — an Indian Batman Begins, if you will. What could go wrong?
Well, Bhavesh is not the superhero here — not literally. Bhavesh Joshi and his friends Siku and Rajat are deeply affected by the extent of corruption they see around them. They do their bit by making YouTube videos to highlight social ills. They bump into the water mafia and Bhavesh tries to expose them, losing his life in the bargain. His friend Siku takes up the mantle and continues making videos (‘Bhavesh Joshi zinda hai’) but transforms the persona by wearing mask and tights, and learning marshal arts. The end product is about as exciting as the description above.