In the new MCU Eternals film, we get to see 30 seconds or so of a Bollywood superhero film (“The Legend of Ikaris”), directed by and starring Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani). There is (as you’d expect!) a dance celebrating the bravery and superness of the legendary hero, with much bright revealing clothing and surging catchy melodies. I can’t be the only one who thought for a second there, “Hey, why can’t we see this movie, instead of the movie we’re actually watching?”
So what would a Bollywood superhero movie actually be like? Would we get a chorus of boogying Batmen in tights? A phalanx of Wonder Woman spinning in sync like magic rhythmic gymnasts? Flashes flashing so fast the music can’t keep up?
Well, you don’t have to imagine it! There have in fact been a number of Bollywood superhero films. Some of the most famous, like Mr. India (1987) and Kriish (2006) are not available with English subtitles for sad monoglots like myself. But one intriguing 2018 movie that is available for streaming in the US on Netflix now is Vikramaditya Motwane’s Bhavesh Joshi Superhero.
Bhavesh Joshi Superhero does have one satisfying dance number in which the hero Siku (Harshvardhan Kapoor) and the villain Patil (Pratap Phad) shimmy with each other amidst a shower of money. For the most part, though, it’s a surprisingly sober and politicized questioning of the superhero genre.
Siku and his buddy Bhavesh Joshi (Priyanshu Painyuli) are young partiers and troublemakers radicalized by the Indian anti-corruption demonstrations of 2011. Determined to change the world, they don paper bag masks, start up a video channel, “Insaaf” (or “Justice”). Then they run around town recording and shaming traffic violators, people engaged in public urination, and other scofflaws.
Eventually, the anti-corruption movement peters out, and Siku gets a corporate job. Bhavesh Joshi continues Insaaf with dwindling viewership, until he discovers that a local government official is stealing public water and selling it back to people at exorbitant prices.
[Spoilers are incoming!]
After an argument (“You’re not a superhero. You’re an unemployed loser from Malad”) Siku exposes Joshi’s identity in a fit of pique. Now that they know who he is, the government tracks him down and kills him. Siku, motivated by guilt and a desire for revenge, takes on the crusade as his own.
The film is very aware of American superhero precedents. When a fangirl tells Siku he’s like Spider-Man, he corrects her with vehemence: “No no no, that’s a Marvel. We’re DC. We’re cooler. We’re darker. We’re edgier.” Sure enough, Bhavesh Joshi Superhero does include a lot of the tropes and elements you’d expect from the grittier end of the superhero genre. There’s an extended clever chase sequence involving a motorcycle catching a ride on a subway. There’s a training montage. There are fight scenes.
The best of those fight scenes, though, is not slick and awesome. It’s virtually a parody of Marvel's Daredevil hallway scenes. Siku, in a black costume with glowing eyes, takes on four assailants in a tiny apartment. None of them really know how to fight, though, and the battle is less martial-arts set piece and more a sad, desperate scramble, with everyone stumbling into walls and trying to wrestle Siku’s mask off. It’s a refreshingly clumsy answer to the MCU’s CGI-enhanced slugfests between uber-competent antagonists.
The rest of the film has that same small-as-life approach. Siku’s corporate job early in the film offers to place him in Atlanta, and the United States figures as a simpler, brighter, mythic alternative—a place where maybe superheroes really are super. Back in real-life India, though, the movie suggests there’s less space for justice.
The local police are blankly, smugly corrupt; Siku’s efforts to get a passport without paying a bribe are an exercise in bureaucratic humiliation. Bhavesh Joshi’s crusade to expose corruption get him labeled an anti-nationalist terrorist advancing the interests of Pakistan. He’s set upon by a mob while the sycophantic media cheers.
American comics are never exactly clear why the Daily Bugle hates Spidey. Bhavesh Joshi Superhero, though, shows how fascist nationalism targets anyone who opposes the status quo. People will cheerfully die of thirst if they can beat an enemy of the state into a pulp first.
Despite that grim message, Bhavesh Joshi Superhero, like most superhero films, is ultimately optimistic. Good guys win, and we’re left with familiar stirring rhetoric. “[Superheroes] wake everyone up. In a world of lies, they fight for the truth. They know that no matter how powerful evil is, the good can’t give up.” The movie isn’t really trying to subvert the genre. It just wants to make superheroes relevant to a different context.
In doing so, it unexpectedly makes the genre more relevant to American viewers as well. The Eternals is about battling cosmic space celestials buried in the earth—which is not necessarily an issue most of us face day-to-day. Bhavesh Joshi Superhero though, asks how non-super people are complicit in injustice, and what they can do about it. “Everyone has rights in a democracy and we should fight for them no matter what,” the voiceover declares at the end. That’s a message worth dancing to.