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Move over Batman, Bajrangi takes on supervillains

India’s new comic-book avengers are rooted in the present. They’re taking on the system, fighting rapists, corruption, terror and even the caste hierarchy.

art and culture Updated: Nov 04, 2018 12:19 IST
Lavina Mulchandani
Lavina Mulchandani
Hindustan Times
Avengers,Marvel,DC Comics
Not quite your Marvel-DC caped crusaders, India’s homegrown superheroes come from different ethnicities and fight social evils. There’s teen girl from Mizoram, a vigilante ex-army man and middle-aged cop. (Imaging: Shrikrishna Patkar)

They’re not from Planet Krypton or here to save Gotham City. Indian superheroes have their origins in real places, like Mizoram, Delhi and Gujarat; their battles are familiar — they take on corruption, rape, the caste system. They’re dashing but distinctly desi.

Established comic book publishers such as Tinkle, Amar Chitra Katha and Fenil Comics, and newer publishing companies including Holy Cow, Yali and Campfire, are churning out serialised adventures of indigenous superheroes such as Faulaad (a middle-aged cop who becomes an unstoppable force of justice when politics and corrupt officials get in his way), Rakshak (an ex-army man who fights rapists), Wingstar (a 13-year-old girl from Mizoram who fights poachers and weapons smugglers) and Bajarangi (a US-returnee bent on saving the tiger from poachers).

Their target audience is not just the comic book enthusiast, but anyone who likes a good story.

Local superheroes are a good way to connect with a new audience. In times of instability, they can help people see problems in a new light.

“We want our superheroes to be approachable and relatable,” says Sahadi Sharma, international marketing and rights manager at Campfire graphic novels. “They are set in modern India, project our dreams and concerns. They don’t just fight demons; their fight is against the system.”

They also represent different ethnicities and cultures and underrepresented demographics. “We have moved from the age where mythology dominates comic book content. The market has expanded,” says Kali Nath Jha, sociologist and convener of media studies at Indian Sociological Society. “With social media, memes and Twitter, there’s demand for a lighter take on current issues, and artists are using these new characters to cater to that demand.”

Given the complex nature of the themes they take on, archaeologists, historians, academic researchers and journalists are helping artists and designers craft their plots and backstories.

You cannot refer to something like the Kalinga War unless you have accurate, historical details about it, adds KK Muhammed, former regional director at the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). He works with independent comic artists, graphic novelists and comic book publishers like Tinkle. “The artists approach us to know if their interpretations are accurate and if they have things like the geography and the names right.”

Visually, some of the new Indian superheroes draw on element from Marvel and DC — whether uniforms, logos or colour schemes.

“It’s good to see that we’re not blindly imitating the West,” says Souvik Mondal, professor of sociology at Presidency University, Kolkata. “Creating local superheroes is a good way to connect with a new audience. Particularly in times of instability and social struggle, comic book heroes can help people see problems in a new light.”

Rakshak (Yali Dream Creations; 2017)

As with most superheroes, this one has a backstory rooted in tragedy — and the horrific Delhi gangrape and murder of 2012. Captain Aditya Shergill had to retire early from the army, after an injury. Then his sister was raped, brutally assaulted and killed in Delhi, in an incident that also claimed her husband. The police fail to build a convincing case against the killers, and Shergill sees his orphaned niece denied justice.

“That’s when he becomes the superhero Rakshak, and decides to take the law into his own hands,” says Asvin Srivatsangam, creator of the series and founder of Yali. “He hits the streets of Delhi, works discreetly. Rakshak is dark, cerebral, but also one of us. His special powers are a sense of right and wrong, military strength and unshakable will.”

Wingstar (Tinkle Comics; 2015)

“We are seeing more superheroines in Indian comic books,” says Rajani Thindiath, editor-in-chief at Tinkle Comics. One such is Tinkle’s Wingstar, created to represent the women of Mizoram in India’s comic book-verse. Wingstar is Mapui Kawlim, a 13-year-old from Aizawl. “She wants to play cricket, but her alter-ego wants to bring down poachers and weapons smugglers,” says Thindiath.

Wingstar has iron fists and cool gadgets such as thrusters made by her scientist father.“He tries his super experiments on her and that’s how she becomes a superheroine,” Thindiath says.

In coming issues, she may be seen battling racial discrimination and violence too. “She is law-abiding, alerts the police when she learns of a crime or has tip-offs about smugglers,” Thindiath says.

Bajarangi (Fenil Comics; 2017)

The hero of this series is a young man named Vajra, who returns from studying in the US and finds that, in his village of Devipur, the problems of electricity shortages and poaching persist.

He then discovers his superpower — that he can talk to birds, animals and plants, and has limitless strength after a spell in the forest, looking for a lost uncle. He now knows his true purpose: to save all the endangered plant and animal species.

Faulaad (Fenil Comics; 2017)

By day he is a cop named Saurabh Saxena. When politics and vested interests begin to get in his way, he becomes the superhero Faulaad. “Faulaad has drone vision and a super-suit powered by solar energy,” says creator Fenil Sherdiwala. “He fights corrupt ministers, computer viruses and a terrorist organisation called Cobra that is producing arms and bombs to destroy the country.”

Shaitaan (Holy Cow Entertainment; 2016)

Major Shaitaan Singh by Holy Cow has plenty of symbolism built into his backstory. “He assisted Subhash Chandra Bose during the freedom struggle, disappeared in 1947 and is back now,” says creator Vivek Goel. “He is hired by a military agency to eliminate terrorists.”

Shaitaan was hiding out on a remote Pakistani island. His ideas are rigid and his beliefs are firm. He can fight both people and dragons. The dialogue and scenes are reminiscent of action films from the 1980s. “There’s bloodshed, gore and mystery,” says Goel.

First Published: Nov 03, 2018 18:08 IST