India's Superman saves the universe and aces an IQ test

Faster than a speeding horse! Able to leap across Himalayan rivers in a single bound! It's ... Krrish!!

Yes, India has its very own superhero character on the silver screen, playing not only in Delhi and Bombay, but also in the US. And its release, side by side with America's own "Superman Returns," is prompting many comparisons that Indians find flattering and appropriate.

While Superman is a space alien who flies around wearing spandex tights and a cape, and rescues people as if it's his night job, Krrish is a mere human in a mask and black leather coat à la "The Matrix," who has extraordinary speed and strength, and rescues people out of sheer decency.

There are other differences. India's "Superman" breaks out into song – several times. And befitting a country that now defines itself as a rising information economy, Krrish's superhero gifts are first noticed in school, including in a grueling IQ test in which the first-grader Krishna explains to a panel of adults the principles of accounting.

"There's something interesting about the vulnerability of Hrithik Roshan," says Vamsee Juluri, a media studies professor at the University of San Francisco, and an expert on Indian cinema. "He has these huge biceps, but Krrish's real power comes from brain, not from brawn. It's a signal that as India emerges as a power of the 21st century, it is going to be traditional and intelligent, and not just do things by force alone."

The smarter superhero motif has obvious appeal for India's urban middle class and wealthy expatriate community, whose educations have allowed them to compete in the global marketplace. And "Krrish" is only the latest in a string of recent films targeting this rising demographic – including international hits such as "Monsoon Wedding" and the Oscar-nominated cricket flick "Lagaan" – instead of the Indian masses, as they did in the past.

This makes the films more understandable to an international audience, to be sure, but it also puts distance in the relationship between India's elites and the vast majority of Indians who live on just a few dollars a day.

"No one wants to know what Indian village life is like, least of all the villagers themselves," says Dipankar Gupta, a professor of social science at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. "Look at the big change. Before, if you could bring in the masses, you made money. Now you get the NRIs [non-resident Indians] and the urban middle class, and the rest can go hang themselves. It's amazing."

Judging from Internet blogs, Krrish has touched a chord among a certain educated class of Indian fans.

Some blogs argue that the very notion of a superhero is an Indian invention, and that Superman himself is a pale imitation of the Hindu monkey-god Hanuman. (In a nutshell, the argument goes like this. Like Superman, Hanuman can fly. Unlike Superman, Hanuman was written thousands of years ago. Plagiarism!)

Box-office and action-figure gold

Some signs of the movie's popularity are economic. Toy stores are full of Krrish costumes, action figures, and other merchandise, and the $10 million movie raked in $15 million in its first week – one of the best showings ever. Nearly a third of those ticket sales came from overseas.

Other signs are more tragic. Newspapers are crowded with stories of young men injuring themselves trying to imitate Krrish's tree-climbing and cliff-diving stunts.

"Krrish is very much a part of India's emerging self-perception as a growing economic power," says Mr. Juluri. "Traditionally, Indian cinema reflects what it means to be Indian. Now we have a superhero, and that reflects our own image of our country as a growing superpower."

"Krrish" also reminds its audience that any decent Indian hero will maintain his ties to Indian traditional values. At home, Krishna is the perfect son ... or, rather, grandson, since his parents are both dead, and like a good Indian boy, Krishna devotes his life to his grandmother. (With the stunning 1980s actress Rekha playing his grandmother, this is hardly a sacrifice.)

'Saves the world for mom'

The second half of the movie deals with Krishna's transformation into a crime-fighting alter ego named Krrish, and his final confrontation with an evil scientist who – naturally – wants to dominate the world.

"He's the Indian superhero who saves the world, but he saves the world for mom," says Juluri. "Superheroes are a product of modernism, and in the secular West, you looked to a character who righted wrongs in society. In India, Hindu mythology is so deeply rooted in our culture, with gods that we celebrate, that we didn't really need superheroes."

Bollywood has had its brushes with superhero characters before, and there have been three or four brazen rip-offs of America's "Superman" in the past. One, in the Telegu language, featured a future Indian politician named MGR praying to the monkey god Hanuman for strength.

But "Krrish" is the first fully realized Indian superhero, and India's most technically impressive science-fiction movie to date. Krrish fights like a character in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," in part because of the skills of the movie's action director, Tony Ching Siu-Tung, who is famous for the action sequences in "Kill Bill."

Superhumans vs. supernations

As a "Krrish" movie trailer makes the rounds on TV, with the slogan in one TV ad proclaiming, "When you have power, it shows," Professor Gupta notes with some chagrin that unless Indians develop a greater sense of responsibility as citizens, India's aspirations to greatness may be just as much of a fantasy as "Krrish."

"We are so easily satisfied, that we rarely complain. We don't expect good-quality services from our government, and we let them off the hook," says Gupta. As if to emphasize his point, the power in Gupta's upscale neighborhood is cut and much of his interview with the Monitor is conducted in the fading light of dusk.

"Instead of relying on government, we dig our own tube wells, run our own generators, hire our own security guards, go to private hospitals, arrange our private garbage pickup, and we become our own sovereign nations," says Gupta. "That is why we can never become a great nation."

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