It opens with an animated shot of a Mumbai street. It’s summer. People are sweating profusely, a lone stray dog drinking muddy water from a puddle. The next shot takes us to the skies above, where our superhero, Chakra (real name Raju Rai), flies by, surveying his city. He’s a boy dressed in a tight, blue jumpsuit, with a shiny sun symbol on his chest. The villain of this altercation is Thandai, an eccentric school teacher with the ability to control ice. Their battle ensues, with Thandai flinging snowballs at our hero, and him responding with his signature move, which involves (no points for guessing) activating hisSurya Chakra. He saves the residents of Mumbai from Thandai’s ice, leaving them in the face-melting humidity once again.
Created by the legendary Stan Lee—you know, the man who co-created Spiderman, Hulk, Thor, Iron Man, the X-Men, ad infinatum, and who makes a fleeting appearance in every single Marvel movie— and Graphic India’s CEO Sharad Devarajan, Chakra: The Invinciblefirst appeared in comic book form in 2011, and was excitedly referred to as Lee’s first “Indian superhero”. The comic book was followed by an animated film which aired on Cartoon Network India in 2013. The animation isn’t groundbreaking, and because they didn’t bother using Indian English speakers for dubbing, Chakra (pronounced Chalk-ruh) ends up sounding more like a Californian than a Mumbaiker. However, in addition to being a children’s character, Chakra was created by Lee with the hopes of expanding the franchise, adding a live-action Bollywood film to the existing videos and comics. Fast forward to April this year, and the companies behind Chakra (Lee’s POW! Entertainment and Devarajan’s Graphic India) have announced that they’ve found their director, Phantom Films’ Vikramaditya Motwane (Udaan, Lootera). Lee, Devarajan and Motwane are currently working on the screenplay, and will begin production late 2016-2017.
Stepping out of animation and into live action broadens the target demographic from children to entire families, and to accommodate for this, they’ve tinkered with the story a little. In Lee’s version, Raju Rai, a child tech whiz, teams up with his mentor, Dr. Singh, to create a suit that activates the chakras in the body, unlocking supernatural powers. For Bollywood, the child has been replaced with a young man in his 20s, who’ll be fighting villains in Mumbai.
Lee is brave for venturing out of America, the veritable land of superheroes. This is by no means an understatement, with the character of Superman having been penned before India even gained independence, and the Marvel cinematic universe, which includesSpider Man, The Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy and the like, raking in north of $10 billions in the global box office.
Our on-screen superheroes, both old and new, have never held the interest of the masses the American way. The first truly successful on-screen superhero was Shaktimaan, whose acts of valour were watched by many Indian households from 1997 till 2005, with a total of 400 episodes aired by Doordarshan.
Our Indian superhero equivalents to Iron Man and Superman are—it is difficult even to say this— Ra.One and Krrish. Besides ripping off characters, superpowers, and sometimes entire sequences from Hollywood films, these movies offered little besides the star value that came with Shah Rukh Khan and a chunky Hrithik Roshan. Obviously, that was more than enough for them to succeed in the box office, grossing Rs.250 and Rs.300 crores respectively. Both Ra.One, and the two Krrish films, proudly spoke of their CGI and VFX work ahead of their respective releases. After watching them, I concluded that they looked more like an early 2000s video game than anything.
Given our rather fruitless and plagiarised on screen superhero past, why should we be optimistic about Chakra: The Invincible? There are two reasons. Yes, India hasn’t caught on to the global superhero craze, but I suspect that’s because we had enough superheroes before they were trendy. From the pre Vedic period (1750 BC) to the time of the early Puranas (200 BC-500 AD), India was the cradle for Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. We didn’t need heroes in spandex, because we had, and still have, fantastical gods with many avatars: deities who see all and know all, but whose tales are relatable and universal in import. This is why it’s no surprise that Shaktimaan’s character, Pandit Omkarnath Shastri, gained his superpowers through deep meditation and harnessing the power of the five elements of life (Panchabhuta), and that Chakra also channels his chakras, a similarly religious act, but through technology, a decidedly modern spin. The religious overtones of the story will attract audiences. The second cause for optimism comes from Lee and Devarajan’s decision to collaborate with Phantom Films. Co-owned by Motwane (and Anurag Kashyap, among others). Phantom Films has developed a reputation for thoughtful and unconventional cinema. Combining their unique lens with the global fame and experience brought by Lee could produce a superhero film that’ll take the genre in a new direction.