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Sunday, July 23, 2006

 
Men of Steel: Hollywood vs. Bollywood
or Comparative Cultural Anthropology for $12

A few weeks ago, I embarked on a cultural anthropology project without having to go more than a few miles from home. I was house-sitting for a family friend, and found myself located much closer than I normally am to the local Indian-owned movie theater. In checking the listings, I discovered that they were playing Krrish, (official, though less informative, site here). It was described as the story of a man with superhuman powers who becomes a hero, and since it opened the same weekend as Superman Returns, the opportunity for comparison seemed too good to pass up. How would the Hollywood and Bollywood interpretations of action herodom differ?

A great deal, as it turns out, but I think what was really shown in the end was not really anything about cultural ideas of superheroism as much as it was the differences in the story-telling traditions of the two major film production powerhouses. The fact that both movies had similar main characters and were produced contemporaneously was a nice control, but the stories ended up having entirely different impacts.

First, the similarities. Both movies star handsome young men* who inherited superhuman powers from their fathers, whom they never knew. Both were raised in rural areas and discovered how to control their powers on their own. (The two movies have some amusingly similar "growing up and developing super speed" scenes.) Both men have very defined concepts of right and wrong. Both feel a very strong need to conceal their identities. They both have an annoying and conveniently unobservant love interest in the news industry. They each have an obscenely wealthy and overly ambitious arch-nemesis, who of course inevitably end up threatening the aforementioned love interest.

Superman Returns was pretty much what we have come to expect from Hollywood superhero movies. Lots of action, feats of strength and derring-do, and a semi-tortured alter-ego. Most Western heroes of late, especially Spiderman and Batman, are given to a bit more introspection than Superman, (but then, he was the first, the archetype, and had no need to be overly individualized,) spending a great deal of time having moral wars with themselves about their duty to society, using their power for good, etc. In the last Spiderman movie, he even lost his powers when he decided not to use them for heroism any longer. The loved ones who know the hero's true identity are required to always be supportive and encouraging of the hero's necessarily dangerous lifestyle. The love stories in these movies tend to be a bit taken for granted. To oversimplify, the hero's cute, and once the girl finds out who he really is, of course she falls for him. Much as I liked the fact that Superman Returns was so neatly matched to the previous works in the Superman canon, I have to admit that the plot didn't have much development beyond what was necessary to get Superman from one feat to the next. The audience enjoyed it because they could, if they felt like it, add in their own interpretation of Superman-y background details, but it did require the audience to already be familiar with the essential elements, particularly with regards to the whole Clark-and-Lois interplay (or lack thereof, in this case).

In Krrish, however, the hero is a very reluctant one. He's been forbidden by his grandmother to demonstrate his powers to anyone. She lost her son to such supposed acts of heroism, and she doesn't intend to lose her grandson. The entire issue of being more than human is treated as more of an unfortunate personality trait than as a mixed gift, and is therefore downplayed as much as possible in a movie supposedly about a superhero. In fact, in the true tradition of Bollywood, the movie is more about the relationship between the hero and the girl. The entire first half of the movie is just about their intensifying interest in one another out in the mountainous adventure-tourist areas of India. It isn't until almost 2/3 of the way through the movie that the hero actually does anything heroic (saving his love and several children from a burning circus tent,) and then he feels intense guilt about having disobeyed his grandmother. His entire purpose in having traveled to apparently crime-ridden Singapore was to ask the girl to marry him (and get her mother's permission, like a good boy), and all these crimes are a dreadful nuisance. The movie ends, not on a note of more heroic adventures to come, but with a return of the young lovers to the grandmother's rural farmhouse. The movie was all about the interpersonal relationships, with more acts of heroism and fewer song-and-dance numbers than normal for a bit of sci-fi interest.

Update: As soon as I published all the above, I thought of a more elegant way to sum it all up. The Hollywood version offers us a superhero story with a love story thrown in for interest. The Bollywood version presents the opposite: a love story with superheroism for flavor.

Now I'm curious to compare the latest version of Pride and Prejudice with Bollywood's Bride and Prejudice.

*From the Dept. of Useless But Interesting Information, the actor who plays Krrish, Hrithik Roshan, has an extra thumb on his right hand.

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