Until the mid eighties, the costumed superhero as we know him in the West was a figure largely absent from Indian cinema. The primary exceptions were those intermittent attempts to appropriate the Superman character that seem to dot the history of modern South Asian film, such as the competing attempts by directors Mohammed Hussain and Manmohan Sabir, Superman and Return of Mr. Superman, which were both released in 1960 and , curiously, starred the same actor, Jairaj, in the title role.
Yet in the neon decade the industry seemed to see something of a mini renaissance in the appearance of such characters. Superstar Amitabh Bachchan’s attempts to revive his career after his less-than-stellar turn in Indian politics, perhaps by way of overcompensation, included not one, but two portrayals of uber-abled caped crusaders, first in the relatively well received Shahenshah and then in the dreadful Toofan. In addition, 1987 saw yet another pass at the Man of Steel in the form of the infamous Superman, aka Indian Superman. And, most famously, there was that same year’s mega-hit, Mr. India, in which Anil Kapoor portrayed a humble citizen who, granted the ability to become invisible at will, used his powers to defeat the enemies of his country. But before all of these there came another film based around the exploits of a costumed hero of superhuman abilities, 1985′s Shiva Ka Insaaf.
The absence of traditional superheroes in Bollywood up to this point might well be explained by the fact that, despite that absence, the nation’s screens saw no shortage of colorful figures fighting for the cause of justice and virtue with the aid of superhuman powers. These figures appeared in those films known as “Mythologicals”, a staple of Indian cinema since its very inception, based on the religious epics the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Indeed, even Hollywood might have seen religious-based films become more of a staple genre had the tracts of Western religion been populated by such fanciful deities as the monkey god Hanuman, a fearless and cheekily charismatic hero who in modern times has even proven himself worthy of fighting alongside Ultraman.
In fact, when, in the 1960s, India began to produce its own indigenous comic books, it was the heroes of the Ramayana and Mahabharata that featured in their pages. This is not to say that comics had not been produced in the country prior to that, but up to that time they had only been comprised of reprints of popular Western comics, such as Mandrake the Magician, Lee Falk’s The Phantom, and, of course, Superman. It was only in the 1970s that bona fide and uniquely Indian superheroes began to see print, and it is perhaps due to those characters gradually making their way into the larger public consciousness that we saw films such as those mentioned above being released in the following decade. Still, the connection between India’s superheroes and its cherished religious figures remained strong, as many of these films clearly evidence. In Toofan for instance, Amitabh’s character is granted his powers by Hanuman, and in Shiva Ka Insaaf, our hero, Shiva, derives his powers from… well, the name pretty much says it all. (This practice can be seen even in more recent Bollywood superhero films, such as 2006′s Krrish, in which the hero derives his name from that of Krishna.)
It was not the presence of a masked superhero alone upon which the movie Shiva Ka Insaaf depended for its novelty, however. The film is, in fact, sometimes mistakenly identified as being India’s first film made in 3D, though that honor actually goes to 1984′s My Dear Kuttichaathan, an enormously popular children’s fantasy shot in the Malayalam language. Still, Shiva Ka Insaaf followed hot on the heels on My Dear Kuttichaathan, and can — and did — rightfully make the claim to being the first Hindi film shot in 3D. In India, the 3D process ran pretty much the same course that it does periodically throughout the rest of the world, making a big initial splash. which, in turn, inspired a short run of increasingly less successful films trumpeting its use (which included, in addition to Shiva Ka Insaaf, Indian cheapy horror maestros the Ramsay Brothers’ 3D Saamri, aka Purana Mandir 2) before the industry abandoned it due to its financial returns not justifying the added expense of labor and capital that it required. In keeping with that familiar trend, Shiva Ka Insaaf contains within it all of those gimmicks that you’d expect from a movie riding a brief wave of 3D-mania, loaded with “gotcha” moments in which all manner of things are thrust at the camera in the hope of inspiring startled gasps on the part of the audience.
Shiva Ka Insaaf features as its titular hero the actor Jackie Shroff, at the time a freshly-minted superstar thanks to his lead role in the blockbuster hit Hero the previous year. I have to admit that, prior to seeing Shiva Ka Insaaf, I had only seen Shroff in films of more recent vintage, and, while he has obviously aged into a beefy and appropriately craggy-faced picture of Bollywood machismo in the interim, it was shocking to see him here so fresh-faced and comparatively scrawny. Even his mustache looked undernourished to me. And, when suited up as Shiva, his heroic demeanor is undermined by a comportment that I can only describe as being a bit on the slouchy side. Of course, as many movie stars throughout the world have had the sad opportunity to learn, superhero movies, with their frequently ridiculous-looking costumes and over-hyped expectations, are an invitation for unflattering comparisons. We can’t all be John Phillip Law in Diabolik, after all. In fact, none of us can, save John Phillip Law — and God help the poor, pear-shaped everyman who tries to pour himself into a painted-on leather catsuit to prove otherwise. So simply add Shroff to the long line of thespians whose run-in with a form-fitting, head-to-toe leather superhero uniform left them looking more deflated than ennobled.
Anyone who has watched a lot of Bollywood action films knows that in them the parents of young boys are something of an endangered species, and that, if a pair of them are introduced during the first five minutes, odds are pretty high that they will soon be gunned down by a cackling villain while little Junior watches from some hiding place he’s squirreled himself away in. Now, I’ve seen enough Spaghetti Westerns to know that this particular trope is not the exclusive property of Indian cinema, but it is only in Bollywood that it sees such steady repetition as to seem like the observance of some kind of ritual. In any case, Shiva Ka Insaaf makes admirably short work of this set-up, seeing that little Bhola’s lawyer father and doting mother are dispatched by the ruthless bandit Jagan (Shakti Kapoor) within mere minutes of the opening credits. Of course, from his hiding place, Bhola can only see the telltale scar on Jagan’s hand as these vicious acts play out, and thus are the seeds of vengeance and its lifelong pursuit sown.
With his dying breath, Bhola’s father tells the boy to seek out one of three men — the names and photographs of whom are provided in a diary he keeps — to take him in and give him a proper upbringing. Fortunately for Bhola, it turns out that all three men — whose relation to Bhola’s dad is never made clear — live under one roof, Full House style. These men are Ram, Robert and Rahim (Vinod Mehra, Parikshat Sahni and Mazhar Khan), whose names echo the idealized vision of harmony between Hindu, Catholic and Muslim seen in numerous masala films — especially those directed by Manmohan Desai, such as, most famously, Amar Akbar Anthony.
Perhaps what unites Uncles Ram, Robert and Rahim, despite their different faiths, is the fact that they are all hirsute macho men and that each, in his own way, is a raging badass. To illustrate this, we are shown a series of vignettes, the first of which shows Ram wielding his fists and a pair of bamboo sticks that he uses like nunchucks with fearsome effectiveness, sending a bad guy flying through a wall and leaving a perfect man-shaped hole in his wake. Next we see Robert practicing a unique skill in which he launches little metal balls — directly at the camera, naturally — from little cups located on the tips of his shoes, hitting his targets with startling accuracy. Finally Rahim demonstrates that he is very good with a whip. All three, it seems, are ideal candidates to prime Bhola for the task of avenging his parents’ deaths, and so follows a training montage taken directly from a Liu Chia-Liang movie (seriously, Bhola even has to run across those floating logs like in 36 Chambers of Shaolin), during which Bhola goes from being portrayed by a child actor to being portrayed by twenty-eight-year-old Jackie Shroff, despite the fact that his adopted uncles only age in that typically Bollywood, mild-graying-at-the-temples way.
Finally, Bhola’s uncles take him to a temple to the god Shiva, where they bestow upon him his leather-heavy costume, a ring in the shape of Shiva’s third eye (all the better to leave a distinctive mark on those he punches) and a replica of Shiva’s weapon, the trishul — or trident — which he is to use to announce his arrival, striking terror into the hearts of those evildoers who are about to be on the receiving end of his wrath. At this, an eerie wind sweeps through the shrine, and his uncles tell him that the power he will be wielding will not be his own, but rather that of Shiva working through him. Now, whether this means that Bhola is now blessed with superpowers is unclear, as most of the crimefighting abilities he will display from this point on are in the form of the type of exaggerated punching and leaping around that we normally see from Indian action heroes — only in their case without them being burdened with masks, capes and constricting head-to-toe leather uniforms — though there are a couple of instances in which it appears that Bhola/Shiva can fly.
Whatever his abilities may be, however, there is no doubt in my mind that Bhola/Shiva’s most super power of all is his poetic way with a mortal threat, aided greatly by the fact that, whenever he puts on his costume, his voice automatically becomes equipped with its own echo unit. Thus is made even more grimly authoritative such pronouncements as “I will make you writhe so much that death will shiver looking at you.” Or when, on another occasion, while trying to extract information from a recalcitrant goon, he intones ominously, “Even if Shiva goes to a cemetery, the corpses there get up and tell their names and addresses.” Still, while generally a man of few words, Shiva does at times prove long-winded, as you’ll no doubt find after hearing his little introductory speech being delivered for the umpteenth time. This, in response to his prey’s panicked queries as to his identity, goes as follows: “The breeze that will extinguish the fire of injustice… The cure to poor men’s pains… I am Shiva!”
Given the typically intricate plotting of Bollywood films, you might think of my above summarization of Shiva Ka Insaaf”s first act as being somewhat glib. But Shiva Ka Insaaf is far from typical in that regard, and shows an economy in its approach to storytelling that, unless you consider the circumstances, is a little surprising. Few Indian films of its era clock in, as Shiva does, at a mere two hours, but I imagine that this truncated length represents an attempt on the part of its producers to limit, to some extent, the expenses and technical complications involved in filming a movie in 3D. The resulting need to cram all of its business into what, to its makers, must have seemed like a very brief running time leads to a narrative that is uncharacteristically lean, and free of those many subplots and parallel storylines that make up the normal masala film. Now, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think the film could benefit from the introduction of some of those elements, but we should perhaps be grateful for what we have. After all, director Raj N. Sippy might not have been able to integrate those disparate elements as expertly as, say, Shekhar Kapur did with Mr. India, and we might have instead ended up with something as sprawling and unfocused as Toofan, a superhero movie so overburdened with plot that its superhero ends up being crowded off-screen for most of its length. Shiva Ka Insaaf may indeed boast a story that is little more than rote superhero boilerplate, but, as a frequent viewer of Indian films, I have to confess that it’s nice to on occasion be let off easy: to part ways with a film after a non seat-numbing investment of time and without having to have kept track of all of its characters and tangents by way of copious notes.
Anyway, with Bhola’s superheroic transformation now complete, his uncles determine that it is time for him to go to The Big City, for that is where they have determined his parents’ killer has migrated, despite them having no clue as to his identity. (Hey, my praising the movie’s brevity doesn’t mean that it doesn’t sometimes come at the expense of sense.) To this end, they provide him with an entre to a job at a big city newspaper, where he is to work in the guise of a bespectacled, mild mannered reporter. Mind you, Jackie Shroff’s take on this oft-essayed role ends up being an insult to bespectacled, mild-mannered reporters everywhere, as it involves a stuttering caricature of simple-mindedness and social retardation that borders on cretinism. Still, this somehow does not prevent the newspaper’s beautiful female editor, Rekha (Poonam Dhillon) from giving him a job, thus setting us up for the inevitable triangle between Bhola, who falls hard for Rekha, and Rekha, who ends up falling even harder for Shiva. Now, as to the root of Rekha’s attraction, I’d love to quote Batman and say “It’s the car”, but Shiva doesn’t even have one, as evidenced in a later chase scene where he takes after a carload of thugs on a bicycle. (One article that I read about this film, written by a South Asian writer, cited this scene as singling out Shiva as being the most Indian of superheroes.) Must be the leather, then.
Meanwhile, we find that the intervening years have seen considerable upward mobility on the part of our old friend Jagan, as his relocation to the city has been accompanied by a transformation from grubby, scarf-wearing dacoit to white-suited, highball-swilling underworld kingpin, and has in turn necessitated him being re-christened with the cryptic but suitably sophisticated-sounding appellation “The Doctor”. (No, he doesn’t have a Tardis. Nerd.) Once Shiva has made his presence known around town, striking the appropriate amount of fear into its criminal underbelly, Jagan and his son, Vikram (Gulshan Grover), take it as their first order of business to eliminate him. And so begins the series of free-wheeling, violent encounters between Shiva and Jagan’s army of goons that are essentially the very type of business you would presumably be watching a movie like Shiva Ka Insaaf for in the first place. And, unless you have expectations of gritty realism, you shouldn’t be disappointed, as these scenes come replete with loads of unnecessary acrobatics, loudly resounding punches thrown directly at the camera, and Shiva skewering his adversaries with little mini trishuls that he throws with deadly accuracy.
One of these aforementioned action set pieces involves Shiva being lured by Jagan’s men to a warehouse filled with packing crates, where they then try to kill him by running him over with their cars. Inserted, at certain points, into the footage of real cars crashing through stacks of real crates — I’m guessing, in order to somehow achieve the desired 3D effect — are poorly matched shots of what are obviously toy cars crashing through stacks of miniature crates, which then fly out toward the camera. In like fashion, during the fight that ensues, whenever one of Jagan’s henchmen is hurled or falls from the rafters, it is represented by an — again, very obvious and, by all appearances, pocket-sized — doll being dropped onto the camera. These are both pretty typical examples of the caliber of miniature work you see in older Bollywood movies — going back as far as such methods were employed and extending forward to as late as the mid-nineties — and it’s something that, by virtue of its naive charms, I’ve found myself becoming completely obsessed with. Nothing makes me happier these days than to be watching some old Indian movie and suddenly see a scene such as those that I’ve described above play across the screen, and the shoddier it looks, the better.
I should point out, however, that the crudeness of those effects is not due to them being primitive by necessity. It wouldn’t have required that much greater of an expenditure of cash or resources, if any, to make those models slightly more detailed, or to film them from an angle that would have created an illusion of scale. Nor, in my opinion, is it a matter of Bollywood effects crews of the day simply being inept. Rather, it’s the result, I think, of a particular approach to special effects that puts less of a premium on realism, preferring instead to simply suggest the thing represented, while letting the effect itself be seen by the audience for the ingenious bit of trickery that it is. It’s a self referential form of movie magic that, by its very obviousness, invites the audience to be gleeful participants in their own deception. It also both exemplifies and enables that promise of escape into a totally fabricated reality that, for many of us, makes Indian commercial cinema so irresistible.
As for Shiva Ka Insaaf‘s most important special effect — that is, its attempted illusion of three dimensionality — I cannot offer an evaluation. The only way the movie can be viewed these days is in the stubbornly two dimensional format of cheapo Indian DVD, and, even if it were to generate enough interest to merit a screen revival in all its intended glory, that wouldn’t be likely to occur on my shores. Still, anyone attempting to watch the movie even in its current format will do best to be advised of its origins, otherwise the near constant thrusting and hurling of objects into the camera with little or no narrative justification will prove pretty perplexing.
For myself, what was most interesting about all of that was how, unlike other 3D movies that I’ve seen, in which the effect was generally used to provoke in the audience a feeling of physical threat (ooh, watch out for that ping pong ball!), Shiva ka Insaaf is just as likely to tease its audience with temptation. There are any number of nasty looking weapons brandished at the viewer, but he or she is just as often — or even more often — tantalized with the offer of a plateful of tasty looking food, a handful of candy, or even a fistful of cash. When you consider that the majority of the film’s audience would have come from the lower economic strata of Indian society, you have to wonder if Shiva Ka Insaaf didn’t perhaps cross some line beyond Bollywood’s mandate to provide wish fulfillment and enter territory where it could have been perceived as taunting, or even cruel. Still, I have to admit that the first thing that came to mind upon seeing one of those handfuls of colorful sweets being launched toward my face was the image of a theater full of shrieking kids joyfully leaping with arms outstretched toward the screen.
And I imagine any parent would feel safe letting their child accept candy from Shiva ka Insaaf, as, aside from a couple of bloody moments and a very well-placed use of the word “shit” by Gulshan Grover, it’s decidedly kid friendly. The drama never gets too intense, the overall look is bathed in that inimitable bright 1980s glow, and the score happily percolates with songs by R.D. Burman at his most lightweight and catchy. In other words, The Dark Knight this is not, and if you’re looking for depth, you should have seen it when it was in 3D. However, if you’re in the mood for some good-natured, if unremarkable, costumed horseplay with that ineffable whiff of spice peculiar to Bollywood, you could do much worse.