Tuesday, May 8, 2018

How I Won Shaktimaan’s Heart

Can’t believe the 20th anniversary of the Mein Bhi Banoonga Shaktimaan Contest is around the corner. Raise your hands if you remember Ankur Zade’s Maut Ke Moonh Se Vapsi winning the first prize among 10,000 short story entries. No search engine result will direct you to him because the contest was held during the prehistoric pre-Internet takeover. But it was exceptionally memorable for me, since the second-prize winner was none other than yours truly.

It is an honor to have been chosen by Mukesh Khanna, the legend who had portrayed Shaktimaan in India’s first ever superhero television series. And now, I would like to share with you the story behind how my name wound up being listed on Doordarshan as a contest winner.

A weakened Shaktimaan wakes up in captivity and is about to witness something horribly unholy...

Let us rewind my life to the 1980s.

The ‘Big Bang’ that spawned my imagination originated in Kuwait. Just like every Non-resident Indian child who sought comfort in television, I tuned in to Magnum, P.I. (1980-88), Knight Rider (1982-86), The A-Team (1983-87) Airwolf (1984-87) and Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-94). Please forgive me if I had never perceived any symbolic undertones back then – I was too young to understand the evolving social or political trends! Rather than deliberately forming opinions, I was unconsciously letting these TV shows ignite my creativity.

In the very same decade, epic movie trilogies including Star Wars and Superman came full circle. Once again, I was a single-digit kid, completely unaware of the polarized reviews, so try telling a child in my position to look the other way during a decisive lightsaber duel between a father and his son or when an indestructible man with the gift of flight walks through fire without getting burned. Nor will I deny how much I enjoyed Shahenshah, in which Amitabh Bachchan, a stalwart of Hindi feature films, was cast as a vengeful vigilante traumatized by the suicide of his father who was falsely accused of accepting a bribe.

Let us now fast-forward to the early 1990s.

The first Gulf War meant a dramatic change in my lifestyle. My ancestral home in Kerala provided shelter, but I was cut off from all the movies and shows that had transported me to wonderful worlds without potholes. Of course, Street Hawk and Space City Sigma sped by the small screen of Doordarshan. Then my tastes started evolving, when the local flavors started rubbing off on me, and the Siddique-Lal director duo made me fall in love with Malayalam cinema.

Moving to New Delhi a year later was just as difficult as transitioning from Kuwait to India. The culture was completely alien to me. But it also meant getting to indulge in newer guilty pleasures. Who needed otherworldly concepts when Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir Khan and Salman Khan wooed my family with their onscreen charisma?

That was when Batman ambushed me. After being nearly scared to death by the 1989 movie on VHS, I braved through the dark aisles of a cinema hall for my first English motion picture experience: Batman Returns (disclaimer: my elders had accompanied me that day). And I absolutely loved it! I never understood why a lot of my school seniors and some of my classmates could not digest the film. But I’d rather talk about Batman: The Animated Series. I was fine with it being dubbed in Hindi because the DD Metro television channel had subjected Superboy to the same treatment.

My admiration for the adaptations of DC Comics material made me raid Attractions, a bookstore in South Delhi which sold weekly and monthly issues of various superheroes.

Meanwhile, I did not have enough of Batman, ergo my fondness for the 1960s series starring Adam West at a time when Star Plus was still airing English programs. In the process, I developed an appetite for Small Wonder and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The Star Trek show starring William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley was also pretty engaging, but my father cut that out, asserting that I was excessive with my viewing. But I was still able to squeeze in the occasional Thor, The Incredible Hulk along with Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends.

Everything came to a grinding halt when I shifted back to Kerala. No more DD Metro. Star Plus switched to Hindi soap operas. It took years before Star World restored nearly everything I had grown to love, right down to Star Trek: The Next Generation. And one had to travel several miles by public transportation to buy comic books.

But what was I going to do for entertainment until then? For quite some time, I had resorted to drawing my own comic books. This went on till mid-1997, when Shaktimaan’s teaser trailer was released on Doordarshan. I gave the TV series a chance because it featured a familiar face from The Great Maratha and Chandrakanta shows: Mukesh Khanna. I also recalled enjoying his performance in the lead role of a Hindi movie which was from before his stint in Mahabharat. Don’t ask me the title – I was too young to remember.

So, with enough curiosity sparked by his presence in Shaktimaan, I took the plunge with its pilot episode. It was love at first telecast. The effects at the time do not hold up against the likes of some of Rakesh Roshan’s science fiction movies, but they were way more convincing than Ra.One. What ultimately mattered was that Shaktimaan created television history. Its impact was so tremendous that even Pogo TV had aired reruns dubbed in English.

Though Diamond and Raj Comics had enough characters to fill a lineup a la the Avengers, X-Men or Justice League, Shaktimaan was the first genuine attempt toward creating a superhero platoon for Indian viewers. Years of foundation-laying within Khanna’s fictitious universe led to team-ups in later episodes.

Khanna plays the titular character, a yogi with two personalities. One minute he stands tall as the champion for truth in the avatar of Shaktimaan, and the next he exudes childlike innocence while walking the streets as the buck-toothed Pandit Gangadhar Vidyadhar Mayadhar Omkarnath Shastri. It is just as well that he takes up photojournalism because his work would capture the ways of city life, something alien to him because he had spent all his childhood in the desolate Himalayas.

The plot is set during Kali Yuga, an era when the human race descends to base levels thanks to the rising influence of the malicious Tamraj Kilvish (Surendra Pal), bearing the torch of righteousness is the Suryanshi sect. Residing in the Himalayas for the past few millennia, they train young Gangadhar in Kundalini Yoga to control the six passions of the mind, activate the seven chakras of the body, and master the five elements of life. Once he possesses the strength to make the last stand against the forces infecting the world around them, he works hard to keep his body, mind and soul free of corruption while bringing spiritual balance to the cosmos.

Is this Shaktimaan's twin brother? Only time will tell...

Following Gangadhar’s first public appearance in his yogic form, it is Geeta Vishwas, a reporter working alongside his down-to-earth self at ‘Aaj Ki Aawaz’ (a daily newspaper), who knights him with the title of Shaktimaan.

People look up to him, but is this really Shaktimaan who is threatening to spread chaos in the world?

Quick question: Do you know Dolly the sheep? Ian Wilmut had appeared on the cover of The Week magazine in the mid-1990s in connection with the cloning of a sheep and that the ‘newborn’ was named Dolly. I mentally filed away the news story till the Mein Bhi Banoonga Shaktimaan Contest was announced. How could I resist the chance to pen a tale revolving around the theme of cloning? Isn’t it worthwhile to tell the story of how science helps duplicate a righteous man like Shaktimaan but not his virtues?

A newsreader breaks the news that Shaktimaan is causing worldwide destruction, but can this be true?

The final cut of the story arc based on my entry featured Geeta Vishwas’ reputation as an honest journalist being destroyed when a clone of Shaktimaan’s, engineered by one of Tamraj Kilvish’s minions in the scientific community, undoes the yogi’s good work with acts of violence in broad daylight. 

Shaktimaan finally confronts the impostor, a clone who had broken the faith of millions of people.

Even though Geeta (Vaishnavi) knows the real Shaktimaan was in captivity the whole time and that he finally defeated his duplicate in hand-to-hand combat, the world loses its belief in him.

Will Shaktimaan defeat his clone in this epic standoff?

It has been nearly 20 years since I won the second prize for Shaktimaan Vs Shaktimaan, and I have been telling quite a few stories since then. The English-speaking world has also slowly started recognizing the potential of India as a source of endless inspiration.

When I see Stan Lee’s Chakra in bookstores, I can’t help but think of a similarly powered Shaktimaan, the true pioneer who had strived to inculcate civic sense in those who grew up in the late 1990s. He taught us to never surrender to our darker passions. And Mukesh Khanna still inspires me to never quit writing.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

The Chains of Silence

The radio play – inspired by P. Sainath’s exemplary work in development journalism – was penned because beyond the glamorous side of mainstream media, the menacing world of beggary is thriving and needs to be given a spotlight.

Who is Dennis Thorne?

I am Dennis Thorne, a man who never had the luxury of choosing my path. If I did, I would have ruled the world by now. For those of you who have no clue about me, I’ll tell you an unbelievable story.

I was born in New Eden City, United New Eden Commonwealth. To elaborate on my country’s history would mean writing volumes on the two Water Wars and the reason why New Eden was built. Then I would have to talk about the two races of scientists rivaling each other to prove something to the world. One person begged to differ: my father. Before I was born, he was taken away from me.

When I grew up, I had only a few friends. I became popular after acting in a play called ‘Robin Hood: Tales From Sherwood’. But what altered my course of life was my best friend Patrick, Patrick Roger Joaquin. He was a transmit addict, which was why he fell prey to a terrorist syndicate called Terrortech. We crossed paths with a smuggler… I met with an accident because of that.

I had fallen into a coma, and there was no way to save me. My mother and a family friend used the SUPERMAN technology on me… Thus, I became a hybrid human. I thought of using my powers to bail my friend out. Instead, my attack on Terrortech led to the loss of many innocent lives, including poor Patrick. Out of guilt, I decided to be more careful… my mother taught me how to use my abilities wisely. I started a private war on transmit smuggling and traveled a lot for this purpose. My mother guided me throughout my life.

There is something I haven’t told you about my past. Yes, all of you know what happened when I was twelve, and thirty. But there were eighteen dark years in between that really made a difference in my life. Now, follow me as I take you deeper into my life story.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Graphic Novel Review

Review Subjects:

Artwork / Themes / Cultural Impact / Cross-media Relationships

List of Reviews:

DC Comics - Batman: The Dark Knight Returns | Superman: The Dark Side | Batman: Hush | Batman: Bane of the Demon | Superman: The Man of Steel | Superman Returns: The Prequels | Catwoman: When in Rome | Superman: Y2K | The Batman Chronicles | The Long Halloween | The Sandman (Vertigo) | Green Lantern | Batman: Hong Kong

Marvel Comics - Wolverine: The Hunted | Tomb of Dracula | Iron Man

Others - Manga Bible | Flight, Volume Two | The Trigan Empire | Ben 10: Washington B.C. | Conan: When a God Lives | Wall-E | Nancy Drew | Archie | ABC Warriors | Daredevil | Alice in Wonderland | Mad Man's Drum