My grandmother is a superhero. I don’t remember ever seeing her in a cape or a spandex suit, but she would prop a ladder against the wall and overreach her five-foot-nothing frame onto the lintel to retrieve a lost tennis ball. She could single-handedly cook up a feast for a battalion of visiting relatives. And this she won’t put on her résumé, but she has caught thieves and survived high-voltage electrocution.
Those were superpowers for sure. I know, because when I am planning dinner for six, I keel over with anxiety and hope to die.
Today, her octogenarian knees have given up, but her heart goes on and her failing eyes twinkle as she remembers the numerous times she saved the world. My world.
This could be your grandmother, or someone within six degrees of your acquaintance. Our lives abound with inspiring, path-breaking people, but we seldom see them for what they are. Instead, we look outward into the realms of fantasy and fiction for role models. From virtuous mythological exemplars to quasi-human mutants, we have curated an exhaustive pantheon to worship.
Perhaps, too many.
Because we live mundane, distracted and frustrated lives, our imagination seeks refuge in the absurdly theatrical. We’ve set the bar dismally low for what it takes to achieve superhero status. Mired in middle-class anxieties, we envy all that we cannot achieve. So we celebrate the privileged — sportspersons, musicians, film stars, politicians — for relatively pedestrian accomplishments like running marathons, or inaugurating malls, or even paying their taxes. We venerate the persona, not the person. But beyond the realm of Rajinikanth jokes exists a world that mere charisma cannot save.
The trope of superhero worship isn’t just a Hollywood-propagated epidemic. In the labs of right-wing groups, mythological figures have undergone a metastatic transformation. Shiva and Hanuman, deities once depicted as embodiments of benevolence, are now represented as musclebound, testosterone-addled alpha-males.
Self-appointed superheroes rule the world. In the land of the free and the home of the brave, the orange-haired Tycoon has usurped the Oval Office. The Tsar is flexing his muscles in Russia. And closer home, the (56-inch) chest-thumping Hologram Man has written himself into school textbooks.
Personality politics apart, I have a bone to pick with the new crop of superhero franchises: they are excruciatingly unimaginative and mind-numbingly violent. It was fun when you could count all the superheroes in the universe on one hand, but now they face a crisis of overpopulation. Origin story after origin story has left us with a packed stage and more intergalactic shrapnel than we have room for. So I resolved that I don’t need any more superheroes in my life. None to marvel at, and none to avenge me.
However, every now and then comes a genre-busting film that makes elbow room for hope. Like Birdman — Alejandro Iñárritu’s tragi-comic story of a faded actor, who once played a superhero, rediscovering his shtick in a consummate Broadway stage performance. Or the Korean film Psychokinesis — about a written-off dad who acquires accidental superpowers and comes to the aid of his estranged daughter, a restaurateur, when the land mafia threatens her. Or Vikramaditya Motwane’s Bhavesh Joshi — Superhero, a heartbreakingly poignant film about a trio
of do-gooder YouTubers battling political crime in Mumbai.
Their plots are rooted in the real world with just that touch of magical realism. You walk out of the theatre with hope in your heart, not deaf from tectonic explosions and sick from eating caramel popcorn.
Superheroes represent our innate freedom struggles. Within each of us roils a revolution, a fight to realise our true potential. A fight that will never see the light of day if we palm off the responsibility to an acknowledged higher power — be that a film star, a politician or a god.
To be superhuman, it’s essential to be human first. If we looked away from the screen and onto the street, we might recognise the superheroes hiding in plain sight. Everyday people who overcome everyday odds like physical impairment, gender bias, domestic violence, labour inequality and discrimination. Those who spend weekends standing in picket lines to save a forest or a lake. Or holding placards against water cannons to resist the attrition of democracy.
There are causes aplenty to fight for, so perhaps the hardest choice to make is which one to espouse.
A friend of mine was presented this ‘fun’ question during a job interview: “So, what kind of superhero would you like to be?”
He answered honestly: “The kind of superhero that wages an infinity war against mass idiocy, climate change denial, and bigotry.”
He didn’t get the job.