AKA Telugu Superman
Starring N. T. Rama Rao, Jaya Prada, Jaya Malini, Kaikala Satyanarayana, Pandari Bai
Directed by V. Madhusudhana Rao
Expectations: I don’t really know what to expect.
On the general scale:
On the B-movie scale:
Y’know what Superman was always missing? A lust for revenge. V. Madhusudhana Rao’s 1980 take on the character rectifies that by throwing out the story we’re all familiar with and going with one built upon the idea that three evil Indian cowboys confidently stride into Raja’s (AKA Superman’s) house and murder his parents. It’s also filled with musical numbers and a healthy dose of marital intrigue, not to mention a 10-year-old assassin, some attack elephants and a couple of sumos with painted, black skin wielding axes, all thrown in for good measure. And that’s just a few of the interesting things. Yep, this South Indian Superman is definitely unlike any other interpretation of the character you’ve ever seen.
Like any good revenge story, Superman opens with the genesis of the main character’s quest. Those murderous cowboys performed their evil deed on the eve of the prayer recitation of Sundara Kanda, a book which chronicles the adventures of the ape-like Hindu god, Hanuman. Young Raja isn’t sure what he should do, so he goes to Hanuman’s temple to sing an intense, powerful song, calling for help from the deity. When he receives no answer, he threatens to kill himself. But he receives no answer still, so Raja grabs a nearby candlestick, drives it into his stomach and slowly bleeds to death before the statue of Hanuman. Raja’s splattered blood on the statue causes the deity to awaken. He takes pity on the small boy, restores Raja’s life and imbues his body with powers comparable to Hanuman himself. Raja is no longer just Raja, he is now Superman!
This is only the second film I’ve seen out of Tollywood, but it shares many similarities to the first film I saw, Alluda Mazaaka…! Both films are like a multi-genre stew, incorporating heroics, revenge, martial arts and tons of marital drama into a very entertaining film. But for those familiar with Alluda Mazaaka…!, and specifically the action of that film, don’t get too excited because nothing in Superman is at that level. It’s a much more surface-level connection, but you can see the groundwork for something like Alluda Mazaaka…! in this earlier film. It’s interesting that two films made 15 years apart by different teams share so many broad similarities, and it makes me wonder if these similarities are the hallmarks of Southern Indian cinema (or at least Southern Indian genre cinema). If so, count me in!
Being a complete and total revision of the Superman character, the only things that this Superman shares with the traditional Man of Steel are some basic abilities (flight, super strength, invincibility) and a costume of red and blue. Raja saves the day for some helpless strangers in grand Superman fashion, too, rescuing a couple of kidnapped kids via a martial arts battle atop a moving camper van, and stopping a runaway bus from driving over a cliff. Raja’s costume sports a big H (for Hanuman) instead of the iconic S, too. And that’s pretty much where the Superman connection ends. Raja is not a journalist, and there’s no real Lois Lane character, although Raja does have a healthy love interest in Jaya, his business partner’s daughter.
Within this relationship we find the real heart of the film, as Raja and Jaya struggle to keep it in their pants whenever they’re together. Four of the film’s songs are devoted specifically to their building sexual tension. Here’s some sample lyrics, one from each song, so that you can get the flavor:
“Don’t let your saree touch me and make me restless”
“When the naughtiness can no longer be suppressed, it will be heaven”
“The grasslands have invited us to come to them/and when we went there they laughed asking about the bed”
“When you embrace me there is a wonderful sound in my heart/When I land in your lap it makes a strange sound”
But don’t think of these songs as your traditional Hollywood musical numbers, instead they are fairly unique in their venues. The first comes at a campfire party Raja attends directly after saving the bus of tourists (and Jaya). The second song, set around a plaza with all kinds of fountains, comes after Supes returns home to brag to his mom about killing the first cowboy (by turning his attack elephants on him). The third song is in the stars, replicating the “Clark & Lois fly through the sky” romance scene from Superman, but with song, dance and a distinctly more low-budget flavor. And the final sexual tension song is one of dreams, as Raja and Jaya can’t be together right then, so they say “Hello!” over walkie talkies and we are whisked away into their fantasy of dancing all around random Hong Kong locations. The low-budget, guerrilla-style feel is also quite noticeable in this song even without any special FX, as they dance to their heart’s content on the side of a water park’s pedestrian entrance with parkgoers walking by behind them.
But wait, there’s more! There’s also a sub-plot involving Raja’s sister’s indiscretions and a storyline with Jaya’s father, the owner of a gold mine, and his struggles with an evil Hong Kong real estate tycoon who will stop at nothing to take control of the mine. Don’t worry, though, as all of these coincidentally intersect seamlessly with the other main plotlines, so you’ll only have to keep track of one devious asshole and his two main henchmen (dun duh dun! they are the cowboys!) throughout the film. They sure know how to pack a movie full of plot twists and drama in India. If you’ve never seen an Indian film, it’s a unique experience and I highly recommend it.
And and such, there’s just too much for one review to cover. I’m at a loss to find a way to seamlessly integrate things like the cowboy who uses a satellite dish to shoot fire-sparking rays at Superman, or the demon spawned from a crack in the ground that lunges at the camera’s fish-eyed lens with its tongue wagging, or the inexplicable room of fireballs that Superman must cross to save Lois. And who could forget the fight between Raja and “20 Karate Fighters” who are sent in to kill Raja after the sumos and poison have failed? The fights in this Superman may be mediocre, but the fact that actor N. T. Rama Rao resembles Elvis in his later days adds a special charm to each and every weird-looking kick. N. T. Rama Rao was recently voted the “greatest Indian actor” in a poll conducted by CNN-IBN, and he does a fantastic job here as Raja/Superman.
As much as I enjoyed it, Superman is longer than it needs to be, with many of the Hong Kong scenes needlessly extending the runtime for no good reason. And by that point, the film has gone so far away from the base Superman premise that the in-costume Supes is actually gone from much of the second half of the film. But for a film this entertaining and full of wild imagination, I think it’s wrong to lament that it’s not more focused on Superman’s quest for revenge. It’s simply great as-is, flaws be damned. If you enjoy low-budget cinema, this is definitely a must-see and very entertaining.
I’ll leave you with one of the best lines in the film, spoken by the Man of Steel himself:
“You are a demon in human form who quenches its thirst with the blood of others!”
Oh, and here’s the Superman theme song that plays every time Supes does something heroic!
No trailer, but here’s the dance through the stars.