Revisiting Mr India, the Bollywood superhero everybody loves

When I first watched Mr India, I was about the same age as some of the kids in the film.

Like most young viewers at the time, I was completely sold on Anil Kapoor’s marvellous invisibility watch. Desi movie merchandise isn’t a thing yet. It certainly wasn’t back then. Most of us would just pretend to vanish wearing mum or dad’s chunky HMT watches. 

Unlike today’s scenario, where there’s a superhero movie coming out every six months, Mr India was a one-of-its-kind event. More than three decades later, the magic still holds good. What I love most about Mr India is how real it feels for a sci-fi fantasy.

The hero is an average Joe running an orphanage by giving violin tuitions. It’s a hand-to-mouth existence where he hasn’t paid his cook in months and owes large sums of money to his landlord and grocer. And yet, it seems entirely probable when he turns invisible and takes on a deadly terrorist and his band of baddies. 

My favourite bit is when our titular hero, the do-gooder Arun Verma (Anil Kapoor’s star power and genial air is visible even when his character is not) acquires this wondrous device from AWOL Ashok Kumar’s office.

His genuine excitement when he asks his young, equally awestruck companion if he should test it — it’s a minor gesture, but one that shows he treats the kid as an equal and values his opinion. This is what makes Mr India extra special. It views children like little people not just as means of adorability.

Shekhar Kapur’s 1987 classic is a labour of love, ambition and ingenuity. Under his direction and Salim-Javed’s penmanship, it celebrates compassion and human spirit with generous doses of humour, thrills, music and contrivances. But what lends the adventure its distinction is the playfulness exhibited by the good guys and bad ones. 

Which brings us to its other iconic, oddly khush character — Mogambo.

Mr India is inconceivable sans Amrish Puri but the late actor came on board after more than 60 per cent of the shooting for the film was complete. A Hitler caricature residing in a Star Wars-inspired lair, Mogambo is an evil cartoon referring to himself in the third person.
Marked by nefarious deeds (drugs, black market, riots, bombs, nuclear missiles), a pompous catchphrase — Mogambo khush hua — and goofy sidekicks –Daga (Sharat Saxena) and Teja (Ajit Vachani) — he’s far too entertaining to be truly hated or feared. Puri’s towering persona, whimsical expression and the jolly new ways he comes up with to say his legendary line have made Mogambo an enduring symbol of Bollywood pop culture. 

So is Sridevi’s delightful portrayal of Seema, a gung-ho news reporter prone to slipping into various disguises for the greater good of mankind.

Dressing up and dancing a storm as Ms Hawa Hawai under the pretext of investigating criminal activities carried out by Daga and Teja or creating ruckus in Karga’s gambling den to pay a hilarious tribute to Charlie Chaplin, the inherent silliness of these gags is elevated to pure artistry under Sri’s inimitable touch.  

Although her no-holds-barred chiffon seduction in the smouldering Kaate nahi may seem a bit out of place in a children’s movie, the imagery of her making out with an unseen beau in a heap of hay is far too powerful to ignore.    Her Seema shares a bittersweet equation with the children of the house, which leads to much banter and a droll football medley wherein composer duo Laxmikant Pyarelal parody their own chartbusters to accommodate Javed Akhtar’s fitting quips.    

Mr India may borrow plot points from Shammi Kapoor’s Brahmachari, remind of Mr X in Bombay‘s plot gimmick and throw in characters called Captain Zorro and Doctor Watson, but it is a film with a mind of its own. 

Mr India is big on funnily named characters. Satish Kaushik’s griping cook and caretaker — Calendar scores by the virtue of his moniker. Then there’s Annu Kapoor as Seema’s perennially rattled editor and his pestering landline afflicted by the wrong number syndrome.  

While they take care of the humour, Mr India gets its heart from the kids. The ones living under Verma’s roof are neither a precocious bunch nor pint-sized terrors but wide-eyed moppets filled with curiosity, cuteness and mischief. 

Shekhar Kapur’s perceptivity around young actors after Masoom made him a perfect choice for the film.  And the dignity he conveys in their resilience and vulnerability during a scene where they’ve not had a meal in two days and Sridevi offers some delicious rescue in the form of snacks and pastries says volumes about the emotionality of Mr India. 

That’s why the bumping off of the most angelic member of the bachha party for dramatic emphasis comes as a rude, rude shock. One that writer Javed Akhtar, in retrospect, admits the script could have done without.   

A subject and title like Mr India would tempt most filmmakers to insert jingoistic elements or shove schmaltz down our throats but Kapur’s sharp, sensible vision was never slave to formula, which is ironically the most sought after thing in this movie.  

Where most heroes would go on a vengeance spree after inheriting their deceased father’s invisibility activating invention or plot a meticulous scheme to ensure Mogambo’s downfall, Arun is happier putting food on the hungry man’s table or inexplicably knowing where to appear (you know what I mean) every time Seema gets into trouble. Another thing that contributes to the movie’s enduring popularity is its technical finesse. The special effects don’t feel dated even though we are surrounded by CGI overkill. 

Every department contributes in enhancing the narrative. 

Mr India and Mogambo’s costumes — one’s humility and other’s flamboyance — define their role of good versus evil.Laxmikant Pyarelal’s upbeat chartbusters as well as Kishore Kumar’s philosophical musing in Zindagi ki yehi reet hai keep the momentum going through its nearly three hours running time. 

Cinematographer Baba Azmi’s brilliant use of light, spectacular compositions and vibrant palette capture the atmosphere and design of Bijon Das Gupta’s lavishly constructed sets and their shrewd detailing.

Be it the sea-facing bungalow in Versova village (in western Mumbai) or Mogambo’s shiny den fetauring acid tanks, secret passages and one-off robots in RK Studios or good ol’ Mumbai while it still had some breathing space, the life inside Mr India is an attractive combination of commonplace and fantasy.  

Mr India‘s brand of vigilantism is active not aggressive, silly not sensational, daring not dark, where the sight of a flying, furious Hanuman idol is all it takes to teach a lesson or rein in bullies.

The world has become a darker place since then with no divine intervention in sight. 

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