It might make sense, as you read this, if you imagine my face frozen in a rictus of confused (and occasionally horrified) joy, as that might be a start to understanding the sheer depth of emotion I've felt over these two and a half hours of film.
Given the recent market glut of superhero films, I think I've spent the last couple of years watching more movies in this genre than not, though this has had increasingly less to do with rose-tinted nostalgia for the days of Superman movies and Shaktimaan and more to do with the fact that I've started to write about militarised masculinities in actual detail. As a result, I've spent many a weekend gritting my teeth through what has become the standard formula of any superhero film: a parade of barely witty quips thrown in around the imagery of institutionalized militarism. Weep with me in despairing confusion as bad lighting and massive eight-pack polyurethane abs abound like ostrich-egg-holders welded to a man's belly as he charges heroically through primarily white neighbourhoods hypocritically vowing to protect life while inflicting massive bodily injury.
If this seems like a sweeping castigation of a great deal of contemporary blockbuster cinema, that's only because it very emphatically is. The grand majority of Hollywood's offerings in the genre, and even Bollywood's more awkward contributions of the Krrish series and RaOne, have left much to be desired in their narrative choices. When a superhero is more likely to be either offensive, boring, or some combination of the two rather than likeable, there's not a lot of appeal left in the genre as a whole. Or at least that's what I thought until I watched A Flying Jatt, Remo D'Souza's 2016 Bollywood offering to the genre.
It's amazing that this film exists for so many reasons, but the main one is that its protagonist, Aman Dhillon (played by Tiger Shroff), is not just genuinely loveable, but hilariously willing to admit to his own excitement about superheroes and locate himself within this nostalgia. This isn't a film that pretends being a superhero is the hardest thing in the world; it's one that sees it as a mix of joy and duty, and that's a rare and wonderful thing to see these days. There's a truly wonderful set of scenes where Aman attempts to discover his powers and choose a costume, and these include references to the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, Tarzan, and Superman, as well as the martial arts films of Bruce Lee (he fights tennis balls (not ping pong balls) with nunchaku and frames himself constantly against the sunrise), and India's own superhero films and parodies, most notably Krrish (2006), Quick Gun Murugun (2009), and Enthiran (2010). So you have Aman, his mother (Amrita Singh), and his best friend/de facto brother Rohit (Gaurav Pandey) all watching films where superheroes fly, arguing about how Aman needs to hold his fists for best flying position. They are so excited by the possibility of him hulking out that they heckle him relentlessly through his meal while he looks cowed (since this is business as usual for him). They stand by with kerosene and fire while Aman watches Johnny Storm/The Human Torch, to check if that's the solution (after they know he's invulnerable, of course). If you're not making a million "Tiger, Tiger, burning bright" jokes by now, you clearly aren't as thrilled as I was about the potential for terrible wordplay.
To quickly and briefly summarize, A Flying Jatt centers itself around the life of Aman, a mild-mannered martial arts teacher at a local school who is desperately in love with his childhood friend, Kirti (Jacqueline Fernandez). The Punjab village estate he lives in is a safe haven against the smog and pollution elsewhere, and has a giant banyan tree worshipped by the community and renowned for granting wishes. This world is threatened by the corporate ethos of the Malhotra corporation, whose titular head Mr. Malhotra (Kay Kay Menon) intends to buy and demolish the estate in order to build a bridge that will reduce transport and shipping time for his goods. When Malhotra and his goons are (literally) slapped back by Mrs. Dhillon, Malhotra hires a violent enforcer, Raka (played by Australian wrestler Nathan Jones), to destroy the tree, resulting in a fight between Raka and Aman that sees both struck by lightning while touching the tree. Aman is branded on his back with the khanda, the military Sikh emblem carved into the banyan tree, and consequently gains powers linked to the tree's role within divinity and culture as protector and preserver; Raka ends up dumped in toxic waste from the factories that encroach upon the area and consequently gains powers through pollution. If you think this is an Indianised live-action version of 1990s Captain Planet, where Captain Planet fights off Captain Pollution, then you'd be right. It's nostalgia and, beautifully enough, it's the sort of nostalgia that revels in being cheesy—a sort of five-cheese pizza of nostalgia, which you would think would be too much cheese, but you would be wrong!
Discovering his powers, Aman's family joyfully create him as the Flying Jatt, a title his father once used as an established Sikh martial artist. However, Aman rejects the dastaar (turban) his mother offers, stating that he's as of yet unwilling to accept its responsibility (as wearing the dastaar would signify Aman's role as the male head of the household within Sikh tradition). He eventually establishes himself as a local superhero and gains Kirti's affections, only for Raka to return and challenge him under the aegis of Malhotra. Aman wins the fight, and Raka discovers that his power, drawing from pollution, is greatly increased by time spent in the ever-worsening smog of India's industrial belt. As a result, the film makes a rather unexpected and fairly pertinent point with regard to the contradictions in play in these scenarios—as Malhotra notes, the pollution of the industrial belt is of capitalistic benefit to those that Aman wishes to save and they want it to be an issue they don't have to deal with while simultaneously continuing to pollute and work to their own benefit within these capitalistic industrial enterprises; thus, the pollution that fuels Raka and drains Aman's powers is as much a consequence of the very people he intends to save—who have no real wish to alter their lifestyle to something more ecologically sustainable.
It's a great moment, made stronger by the fact that Aman, despite his seeming invulnerability, is greatly injured in the fight, which in turn has genuine and visible consequences. Raka realises that his energy supply is unlikely to ever end and, actually, increasing pollution to higher levels is of greater benefit to him. As a result, he no longer functions as Malhotra's lackey, since money is no longer of consequence when his power is seemingly absolute, and the central role of villainy shifts from Malhotra—whose money and willingness to pollute originally began the endeavour—to Raka, whose lust for power fuelled by industrial pollution spirals out into a scene where he first kills Rohit (who has dressed as the Flying Jatt to protect the people and give Aman time to heal from his wounds—the inevitable sacrificial Christ figure), and then threatens to burn everything there is. This becomes particularly interesting as we see the film begin to wrestle with the idea of corporate India opening doors to an industrialisation that essentially takes on a life of its own, and is used to the benefit of a white man of limited morality. There are shades of postcolonial engagement here, even as the film isn't quite sure where to take this or what precisely to do with the theme having established it.
The film thus has a fairly radical stance with regard to environmental justice and capitalist power, but in its abrupt attempt to reverse both, it falters, as it tries to dissuade viewers that it has any politics at all by aligning itself with sheer sentimentality instead. The townspeople ineffectually attempt to plant trees to delay Raka's effects, and a final showdown (in space! This was joy itself!) occurs between Raka and Aman. Aman, having finally accepted his dastaar, wins by virtue of embracing his Sikh heritage and destroys Raka with his kada (a bracelet to denote Sikh faith).
There's a lot to process here in terms of Sikhism in particular (and Hinduism more generally): environmentalism, industrialism, postcolonialism, and the mainstays of the superhero genre. I think it's pretty fair to say that the film is not very good in terms of sustaining its narrative purposes, addressing its sexism, or finding ways in which to deepen the characterisation of its villains or female characters. But—and this is the rarity—I'd argue that it fails due to the complexity of its purpose, and not because its protagonist is a superpowered misanthrope/narcissist who places himself above the law; which, if you've been watching the same films I have over the last few years, you'll know is far more precious now as a concept than it used to be. In effect, A Flying Jatt falters terribly, but in new and interesting ways, because it's attempting something that's somewhere between camp parody, (really problematic) religious and cultural iconography, and earnest political endeavour—and these aren't easy lines to draw around any project, let alone one so invested in some of the issues currently faced by Punjab.
But, as with all superhero films, its nationalism becomes an issue even as it attempts to create itself as representative of a specific community. The film assumes a primarily Sikh community as its basis, which isn't a problem within the parameters of setting up a Sikh superhero but is a problem with regard to the manner in which it positions its so-called villains. In a late scene in the film, Aman admits that the reason he has eschewed the dastaar is that he was mocked for it by schoolmates with the phrase "sardar, bara baj gaye" ("it's twelve o'clock"), which has in common parlance come to mean that sardars (followers of the Sikh faith) lose their reason at twelve o'clock and become ridiculous fools—an offshoot of a popular ethnic stereotype that regards sardars as figures of ridicule. Aman's mother recontextualises the same phrase historically, recounting the tale of an attack on North India by Nader Shah, the then Shah of Persia, whose large forces had overrun the cities. Rallying under their leader, sardars chose to fight by sneaking into Nader Shah's much larger and better-armed camps at midnight to free captives and attack who they could. As a result, "sardar, bara baj gaye" is a cry for help rather than a joke in poor taste about a man's ethnicity and religion being tied to his reason. Aman embraces this aspect of his cultural history and announces that his time has come as well, thus willingly embracing his destiny to fight Raka.
However, the issue that arises is not so much the problem of this recontextualisation, as the manner in which it sets up a Hindu and Muslim divide. Nader Shah is the Shah of Persia, yet in the cartoon map provided onscreen, not only is Nader Shah attacking from Iran through Afghanistan, but the central region of India has "Mughals invading India" emblazoned across it. With Aman's mother framing this as something that happened three hundred years ago (in the seventeenth century rather than in the eighteenth century), this asserts that the Mughals were interlopers within India (despite arriving in the early half of the sixteenth century and subsequently occupying a long-standing and prominent place in Indian history even during Nader Shah's invasion). There are complications with this assertion being made because, historically, the Mughals did invade from Central Asia and there have been long-standing issues regarding Hindu-Muslim relations in India, made more complicated in the recent political climate of Hindutva; yet at the same time, the conflation of the Mughals with the Shah of Iran is problematic in that it implies a broad enemy of the Sikh people, and frames them as Muslim. Additionally, this call to war of "bara baj gaye" is then transferred over in the film to the figure of the white Australian Raka as the interloper, rather than to Malhotra—whose role in the proceedings is made sympathetic by his love for his asthmatic daughter, and whose implied Hindu identity is never framed within these constraints.
The conflation of Nader Shah's invasion, the Mughals, and Raka as a foreign force that draws his power by persecuting a local populace, is thus far more complicated and intentional than the film seems willing to admit to within the confines of its milquetoast man-to-religious-hero storyline. Given its focus on attempting to address the problematic balance between a growing globalised economy within a postcolonial nation like India versus the rampant pollution and waste that arises from rapid industrialization (with its various attendant diseases, asthma and cancer in particular—the latter being the cause of Aman's father's death), the film's choice to shift focus from local businessman Malhotra as its primary villain to Raka suggests an unstable acknowledgement of the power of the Global North and its control and pollution of the Global South (originally enabled by local businesses). This, then, engages politically (though ineffectually) with not only the realities of a situation wherein local businesses seek profit despite irreparable environmental damage, but also with larger concerns wherein this industrialism benefits and empowers the Global North through centres of pollution confined to the Global South, resulting in local populations suffering despite the seeming claim of greater prosperity to the nation as a whole. All of this is interesting and valuable, if it didn't conflate Raka with historical Muslim identities (implicitly creating both as outsiders to these Indian communities) while releasing from responsibility Malhotra—a man who, at the start of the movie, framed himself as someone who had seemingly "bought" jungle area in Chhattisgarh that was owned by Naxals, despite the fact that despite the fact that many people branded Naxals are largely tribal people fighting desperately to hold on to their land against a violent Indian military funded by greedy corporations.
There are definite structural biases evident in the film in regard to who is worthy of protection in these scenarios, whose lives and land are to be discarded as a side plot, and who form traditional enemies within this frame of religious Sikh superheroism. To clarify, having a complex set of villains is an excellent idea, and having the collusion of Malhotra and Raka is a politically aware and wonderfully nostalgic moment for anyone who yelled "we're the planeteers, you can be one too" in the '90s; but the problem with this is that Raka isn't complex at all and is always framed as a villain, while Malhotra has only the most minute nuance of being a reasonably good parent. There isn't a lot of depth here, and the idea of fighting pollution, industrialism, and local corporations looking to violently control local populaces is a fairly radical idea in contemporary India where "Make In India" has become the corporate buzzword of industrial subsidies and heavily reduced (or completely done away with) environmental protections: India's Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, openly colludes with and endorses Reliance, for example—a company that already has a stranglehold on the Indian market. Framed in these terms, any mention of the Naxalite rebellion that is renowned for its stand against these very issues should have far more weight than its single throwaway line to frame Malhotra's power—but that itself would be far too radical for this film.
The Sikh community under threat is seemingly socialist in nature when evil capitalism from Malhotra comes calling—a capitalism that has apparently negotiated and won a settlement with Maoist Naxals desperate to preserve their forests and homes—but its solution to rapid industrialisation and pollution from Malhotra's chemical factories is a promise to plant more trees in their small gardens. No mention is made of the likelihood of the soil being affected by pollutants, the increasing issues of smog and the ozone layer being consequences which aren't necessarily treatable with a few more trees, or of major issues like India's contentious Land Acquisition Act. The finale would have been a great time to plug something like Afforrestt, which could potentially bridge a gap between capitalism and environmentalism in India by creating for-profit urban forests that are renewable and sustainable—and which could share actual sustainable options that are possible reasonable compromises with a viewing public. Yet none of this is present or acknowledged; any early effort in this direction is discarded in favour of the idea of the religious effects of worshipping a banyan tree within Hinduist (and specifically Sikh) ideology. It's a letdown after the buildup of the first hour and a half.
The thing is, solving the problem with religion, through Aman's embracing of his articles of Sikh faith and his belief in himself as a sardar, wouldn't be a problem if the narrative was one in which Aman's faith in himself or his community was the whole issue in play. But it's not. A Flying Jatt's failure arises not through the fact that religion and culture save the day in this particular case, but because these are as much a part of the issues of industrialism and pollution as anything else. Anyone who has celebrated a festival in India knows the reality of these cultural events: 2016 saw Holi widely celebrated with much water in large cities while farmers increasingly committed suicide in villages on the outskirts of Maharashtra due to the drought. With October coming up, it's inevitable to expect heavy pollution from firecrackers during Diwali, the mess of decorations discarded and never reused after festivals, capitalism sponsoring giant pandhals at melas (marquees at gatherings)—and none of these genuine associations with cultural celebrations of religion are addressed at all. Religion can't be innocent in a story of this nature because it's already enmeshed in these issues, whether we admit this or not.
That said, despite the fact that I think the film couldn't sustain its radical premise long enough to actually accomplish what it set out to do (i.e. talk about actual problems in the Punjab with industrialism), it did give us a Sikh superhero who is amazingly loveable because he's so attuned to his community. Aman's mother makes him buy vegetables at a local market on his way back from patrolling the neighbourhood because the costume might get him a discount, prompting a local mother who sees him buying lauki (bottle gourd) to prompt a resentful son with the reminder that even superheroes eat lauki and grow strong. He can also absorb information through his fingertips, and this results in an amazing dance sequence where, while being held up by Malhotra's goons, he accidentally touches Sunny Leone's latest album and performs a rather suggestive dance to the hit song "Babydoll" with their leader. Rohit laments, "Yeh Sunny Deol ke bagair Sunny Leone ban gaya! Mujra kar raha tha aur uspe goli ki barsaat ho gayi thi!" ("Instead of Sunny Deol, a popular Bollywood hero known for his fight scenes, he became Sunny Leone, a well-known singer, model, and actress. While he was dancing seductively, they rained bullets on him instead of money.") The scene, by allowing Aman to inhabit this female Bollywood icon's persona for a moment, not only plays with the stereotypical perceptions of hypermasculinity increasingly associated with superheroism, but also allows him to save himself and his friend by leaving the villains dumbfounded for a moment by the sheer seductiveness of his performance. While Rohit might lament Aman's unwillingness in that moment to be Sunny Deol, Aman doesn't seem particularly phased by his moment as Sunny Leone. And while the scene is played for laughs, at no point do the men verbalise homophobia or gay panic (a rarity in scenes of this nature in Bollywood).
Similarly, Aman's powers as a superhero never create him specifically as hypermasculine in contrast to his original character. For example, despite his invulnerability and flying prowess, Aman remains terrified of heights and flies primarily at the height of a car, as a result of which he greets people politely when he pulls up alongside them and reminds them to use their seatbelts and not use their mobile phones while driving, and also allows stray dogs to chase him through the streets as he begs them to follow a car instead. (I have to admit, I was laughing so hard through these parts that I could barely breathe.) Invulnerability, speed, strength, and an ability to fly are all part of his repertoire, yet Aman remains careful because he's spent the majority of his life with these fears and needs time to come to trust these new powers and unlearn past habits. Again, vulnerabilities of this nature aren't often emphasised in this genre.
In addition, A Flying Jatt made a deliberate effort to establish itself as a specifically North Indian/Punjabi story, rather than positing a superhero who protects an entire nation or, increasingly as we've seen in the MCU and DC 'verses, the entire world and/or universe. Early asides within the film that show him trying to help people feature individuals discussing whether or not he may be an alien (like Superman or Krrish), as well as numerous hilarious misunderstandings. For example, he notices a few large, uncouth men following a solitary woman at night as she hurries down the road. As viewers, we're meant to have in mind the media profile which North India in general, and Delhi more particularly, has with regard to rape—and we're supposed to be both afraid for her and reassured by Aman's presence. Yet it never occurs to us within this moment to question how a lone woman walking down a street late at night, well aware of this danger, would react to seeing a random man in a costume that carefully obscures his face. As is inevitable, when he stops to offer his help, she thinks he's a pervert, pepper sprays him, and hits him with her bag, all while angrily screaming at him about where he found the guts to attack her. The men, seeing her call for help, dash in and immediately attack him as well—because that's the usual response from a group of Indians if a woman yells for help in public. It's a fascinating moment because it not only requires that Aman reassess how he might be able to provide help in this situation, but it also ensures that the viewer is aware that women are capable of seeking ways to protect themselves, particularly if they know they have to risk these streets at night. A later scene does show Aman stopping the gang rape of a young girl in a car, but he responds to her call for help rather than preemptively stalking her as he did before. In effect, he learns to respond more effectively to situations that require nuance from him, a position rarely taken in this genre of heroism.
While superheroes often have their vulnerabilities, associated with complicated love lives or with the object of their desire being captured for use against them, this film avoids those specific tropes in favour of focusing on Aman's own emotional development and his need to woo Kirti as himself rather than as the Flying Jatt. I genuinely appreciated that. When Aman convinces Rohit to dress as him to attend a local gala on Valentine's Day—such that he can be himself with Kirti at the time—an overwhelmed Rohit on stage as the Flying Jatt ends up accepting cameo-ing Bollywood actress Shraddha Kapoor's proposal of marriage, prompting Kirti to view the Flying Jatt's (as Aman's) previous declarations of love as meaningless drivel. The combination of political Bollywood marriage taking centre stage, a local village boy (Rohit) coming face-to-face with his Bollywood dream girl in a situation where she was professing her love (albeit under a misapprehension), and Aman's terror at being forced into a marriage with someone other than Kirti and/or having Kirti no longer believe in him as the Flying Jatt, all added to the comedy of the moment. Aman's emotional vulnerability stems from the fact that his role as the Flying Jatt has led to expectations from society regarding his role as a public figure, taking away from his own time with Kirti. And while he's willing to have Rohit play the Flying Jatt so Kirti can have the best of both worlds, the primary drama of this relationship isn't him revealing the reality of his identity so much as Kirti finding out—and trolling him and Rohit in revenge for having kept this from her. This moment briefly empowers Kirti, and it didn't have Aman as the sole focus of the romance—putting them on equal footing for the moment, which worked incredibly well for me.
Despite all this, there are problems when it comes to the development of the female characters in the film. Kirti never quite graduates from anything other than a basic love interest designed to reassure the audience of Aman's heterosexuality, and goes from sassy best friend to a salwar kameez-wearing supportive wife-to-be, which is a really traditional narrative for women in these films. Similarly, Aman's mother goes from an amazing round of drinking whiskey and slapping corporate shills to a more "pure" incarnation of a supportive mother. I have to admit, I preferred both characters in the first half of the film, and could easily have skipped over Kirti's character completely.
Regardless of the hilarity of its first half, the never-quite-realised idealism of its second, and the many, many problems sprinkled throughout, I actually really enjoyed A Flying Jatt. It was a pleasure to see a superhero not be tormented by his powers so much as have his mom shove him out a window, yelling at him to go be useful. I liked that they made the effort to have Raka speak a good half of his lines in Hindi, and that he's obviously made an effort to sound like he knows the language rather than the often garbed mess that arises when someone with a strong accent attempts this. I loved that Aman was trying hard, and that the film actually took time and care to build the relationship between him, his mother, and Rohit such that Rohit's sacrifice was of actual value to the film's narrative and not just a throwaway to emphasise Raka's power. I loved that the film made Aman dealing with a terrorist attack a slow-motion dance sequence with song, so that it wasn't about portraying the moment as gritty but about him being thrilled enough to dance through it all. And I especially enjoyed the fact that, after dealing with the terrorists, he tried to fly away—but flew so low because of his fear of heights that he had to excuse himself through the crowd of news crews.
It's not a perfect film by any means, but it's one which genuinely loves the global superhero genre and wants to put it to good use. Call me jaded, but that's something I haven't seen much of in a long time.