- By Zoya Mateen and Meryl Sebastian
- BBC News
This summer the Indian Spider-Man is making waves as he struts across the screens in a dhoti (a sarong-like outfit), golden bangs and an enviable sweep of jet black hair.
He appears in Sony Pictures’ Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse – which has spent recent weeks breaking box office records in India. It grossed $2.8m (£2.17m) in its opening weekend alone – the highest debut for an animated film in the country.
Spider-Man’s popularity in India should come as no surprise – he’s one of the few characters from the Western comic book universe to have made an impact in a country where pop culture largely dominates the Hindi film industry.
The superhero film has been the highest-grossing Hollywood film in India since 2007, spawning several local knock-offs. It includes a love song whose funny lyrics – „Spider-Man, Deon Suraya Mere Dil Ka Sein” (Spider-Man, Spider-Man, you’ve stolen my heart) – have earned cult status in the country.
But the latest film is very special as it features an Indian version of the superhero for the first time.
Meet Pavitr Prabhakar, a troubled young man who patrols the streets of Mumbai – a mashup of Manhattan and Mumbai. His name is Peter Parker, the teenager behind the original Spider-Man mask.
Pavitr is one of five different Spider-Stars – all from alternate realities but connected through their shared powers – who teams up with teen hero Miles Morales to stop a scheming Overseer.
Bavitri’s portrayal was appreciated by fans across the globe, especially Indians who were won over by her vivacious personality.
Some have fallen in love with the tropical, curvy art style for the film’s Mumbatan sequence — an homage to Indrajal Comics from the 1970s, an Indian imprint known for publishing stories about the Phantom and Mandrake the Magician in regional languages.
Others have praised the way the film brings together characters from diverse backgrounds to create the first multi-racial group of superheroes.
„First Marvel gave us Black Spider-Man, Miles Morales, and now we have Pavitr. The story tries to touch on a brilliant idea: anyone can be Spider-Man,” says avid comic fan Mrityunjay Paul.
While Pavitr is new to many audiences in India and abroad, his origin story dates back decades, a period when the superhero scene in the country was limited to a core community of comic book enthusiasts.
The character made his first appearance in 2004 in Spider-Man: India #1 – a comic book that sold over a million copies in a run that spanned four issues.
The comic book stuck to the universal premise of Spider-Man’s friendly neighborhood superhero.
Like any teenage boy with competing priorities, Pavitr struggles to balance homework with his hero work. At school, he’s mercilessly bullied — but at night, he transforms into a crime-fighting superhero who zips through skyscrapers at superhuman speeds. He wears the mask to protect the one he loves, for which he must keep his identity a secret.
But Bavitri’s story also comes with a special Indian twist. He’s a chai-sipping, hooded superhero who’s a yogi — a mystical guru — who gets his powers from radioactive spider bites.
Instead of hooking up with Mary Jane, the girl next door, Pavitr has a crush on his classmate Meera Jain. Unlike Peter Parker, who is bullied at school for being a „bookworm”, Pavitr is a scholarship student from a small village who is teased for his looks.
He is the „Indian Spider-Man” created by Indian creators. That’s what Sharad Devarajan and his co-creators Jeevan Kang and Suresh Seetharaman said when they first conceptualized Bavitra in 2003.
„We chose to play the larger social story of Pavitra being a village youth who is not connected to the Mumbai elite because in 2004 we saw the big cities moving at a light pace. Rural India felt completely alienated,” Mr Devarajan told the BBC.
The Spider-Verse introduced viewers to a variety of Spider-persons from different racial and gender backgrounds: Morales, who is of African and Puerto Rican heritage; Mexican-born Miguel O’Hara’s Spider-Man; Jessica Drew, Marvel’s first pregnant superhero; and the spider-punk of Hobie Brown, who is of African descent.
But in 2004, reimagining an icon like Spider-Man was more challenging, especially for an Indian audience, explains Mr Devarajan, who had seen pictures of the character but didn’t know his story and hadn’t read comics about him. .
India has always had a passion for comic books, a common sight found at grocery stores, newsagents and railway platforms. They were popularized by visual re-imaginings of mythological stories in weekly children’s magazines such as Amar Chitra Katha, and Twinkle and Shampak.
„There is a lot of interest in history and mythology, and most of our comic books and books fall into those two categories,” says Jatin Verma, founder of Comic-Con India.
But the country’s appetite for superheroes has been on the rise lately. This may be partly because the place is traditionally dominated by the heroes of Indian cinema. These movies offer a spectacle with flamboyant storylines that see the male leads dodging bullets, jumping from rooftops and fighting goons.
„Our aim is to turn an international hero into a local icon,” said Mr Devarajan. „A cousin celebrating Diwali with her aunt, swinging through the city streets of Mumbai from the Gateway of India.”
Twenty years later, Pavitr is doing exactly that – and more.
In the picture, she’s ditched a white dhoti for a very stylish blue – which she pairs with a funky suit adorned with intricate Indian motifs and a cool edgy haircut.
Even his character – which in Mr Devarajan’s words „represents the most traditional and simple family value system of Indians” – has undergone some changes.
Unlike Miles, who is consumed by the anxiety of his powers, Pavitr is unwaveringly confident as he coolly navigates Mumbattan’s chaotic scenes.
His confident and confident side drives the plot on many occasions. During the Mumbatan tour, he says: „This is where the British stole all our goods.”
„Chai Tea” (like saying he wants a cup of „Tea Tea”) taunts Miles: „Can I ask you for a coffee-coffee, room for cream-cream? ?”
In an interview with Variety magazine, Kemp Power, one of the film’s three directors, said that after Bavitr felt the need for some Indian-origin animators working on the film, the crew „re-trenched Bavitr’s scene and reshaped her character”. Be more authentic.
„It really spoke to the collaborative spirit of this movie,” he said.
Mr Varma says that while the film is primarily aimed at audiences outside India, the cultural elements don’t feel lazy or stereotypical. „This Indian Spider-Man was part of a great Spidey movie that just got better.”
Mr Devarajan says the film has „changed the dress but the heart, character and unique Indianness of Pavitr remains the same”.
He believes this is just the beginning of Bavitri’s development as a character in the Marvel universe.
„It took 20 years for Pavitr to jump from that comedy we made to the big screen,” he says.
„Hopefully it won’t be another 20 before we see the live action version. India needs its Spider-Man!”
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