Superhero Fever Strikes India:

Maharakshak Aryan on Zee TV

Zee TV of India’s promotional shot for Maha Rakshak Aryan. The Hindi text says: “Starting November 1. Fri-Sun 7 pm.”

You can hardly swing an unconscious henchman without hitting a superhero in American popular culture these days. Solo and in teams, superheroes dominate our comics and movies; they’re making rapid inroads on television too, on shows such as Constantine, The Flash, and Gotham. India took Hollywood musicals and turned them into their own original creation. Perhaps the same thing will now happen with superhero stories? In any case, India is exhibiting symptoms of superhero fever, and is once again adding its own garam masala (spicy mix) to the product.

Maha Rakshak Aryan[1] aired in 26 half-hour episodes on India’s Zee TV between November 1, 2014 and February 1, 2015. Ratings are not really available, but they appear to have been respectable. Certainly Zee TV put a lot of effort and resources into promoting the show: in addition to commercials and web materials, Zee released a free smartphone game for iPhone and Android. (It’s still available at this writing.)

As Aryan’s official web page explains, “Aryan is the first amongst Zee TV’s superhero trilogy ‘Maharakshak’ that will showcase the triumph of good over evil.” The second show, Maharakshak Devi, will feature a 17-year-old girl as its superhero. It has no release date yet, only “soon.” Aryan, Zee TV’s inaugural superhero, is a

shy, reserved, be-spectacled studious boy, who speaks less but sometimes gives quirky one liners back to people who undermine his intelligence. He possesses good sense of humour and currently works as an intern at the city radio station since 6 months.

In reality, Aryan belongs to a great family of protectors of a precious stone and is also expected to fall in line as the next protector after his uncle. He has certain special powers that he is unaware of and discovers it along his journey. He is the biggest counter force against all the negative forces and calamities that can strike the Earth.

His powers are genetic, inborn. One might say he is born into the superhero caste.

India, or at least urban middle-class India, is currently undergoing rapid Westernization.[2] Predictably enough, opinion is sharply divided on how good or bad a thing this is. Indians under 30, especially, are adopting Western clothing, pizza delivery, English slang, and rap/hip-hop culture. Indians over 50 lament the “good old days” when kids respected their elders and their cultural heritage. Those in between feel divided. Maharakshak Aryan, reflecting this larger cultural shift, incorporates several familiar Western elements. Aryan can always be found in t-shirts (with English words or American company logos on them), blue jeans, and athletic shoes. In the show’s going-to-commercial splash screen, and other promotional materials including the Aryan game, he wears a hoodie.

His good-hearted, down-to-earth female friend Manasvi wears casual Western-style dresses or blouses with jeans, not more traditional salwaar kameez or saris. Aryan’s love interest, Ria, wears flashier versions of what Manasvi wears, as befits her personality: “She is very attractive and the most beautiful girl in the office. Ria is moody as sometimes good-hearted, sometimes spoiled and vain, and very fashion-conscious.” These three characters, plus Aryan’s younger cousin Pissu, throw lots of American slang phrases (“just chill,” “bro,” “give me a break”) into their everyday conversation.

The show feels like, and is structured like, a typical video game—specifically, a fighting game. (In this, it borrows from both American and Japanese influences.) Aryan’s archenemy Triloki is only a kind of final boss. Aryan has to work up to that difficulty level gradually.

He takes on one henchman, or lesser villain—each one selected and sent by Triloki—per each two episodes. Each enemy has distinctive powers, themes, and “moves”: snakes, fire, cold, etc. The enemies are certain cartoonish enough, particularly the evil dwarves and Haksa, the latter of whom appears to have stolen KISS’s makeup and wardrobe.

Evil dwarves. (3)

The demon Haksa, or a fifth member of KISS?

A fearsome, grunting giant, menacing a world where Aryan’s uncle Arjun becomes stranded, copies the look of Kratos, hero of the Sony Playstation series of videogames.

As the show progresses and Aryan learns/discovers/becomes more comfortable with his superhero powers, enemies get tougher (supposedly; it’s hard to tell from the fights). At the end of the show’s run, Aryan finally sways one young villain, Banasur, to his side; now fully leveled up and possessing a sidekick, Aryan can challenge and defeat Triloki.

As familiar as all this seems, there is much about the show that is uniquely Indian. For instance, five elemental gods (Earth, Air, Fire, Water, and Spirit) live on their own separate plane of existence, the devlok or abode of gods. Aryan is at first brought there, then learns to go there on his own. The gods advise and encourage Aryan in the devlok between fights. The boss demon Triloki inhabits his own corresponding, hellfire-lit plane. Then there is our world, the world of humans. This setup reflects the Hindu teen lok, three worlds: a place of punishment/Hell, this world, and the abode of the gods.

The enemies, too, have a specifically Indian flavor. The KISS-ish foe Haksa is “an extremely powerful demon who cannot be killed by hands or by weapons. Who cannot die in the day or in the night and who cannot be killed by the gods or by a human.” This is a seeming paradox copied straight out of the Mahabharat, one of India’s two great religious epics.[4] An enemy, seemingly invincible, must be overcome by our hero’s ingenuity. (A kind of super-hound is suddenly, conveniently available for Aryan to command. Being neither god nor human, attacking in twilight shadows, the hound can defeat Haksa.) All the enemies are “demons” (as opposed to “criminals” or “villains”), directly evoking the Ramayan’s epic fight against Raavan’s demon kingdom, Lanka.

It should be acknowledged that this show’s audience seems to skew quite young. On the one hand, Maharakshak Aryan (now Devi) is advertised along with Zee TV’s other “Fiction Shows”—i.e., soap operas. Indian soaps, like soaps around the world, primarily target women working at home. Zee TV’s soaps include Jodha Akbar, a historical drama; Kumkum Bhagya (fortunes of marriage), a family/marriage drama; and Neeli Chatri Waale, a show featuring an ordinary man who begins to receive daily personal friendship and help from the god Shiva. None of them are written for kids Aryan’s age. On the other hand, the broad-stroke story, cartoonish villains, high-school-aged kids serving as heroes among largely clueless adults, and the (frankly) somewhat cheap and unconvincing visual effects would not appeal much to anyone but teens and younger children.

India has probably the world’s longest history of telling epic tales of good versus evil. The nation has a much shorter history of telling superhero stories specifically. Seeing how the new superhero stories evolve in India’s rich, ancient-yet-postmodern cultural climate should be fascinating indeed.


[1] The show’s title appears in some places as two words and in others as three. Either way, it means “Great Protector Aryan.”

[2] To see this cultural tension in a nutshell, see the novels of Chetan Bhagat, unofficial laureate of Young India, especially One Night @ the Call Center and Revolution 2020.

[3] You probably noticed right away that the evil dwarves’ skin is darker than the heroes’. India has a long history of preferring light skin in its gods and heroes and dark skin in its villains. Skin-lightening creams are widely used and advertised there in real life.

[4] The other, the Ramayan, tells the story of Ram and Hanuman’s defeat of Raavan, and recovery of Sita, celebrated every late fall by Diwali festivities.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Brian Cowlishaw grew up in rural Idaho, then earned his Ph.D. in English at the University of Oklahoma in 1998. He has taught and published on many areas of literature and popular culture, especially science fiction and fantasy. He is a Harper Voyager Super Reader, reviewing advance reader copies for the publisher. He currently teaches literature and writing at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. He has recently published on A Song of Ice and Fire and Breaking Bad. He is an avid gamer (board and video), and a big fan of all things related to India. Email: cowlishb@nsuok.edu. Twitter: @BrianCowlishaw. Brian's ongoing fiction project: thisisnozzy.blogspot.com. Brian's blog about teaching himself Hindi: biggora.blogspot.com.

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