You may require a sweet tooth to get through the early stages of Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota - it's a bit Tarantino, a bit Edgar Wright, even a bit Taika Waititi, a combo that at this point would send most sane observers running to the hills - but, like its protagonist, it toughens up as it goes along, and generally displays enough of the right wit and spirit to keep us on side. Narratively, it has the look of the Hindi cinema's up-and-comers branch making its contribution to the current superhero boom, albeit with a knowing smirk and a (slightly) wider frame of reference: it's the tale of a plucky youngster with a congenital insensitivity to pain, Surya (Abhimanyu Dasani), who spends his formative years memorising the moves on VHS tapes of US and Indian action flicks and eventually emerges into modern-day Mumbai as a would-be hybrid of Bruce Wayne and Bruce Lee. This dude has the origin story (his mother was killed in a confrontation with necklace-snatching thugs) and a familiar tendency to take to the roofs of the city's tallest buildings; he gains a mission upon learning the one-legged karate master he revered as a child is being victimised by his evil twin brother, and another when he spies his childhood sweetheart Supri (Radhika Madan) being married off to a controlling asshat. The joke, similar to that of 2006's Special and 2010's Super, is that our boy believes he's indestructible; in fact, he's just oblivious to the fact that he's suffered a concussion or that his leg has snapped. Amid the carnage that results, one spies glimpses of the movies the Kick-Asses would have been, had they been made by fully functioning creatives rather than soulless, snickering sociopaths.
Had MKDNH just been that, it would possibly have played a little thin. As it is, it's still pretty popcorny, but its writer-director Vasan Bala is keen to do more than scatter callbacks and replay favourite scenes from his youth. He doodles with a free hand around his hero's haphazard progress, and seems at least as interested in the very real, non-fantastical world into which Surya bursts out. We get asides on the rapid redevelopment of Mumbai, and a passing glimpse at the fraught relationship between three generations of men in the same family, and how that friction relates to the death of the woman who meant so much to them as a daughter, a wife and a mother; there's also a sincere attempt to make Supri rather more than just a love interest/damsel-in-distress. Bala's biggest achievement here may lie in direction (or redirection): with the exception of the hero, forward-rolling into a Mumbai police station and immediately setting every cop on edge, nobody on screen acts as they would in any comparable Marvel movie, even when they're trapped on the 13th floor of a burning building. That's one place where you can see the budget being stretched, but elsewhere MKDNH sports as many original ideas and moves as it does hand-me-downs, and Bala grasps the limitations of cinematic postmodernism in a way I still don't believe Tarantino has. One of the film's early musical numbers contains the tip-off line "It's hard to find new words to tell the same old story". At his most inspired here, Bala does just that, which is why Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota presents as the best kind of throwback: to a time when, unencumbered by their own mythology and the dull demands of the marketplace, our superhero movies were freed to be goofy fun.
Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota is now streaming on Netflix.