Sunday 3 December 2023

At the BFI: "Mr. India"

As a galactic title card indicates,
Mr. India was the Indian film industry's response to the success of the Star Wars and Superman series: an epic good-versus-evil battle, wittily scripted by the Salim-Javed pairing and directed by the emergent Shekhar Kapur (a long way from Bandit Queen, never mind Elizabeth), which deployed charismatic stars on vast fantastical sets - the best Bollywood could buy in 1987 - with the intent of rallying an India in crisis. The film's India is being undermined by the nefarious Mogambo (Amrish Puri, not un-Brandoish in his tight blonde hairpiece), who with the assistance of foreign agents is flooding the country with drugs and guns - and even putting stones in lentils and wheat, a location-specific Trojan horse - to create the vacuum that will see him appointed King of India. It's down to baggy-hatted orphanage manager Anil Kapoor to save the day, with the help of a wristwatch that functions as an invisibility cloak; Sridevi, introduced in a red-white dress that serves as a plot point and thereafter iconic in pigtails, is the movie's own Lois Lane, a crusading journo who moves into the orphanage's spare room on the (mis)understanding Arun is a bachelor with no kids. As many learned observers have noted in the years since, her Seema Sohni may be the true hero of the picture: it's she who keeps this ramshackle Barnardo's going with her rent cheques, and all while offering arguably the definitive screen portrait of the freelancer pulling their hair out trying to make deadline while besieged by the loud noises outside her window. (In this instance: boisterous all-orphan games of football, kiddie singalongs with distinct breakdance influence, and - eventually - a fight for the very heart and soul of the motherland.)

Two underacknowledged players here are the light and breeze coming in through that same studio window. Rather than embarrassing itself by going up into space, this is a blockbuster that remains wholly earthbound, unfolding around a coastal backwater where the sun always seems to be out (though the sunsets are truly spectacular). Alongside the serials that gave the cinema renewed impetus on the Lucas/Spielberg watch, there's an air of the summertime special about it all that remains immensely charming: British viewers of a certain age might well spy something Crackerjack-like in the orphanage scenes, where Kapur looks to have directed his child performers to muck around at will, and in the key action setpieces, with their props moved as if by invisible hands (and/or string). It's not stressed unduly, but Arun's inherited invisibility is clearly intended to represent that of millions at the foot of the social ladder. (One of Mogambo's evils: landlordism). It's just - with a great cry of wahoo! - he weaponises his to make a difference; his enemies simply never see him coming. Kapoor lends the character's visible component the infectious enthusiasm of the best kids' TV presenters; he's matched, and I'm tempted to say bettered by Sridevi, beneficiary of that casually worn glamour that now seems a lost movie art. She grabs herself two of the great musical numbers of this decade: first posing as a showgirl, for a song in which her inability to lipsynch accurately becomes part of the joke, and then a one-sided nocturnal dance routine in a diaphanous blue sari that will be parents' cue to shield the eyes of any accompanying youngsters. (It wouldn't be an Eighties family comedy without a few awkward and uncomfortable emotions.) It's a superhero movie that still beguiles because it never loses sight of the people amid its effects and spectacle, and it vanquishes any residual viewer cynicism with a great, galumphing optimism. "Tomorrow will be brighter," signature song "Zindagi Ki Yahi Reet Hai" insists. "That's the way life is." You emerge with two of the best free gifts any comic book could bestow: a big rubbery smile, and entire pocketfuls of chuckles.

Mr. India screens at the BFI Southbank on December 17th, followed by a Q&A with producer Boney Kapoor. Some tickets still available here.


  1. Can’t wait to see this iconic film amd to hear Boney Kapoor too.