- Zoya Mateen and Meryl Sebastian
- BBC News
An Indian Spider-Man swings onto the screens this summer in a dhoti (a saropadesh-like garment), gold cuffs and an enviable mop of jet black hair, dishing out cultural lessons to guests from across the multiverse.
He appears in Sony Pictures’ Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse – which has spent recent weeks breaking box office records in India. It took in $2.8m (£2.17m) in its first weekend alone – the highest debut for an animated film in the country.
That’s not surprising given Spider-Man’s popularity in India, one of the few characters from the Western comic book universe to have influence in a country largely dominated by pop culture in the Hindi film industry.
Superhero movies have been among the top-grossing Hollywood films in India since 2007, spawning several local knock-offs. It includes a love song whose catchy lyrics – “Spider-man, tune churaya mere dil ka chain” (Spider-man, Spider-man, you stole my heart) – have earned cult status in the country.
But the latest film is even more special as it features the Indian version of the superhero for the first time.
A mashup of Manhattan and Mumbai – meet Pavitr Prabhakar, a troubled teenager who patrols the streets of Seduttan. His name is a play on Peter Parker, the teenager behind the original Spider-Man mask.
Pavitor is one of five different Spider-Stars – all from alternate realities but connected through their shared powers – teaming up with teenager Miles Morales to stop a scheming supervillain.
Pavitr’s portrayal was praised by fans across the globe, especially Indians who were won over by his out-of-the-ordinary personality.
Some fell in love with the tropical, curvy art-style for the film’s Mumbattan sequence — a 1970s homage to Indrajal Comics, an Indian imprint known for publishing stories about Phantom and Mandrake the Magician in vernaculars.
Others praised the way it brought together characters from different backgrounds to create a first-of-its-kind multi-ethnic team of superheroes.
“The first Marvel gave us the first black Spider-Man, Miles Morales, and now there’s Pavitra. The story is trying to touch on an exciting idea: anyone can be Spider-Man,” says Mrityunjay Pal.
While Pavithra is new to many viewers in India and abroad, his origin story goes back decades, to a time when the country’s superhero scene was confined to a niche community of comic book lovers.
The character first appeared in 2004’s Spider-Man: India #1 – a comic book that sold over a million copies over a four-issue run.
The comic book sticks to Spider-Man’s universal theme of a friendly neighborhood superhero.
Like any teenager with competing priorities, Pavith struggles to balance homework with his hero work. At school, he’s a ruthless bully — but at night, he transforms into a crime-fighting superhero who leaps skyscrapers at superhuman speeds. He wears a mask to protect someone he loves, and for that he must keep his identity a secret.
But Pavitri’s story also comes with a distinct Indian twist. He’s a tea-drinking, dhoti-wearing superhero, and he’s from a yogi — a mystical guru — and not a radioactive spider bite.
Instead of feuding with his neighbor Mary Jane, Pavithran has a crush on his classmate Meera Jane. Unlike Peter Parker, who is bullied at school as a “bookworm”, Pavitr is a scholarship student from a small village.
He is the “Indian Spider-Man” made by Indian creators. That’s what Sharad Devarajan and his co-creators Jeevan Kang and Suresh Sitharaman said when they first conceived Pavitra in 2003.
As a reflection of what we saw in 2004 when big cities seemed to be moving at light speed, we chose to play a big social fantasy about Pavithran, a village boy out of touch with Mumbai’s elite. “People in rural India felt completely disconnected,” Devarajan told the BBC.
Spider-Verse introduced audiences to a variety of Spider-Men from various 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, Devarajan explains, recreating an icon like Spider-Man was more challenging, especially for an Indian audience that had seen pictures of the character but didn’t know his story and hadn’t read any comics about him. .
India has always had a huge appetite for comic books, a common sight at grocery stores, newsagents and railway platforms. Visualization of mythological stories in Amar Chitrakatha and children’s weeklies like Twinkle and Champak made them popular.
“There is a lot of interest in history and mythology, and most of our comic books and books fall under those two categories,” says Jatin Verma, founder of Comic-Con India.
But the nation’s appetite for superheroes is recent. Some of this may be due to the traditional dominance of Indian cinema by heroes. These films offer a spectacle with bombastic storylines where the male lead saves the day by dodging bullets, jumping from rooftops and fighting dozens of goons.
“Our aim was to turn an international hero into a local icon,” said Devarajan. “A relative celebrating Diwali with her aunt swinging through the city streets of Mumbai from the Gateway of India.”
Twenty years later, Pavitor is doing exactly that – and more.
In the film, he eschews the white dhoti for a more stylish blue color – which he pairs with a cool hard-part haircut and a funky suit adorned with intricate Indian motifs.
Even his character, which in Devarajan’s words “represents the more traditional and simple family value system of Indians”, has undergone some modifications.
Unlike Miles, who is consumed by the anxiety of his powers, the chaste is an unflinching optimist who moves through Mumpton’s chaotic scenes with cool detachment.
His confident and confident side drives the plot on several occasions. During a tour of Mumbattan, he says: “This is where the British stole all our belongings.”
“Chai chai” (as if he wanted a cup of “chai chai”) even teased Miles: “Shall 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 the team literally recreated Pavithr’s sequence and reshaped his character, mid-production, after some Indian-origin people felt that Pavithr was needed. To be more authentic.
“That really spoke to the spirit of collaboration in this film,” he said.
Verma says the film is mainly aimed at audiences outside India, but the cultural elements don’t feel sloppy or stereotypical. “The fact that this Indian Spider-Man was part of one of the best Spidey movies made it even better.”
Devarajan says the film has “changed the guise, but the heart, character and unique Indianness of Pavitra remains the same”.
He hopes this is just the beginning of Pavith’s growth as a character in the Marvel universe.
“Pavitri took 20 years to jump from that comic we created to the big screen,” he says.
“Hopefully it won’t be another 20 years before we see the live action version. India needs its Spider-Man!”