Avengers: Infinity War's India success — Result of global hype or change in urban mindset?
In spite of the thinkpieces declaring Avengers: Infinity War's box office success in India spells trouble for it, Bollywood is still safe in India
Avengers: Infinity War, which has earned Rs 157 crores in its first week in India to become one of the highest grossers, apparently set off alarm bells in Bollywood. Amitabh Bachhan, when promoting his own film 102 Not Out, (rightly) described Hollywood as an ogre that destroyed local film industries, and implied that it was the patriotic duty of Indians to support their own country’s cinema. One may or may not respond sympathetically to this patriotic call, but Indian cinema has been one of the few in the world to resist Hollywood, at least on its own turf. The Marvel film has received excellent reviews but it is essentially a tacky reworking of old motifs un-enlivened by inventiveness. Whenever a Hollywood film claims to be the ‘most expensive ever’ one must keep in mind that it includes the publicity budget and it is the publicity that attracts people rather that the film’s visual or narrative appeal. America publicises its own output like no other country and this is responsible largely for its ethos permeating the world and contributing disproportionately to global culture.
Avengers: Infinity War — to sum up its ingredients — features a villain named Thanos trying to gain control of the universe by taking possession of six stones. Thanos has destroyed Asgard, one of the homes of the Norse gods. Norwegians are Christian now and their former gods (not protected by copyright laws) are up for grabs, which means that Marvel Comics has been able to enlist their services. A spaceship from Asgard loaded with survivors is now attacked and destroyed by Thanos and the two gods on it — Thor and Loki — are in peril. Loki is killed soon enough and Thor is grievously injured. Hulk aka Bruce Banner, an American superhero (who is on the spaceship) is overpowered and sent crashing to earth. Thanos, by now, has been able to appropriate two of the six stones and he needs four more.
The Avengers series has the good represented firstly by the Norse gods and secondly by superheroes. The superheroes are all products of technology it seems — either intentionally or unintentionally. Tony Stark or Iron Man is a brilliant scientist who has invented his trademark suit, once used against the Taliban in Afghanistan. Spiderman aka Peter Parker was bitten by a genetically modified super-spider and has acquired its powers. In order to be politically correct and restrict the value attributed to Western technology, Stephen Strange has been made to study the occult sciences in Nepal and is empowered by them. (When India’s I&B Minister Smriti Irani expresses enthusiasm for the film one guesses it is Dr Strange she approves of, especially.) The Black Panther or T’Challa is King of Wakanda, who got his powers through a meteorite, and a mineral Vibranium. Wakanda is a kingdom that takes the best of Africa and the West.
Alongside these two groups — gods and superheroes — there is a third marginal group called the ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ who seem to owe their shape to the Star Wars films. One is an American (Peter Quin or Star-Lord) from Missouri, another is a racoon-shaped creature from another planet (Rocket Raccoon) and a third — Gamora — is the adoptive daughter of Thanos, adopted when he destroyed her own planet. Actually, ‘destroy’ is not the right word for what Thanos does. He eliminates half the population on each planet, randomly, at any one time, to make life idyllic for the rest and he is not entirely ‘wicked’. The three groups representing ‘justice’ all speak English but the content of their talk is different. The gods speak gravely and their lines are weighty; the superheroes, because they are human, have human emotions; ‘I love you’ and ‘I love you too’ are lines frequently uttered by them. The Guardians of the Galaxy are essentially cartoon characters (like the talking racoon) and their speech is usually friendly banter, although they can lapse into seriousness.
These are the beings populating the film although Thanos has a bunch of characters aiding him as well. Bad people in Hollywood fantasies usually have no noses (Lord Voldemort) or bad teeth (the Orcs). Anthropologists have yet to determine the connection but Thanos answers to neither description although his faithful assistant Ebony Maw is denied a nose. Thanos actually resembles the WWF wrestler Stone Cold Steve Austin who, at the height of his fame, answered to the enigmatic numerical emblem ‘3:16’.
As regards the locations, much of the film happens in the dark, in space stations that resemble dilapidated shopping malls. The best-lit parts are in New York with Thanos attacking it, the citizens running helter-skelter. A giant spaceship looms over New York and there is little else in the film to compare with it. Thor is rescued by the Guardians of the Galaxy and he needs to go to the planet Nidavellir where the dwarf Eitri can forge an axe for Thor. Eitri is expectedly played by Peter Dinklage from Game of Thrones, who has gradually become the most successful dwarf in Hollywood. Nidavellir is reminiscent of one of those places in Lord of the Rings, as is Vormir where Thanos looks for the Soul Stone.
As may be evident from this description it would be futile to evaluate the film; even deducing anthropology or politics from it may be pointless. Perhaps the only interpretable political sign in the film is the presence of the Secretary of State, who appears in a hologram to a superhero and disappears immediately afterwards. There is sense conveyed here of superheroes being related to the military, in some sense, even though actual state officials are not regarded with sympathy in many films. America apparently needs superheroes to conquer its enemies across the universe, after the Earth is rid of them. But one cannot also be certain that the superhero is not a brand ambassador used to sell nuclear/armament technology. ‘Star Wars’ was a term used to name a missile shield during the cold war, and nuclear missiles are frequently used by Hollywood to destroy rogue asteroids and meteors. There are a number of moneyed dictators in the world and their buying decisions are mysterious. If T’Challa had been dictator of Wakanda and not a superhero, he might have wanted to protect his people against asteroids.
The attraction of Avengers: Infinity War to Indians is difficult to understand but it could simply be the international hype which has got people in the metropolises excited. Its weekly earnings were impressive but they are not the highest. Jurassic Park also did very well because of its novelty but the sequel sank like a stone. The fact is that Indians like to see other things; they like the familiar more than the unfamiliar. If identification with characters is a key aspect of popular cinema, they would be less likely to identify with someone who saves mankind from extinction than with someone who owns a mansion in France and throws parties. To my mind Titanic was Hollywood’s biggest success in India and that was because it was read as a Hindi film, to which it bore a strong resemblance. Bollywood is still safe in India and its strength owes to the Indian mind-set being different and not to the Indian film industry’s genius. Indian cinema is apparently invincible in India for the same reason that it makes no mark in the international arena, where the key virtues are differently judged. Still one cannot be certain that with globalisation the mind-set of the urban Indian is itself not transforming. If that happens and Indians become like Americans, then Bollywood could be seriously threatened. Meanwhile, one need not be patriotic to patronise Bollywood more than one does Hollywood.
MK Raghavendra is a film scholar and author of seven books including The Oxford India Short Introduction to Bollywood (2016). He is deeply interested in social, political and cultural issues in India, an interest that informs his books on film.
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