A Black Panther for India?

It seems to be a truth universally acknowledged at the moment that Black Panther is amazing. But only a small part of this awesomeness is due to it being a good movie. Black Panther is being appreciated also because of what it says about power, privilege, race, representation, nationalism, culture, and identity.

Among African-American audiences, the movie is a success because it strikes the right notes in matters of representation. The movie shows the Black identity as something independent - distinct from the Whiteness against which it has been traditionally measured, both in Hollywood and in popular culture. The titular character named T'Challa is an African man who grew up in Africa, free (and largely unaffected) by the cultural influences that mark the existence of Black people in America and elsewhere.

But something funny happened in India recently. I got a call from a radio station which was doing a segment on Black Panther prior to the movie’s release.

Their question? Do you think a movie full of Black characters will be appreciated by international audiences? My answer, understandably, was: Why wouldn't it?

On the one hand, the question seems more like something a White American might ask. On the other hand, being Indians (and despite being discriminatory towards Black people here), we are perhaps closer to the fictional nation of Wakanda than we are to America. From the point of view of the culture that has overshadowed the Black identity, we are indistinguishable from the kind of people for whom Black Panther has become something sacred.

The phrase "international audiences" is somewhat vague. But it does imply that the person using it identifies (perhaps unconsciously) with the White American viewpoint more than they do with their own.

Of course, I say this with full awareness of the fact that Black Panther is an American adaptation of an American comic book written by Americans primarily for Americans. That it works elsewhere in the world is a bonus.

Having said that, what might an Indian Black Panther look like? Which popular Indian story can be told to Indian fans to such effect that they start thinking on the lines of "wow that's a break from mainstream culture that normalises a marginalised community in ways that both empowers them and enriches our culture"?

I Googled "Indian superhero" and in the team photos that turn up, all except one superhero is male. Of the men, four are toads, one is a jungle beast, one is a cyborg who used to be a man whose second name is never mentioned. Of the ones who do have second names, two are Vermas and one is a Mehra. And the aforementioned female character is actually a goddess whose human alter ego also doesn't seem to have a second name.

But perhaps I am being too picky. After all, Indian comic book superheroes are nowhere close to the mainstream. But there is a genre of literature which occupies an inordinately large slice of popular consciousness -- Hindu mythology. Is it possible to tell a Black Panther-like story set in an Indian mythological universe? A story that takes the real India -- with its divisions and discords and complexity -- and places it among the gods. Or a story that brings the gods down to live and suffer among modern-day Indians.

What made Black Panther effective was that it took both its goals seriously. It was a socially relevant movie yes, but it was also a good superhero flick. Similarly, our story will have to be something that takes the people in it as seriously as it takes the gods (and vice versa). Modern popular literature featuring the gods has traditionally been little more than power fantasies. And stories that dealt with the gods from the human point of view have tended to be angry tirades against religion and calls for ridding society of superstition and social ills.

There is some middle ground there. It's hard to spot because there is so little of it. But it can expand and be home to an Indian Black Panther.