Before Krissh, before Ra.one, before Shaktimaan, and even before Nagraj and Super Commando Dhruv, there was an Indian superhero called Supremo.
Alter-ego: Amitabh Bachchan.
And this year is the 35th anniversary of this superhero who foiled alien invasions, saved those in distress and fought international crime syndicates in his time.
The eighties were a good time if you were a comic book fan in India. Amar Chitra Katha with its mythological tales, Indrajal comics with its roster of international heroes like Phantom, Mandrake and Flash Gordon, etc., Diamond Comics who’d introduced one of India’s earliest superheroes Fauladi Singh were flourishing. And so in 1983, India Book House (IBH) which had its own comics line called Star Comics, publishing Superman, James Bond and Laurel & Hardy were looking to expand its portfolio. And they did it with The Adventures of Amitabh Bachchan, with the superstar in his superhero avatar.
The story goes that writer and editor Pammi Bakshi, who in 1983 was working at IBH as the editor of Movie Mag, a film magazine, overheard a bunch of children who were playing pretend superheroes. One kid wanted to be Superman, while another wanted to be Batman. But the third wanted to be Amitabh Bachchan. Soon enough all the children were fighting to be Amitabh Bachchan. Pammi Bakshi connected the dots. IBH was looking for a new superhero. Children, and not just adults it turned, were big fans of Amitabh. Children love superheroes. Why not turn Amitabh into one?
Later in the same year, Bakshi met Bachchan on the sets of Pukaar which was being shot in Goa. Whenever Amitabh stepped out, Goa would come to standstill. People would throng to the sets to see Amitabh, who at that time was at the peak of his career, delivering hit upon blockbuster hit. Every time Amitabh would reach the sets, Randhir Kapoor, Amitabh’s co-star in Pukaar would say that Supremo has arrived. Bakshi thought this an apt superhero name and spoke to Amitabh about it, who agreed to be turned into a superhero on the conditions that it should not turn him into a caricature and that copies of the comics be distributed for free among schools and orphanages.
Pammi Bakshi then reached out to none other than the filmmaker, writer and lyricist, Gulzar to create the character and to be the script consultant for the series. Gulzar created a character who was a mix of Superman, Phantom and Amitabh Bachchan, albeit without superpowers or the ability to fly. Supremo’s powers would be his great strength and his keen intelligence. He would have two sidekicks – obligatory for a self-respecting superhero – two young boys, Vijay and Anthony, named after Amitabh’s most famous roles, with the latter even sporting a top hat like Amitabh in Amar Akbar Anthony. This peanut-munching, music-loving superhero’s base of operations would be his own private island, which would be populated with his pets, a la Phantom, the tiger Sheru, a dolphin and most all his intelligent falcon, Shaheen inspired by Amitabh’s falcon, Allahrakha in Coolie. Supremo would have his own submarine, a snazzy set of Mustang-inspired wheels and a helicopter. Subsequently, while Gulzar oversaw the script, the writing was done by the actor Sudha Chopra, and freelance writers.
Meanwhile, working on Supermo’s look and costumes was the godfather of Indian comic artists, the legendary Pratap Mullick, who had in no small way contributed to the success of Amar Chitra Katha, and would later go on to illustrate Nagraj at Raj Comics. Initially reluctant to be associated with anything ‘filmy’ (he’d not even watched Amitabh movies), Mullick created over half a dozen looks for Supremo, and finally one was chosen by Amitabh – a pink, fitting outfit with a wrap around the waist (instead of underwear worn outside), with a holster, a chakra pendant around his neck, and a pair of welder-type glasses. Supremo was ready to fly.
The first Supremo adventure was The Lost Idol in which Supremo retrieves a stolen 17th-century idol from a sunken ship at the bottom of the ocean, followed soon after by ‘Hijack’ in which Supremo rescues a plane full of children from hijackers. Over the course of his adventures Supremo would fend off an alien invasion in which extra-terrestrials turn of earth’s gravity to match the near-zero gravity of their home planet (Invasion), and in another discover the lost city of Atlantis with its advanced technology, fight with its telekinetic ruler and rescue a prisoner (The Lost City). In other adventures, Supremo would end an international child trafficking racket (The Innocent Victims), rescue Indian nuclear weapon scientists from an international terrorist gang 9The Disappearing Floor), fight with and reform the dreaded Malan Devi (Supremo and the Bandit Queen), and more, including one adventure where the world is convinced that Supremo has gone rogue and turned into a serial bank robber, and its up to the real Supremo to solve the mystery (The Imposter).
Almost all the Supremo comics begin the same way – with a letter from Amitabh Bachchan to the reader, asking them not to tell anyone that he’s Supremo. Most stories begin with Amitabh in a shoot, with many panels showing recognisable actors, and him shooting with known directors, Manmohan Desai, for example, is mentioned, until his falcon, Shaheen arrives with news of a crime or a mystery which sees Amitabh dashing off the sets to transform into Supremo, and save the day. And in true Bollywood fashion, the police arrive in full force usually on the very last page once Supremo has saved the day, and the world in some cases.
The fun, enjoyable Supremo comics ran for a total of 10 issues over the course of 1983-84, and ended its run after the person behind it, Pammi Bakshi moved out of India after marriage. Short as it was, this was the most successful comics experiment of this kind in India where a real-life person is a comic book hero. Unlike for example Sunil Gavaskar’s Sunny the Super Sleuth series of cri-fi comics (cricket fiction, as the creators called it) which ran for just 4 issues in which Gavaskar would solve crime (a story for another day). Down south, Supremo-inspired comics that featured Rajinikanth and Mammootty as superheroes too would not run for long. Now rare and collectables, Supremo comics which were priced at Rs.3.50 and later 4 rupees in 1983/84 are now sold for prices that start close to a thousand rupees. But comic fans can just find it in bookstores if you’re lucky. Look out for them, and may the force be with you in your search.
On that note, I bid you goodbye and hope to see you again next week for a special edition of New Worlds Weekly, and special not just because it is the 100th edition of this column.
Live long and prosper!
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Updated at 06:45 pm on July 8, 2018 to delete repeating words.
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