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Why Shaktimaan returning to TV is a good thing for India

He was the Sachin Tendulkar and Amitabh Bachchan of the idiot box.

 |  4-minute read |   11-05-2016
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In the late ’90s, for every 10,000 children with regular kid-sized brains doing stupid things like pulling each other’s hair and eating mud, there’d be one thimble-wit who’d jump off a high-rise or set himself on fire, in the deluded belief that Shaktimaan would activate all his seven chakras and come flying in to save him.

This was apparently such a widespread concern that Doordarshan, the channel that aired the wildly popular show Shaktimaan, was forced to consider pulling the show off air, in the interest of public safety. After that, its eponymous superhero star, Mukesh Khanna, had to actually break character during the airing of the show, and tell kids to, you know, not jump off buildings. Those were strange times.

Urban ennui dictates that we’re supposed to treat such quaint, old-world things with contempt, disdain, and dismissal. That we’re contractually obligated to cast them aside as campy.

shakti-bd_051116024141.jpg Shaktimaan created a homegrown, son-of-the-soil crusader against evil forces.

The drivel about being a "’90s kid" doesn’t seem to rear its ugly head when it comes to the show. But really, Shaktimaan was, in its time, a genuine pop culture phenomenon, one that maybe even transcended class and privilege.

It was the Sachin Tendulkar and Amitabh Bachchan of the idiot box. Best of all, it was Make in India some two decades before the call-to-arms would be coined and used as political capital.

Spiderman, Superman, and Batman, enticing in their own right, were still culturally difficult to relate to. And exposure was mostly limited to the middle - and upper-middle classes. Shaktimaan changed all that, creating a homegrown, son-of-the-soil crusader against evil forces; he was aspirational, and his existence was comforting to children (and their adult parents) everywhere. I can’t say for sure if it was the first of its kind, but it was certainly the most powerful.

I didn’t even watch the show, since I was too old for it I think, but I remember its impact just by the oddly-low-volume debates on television and the coverage in newspapers (which people would reluctantly read in the morning because "feeds" didn’t exist).

Today’s CGI technology might render Shaktimaan’s simpleton graphics as mediocre at best, but that’s clearly an unfair comparison, and it shouldn’t undermine its significance, running for close to a decade and becoming a staple in the pop culture lexicon. It was never supposed to be technically ground-breaking or something, and its influence had as much to do with characterisation, novelty, and an ability to connect with an entire generation of millions of kids. It’s a relic from a bygone era. 

Fittingly, the most memorable Shaktima(a)n in the public consciousness now is that poor old horse who died from injuries contracted during a political rally. Maybe I’m overreaching, but isn’t that symbolic in a way? No longer do we have the unshakeable belief in a noble, altruistic soul rescuing us as we set ourselves ablaze or voluntarily nosedive our way to certain death.

That notion, foolhardy in itself, is today replaced by this disturbing zeal to serve only our very own, narrow, deranged self-interests. Even if it means beating the shit out of a horse (a horse!). Even if it means killing the damn horse if we have to. We’re older and wiser, you see. Shaktimaan can no longer save us.

So when news comes pouring in that the makers of Shaktimaan want to revive the show, bring it right back into the public eye, I’m a little torn.

Mukesh Khanna is 57 now, but he’s apparently working hard to get in shape to play the role again, having already lost 8kg. He wants to lose another eight, which is something Shaktimaan would totally do, and no one else can do justice to the role anyway.

On the one hand, comebacks are almost always a terrible idea. Leave on a high, and let the world find its way around the wilderness that inevitably follows. Feel smug and self-content.

Remember Michael Jordan and Michael Schumacher? What if Sachin Tendulkar decided to pad up again? Would he be nearly as elemental to the Indian cause as he was in Sharjah all those years ago? What if Friends did another season — would that brand of comedy hold up today without the nostalgia that distance has accentuated?

What, also, of the sky-high expectations that would naturally follow? Why risk tarnishing a legacy for a few extra bucks or a little more time in the limelight? Why give people the opportunity to question your motives, noble or otherwise, in the first place? Shaktimaan should remain a part of our collective history, a time of reminiscence and recollection, a time of pagers and payphones.

But equally, why not?

If its makers feel strongly enough, then who are we to stop them? Further, given the laughably dystopian state of our country — last I checked, a couple of parties were slugging it out over the authenticity of a politician’s educational degrees (“War is peace/Freedom is slavery/ Ignorance is strength…”) — maybe what we need is Mukesh Khanna to do some Kundalini yoga, rewire himself, transform from Mukesh Khanna into PanditGangadharVidyadharMayadharOmkarnathShastri into Shaktimaan, swoop in, and save the day.

One can only hope.

Writer

Akhil Sood Akhil Sood @akhilsoodsood

Akhil Sood is a freelance writer used to setting six to eight alarms a day.

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