This summer, an Indian Spider-Man “Pavitr Prabhakar” is making headlines as he swings onto screens in a dhoti (sarong-like garment), gold cuffs, and an enviable mop of jet black hair, imparting cultural teachings to his visitors from all over the multiverse.
He features in Sony Pictures’ Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, which has been shattering box office records in India in recent weeks. It earned $2.8 million (£2.17 million) in its first weekend alone, making it the highest launch for an animated picture in the country.
That may not come as a surprise given Spider-Man’s popularity in India – one of the only characters from the Western comic book universe to make an effect in a country where Hindi film dominates mainstream culture.
Since 2007, the superhero films have been among the top-grossing Hollywood blockbusters in India, spawning a slew of local knock-offs. This includes a love song with the amusing words “Spider-Man, tune churaya mere dil ka chain” (Spider-Man, Spider-Man, you stole my heart) that has become a cult classic in the country.
However, the most recent film is notable for featuring an Indian version of the superhero for the first time.
Meet Pavitr Prabhakar, a rambling adolescent who patrols the streets of Mumbattan, a cross between Manhattan and Mumbai. His name is a pun on Peter Parker, the adolescent who donned the first Spider-Man mask.
Pavitr is one of five separate spider stars – all from different realities but linked by their similar powers – who join forces with adolescent hero Miles Morales to confront a cunning supervillain.
Fans all around the world have loved Pavitr’s portrayal, particularly Indians who have been won over by his enthusiastic demeanour.
Some have fallen in love with the film’s tropical, curvy graphic style for the Mumbattan segment, which is a nod to the 1970s Indrajal Comics, an Indian brand famed for publishing stories about the Phantom and Mandrake the Magician in regional languages.
Karan Soni plays the role of Indian Spider-Man “Pavitr Prabhakar”
Others have commended the film for bringing together characters from various backgrounds to form a first-of-its-kind multi-ethnic superhero team.
“First, Marvel gave us Miles Morales, the first black Spider-Man, and now we have Pavitr.” “The story is attempting to touch on an exciting idea: that anyone can be Spider-Man,” says Mrityunjoy Pal, a comic book enthusiast.
While Pavitr is new to many viewers in India and throughout the world, his origin story dates back decades, to a time when the country’s superhero scene was limited to a small group of comic book fans.
The character originally appeared in Spider-Man: India #1 in 2004, a comic book that sold over a million copies in a four-issue run.
The comic book maintains Spider-Man’s global notion of being a nice neighbourhood superhero.
Pavitr, like any other adolescent with competing priorities, tries to juggle homework and hero work. He is severely tormented at school, but at night, he changes into a crime-fighting superhero with extraordinary speed, swinging past skyscrapers. He wears the mask to protect the one he loves, and in order to do so, he must conceal his identity.
Pavitr Prabhakar first appeared in a comic book in 2004. Pavitr’s story, however, has a unique Indian twist. He’s a chai-drinking, dhoti-wearing superhero whose powers come from a yogi – a spiritual guru – rather than a radioactive spider bite.
Pavitr has a crush on Meera Jain, his classmate, rather than Mary Jane, the girl next door. Moreover, unlike Peter Parker, who is teased at school for being a “bookworm,” Pavitr is a scholarship student from a small hamlet who is teased for his appearance.
He is a “Indian Spider-Man” created by Indians. That’s what Sharad Devarajan and his co-creators Jeevan Kang and Suresh Seetharaman said back in 2003 when they first conceived up Pavitr.
“We chose to play on the larger social allegory of having Pavitr be a village boy who feels out of touch with the Mumbai elite because it was reflective of what we saw in 2004 when big cities seemed to be moving at light speed while many people in rural India felt completely separated,” Mr Devarajan explained to the BBC.
In India, the comic book Spider-Man “Pavitr Prabhakar” sold over a million copies.
Morales, who is of African and Puerto Rican heritage; Miguel O’Hara’s Spider-Man, who is of Mexican descent; Jessica Drew, Marvel’s first pregnant superhero; and Hobie Brown’s Spider-Punk, who is of African descent were all introduced to audiences in The Spider-Verse.
However, reinventing an icon like Spider-Man in 2004 was much more difficult, especially for an Indian audience who, according to Mr Devarajan, had seen photos of the character but did not know his story and had not read any comics about him.
Comic books have always been popular in India, and may be found at grocery stores, newspaper stands, and train stations. They gained popularity as a result of graphic retellings of legendary stories in Amar Chitra Katha and weekly children’s magazines such as Twinkle and Champak.
“There has been a tremendous interest in history and mythology, and most of our comic books and books fall into those two genres,” says Comic-Con India founder Jatin Varma.
However, the country’s interest in superheroes is more recent. Some of this may be due to the space being traditionally occupied by heroes from Indian cinema. These films provide a spectacle with grandiose plots that feature male characters evading gunfire, diving off rooftops and fighting hundreds of villains to save the day.
“Our goal was simply to transform an international hero into a local icon,” Mr Devarajan explained. “A relatable guy who swings from the Gateway of India over Mumbai’s city streets and celebrates Diwali with his aunt.”
Mr. Devarajan met Stan Lee, the co-creator of several popular Marvel superheroes, including Spider-Man, in 2004.
Pavitr is still doing just that – and more – after twenty years.
In the film, he replaces his white dhoti with a more fashionable blue one, which he wears with a funky suit covered with elaborate Indian designs and a cool hard-part haircut.
Even his character, which, in Mr Devarajan’s words, “represented the more traditional and simple family value system of Indians,” changes.
Unlike Miles, who is worn down by the worry of his powers, Pavitr is unwaveringly cheerful as he swings around Mumbattan’s tumultuous panoramas with cool detachment.
On various times, his self-assured and confident side drives the plot. He remarks on a tour to Mumbattan, “This is where the British stole all our stuff.”
He even mocks Miles’ request for “chai tea” (which is equivalent to expressing he’d like a cup of “tea tea”), saying, “Would I ask you for a coffee-coffee, with room for cream-cream?”
Kemp Power, one of the film’s three directors, told Variety magazine that the crew “literally re-broke Pavitr’s sequence and reimagined his character” mid-production when certain animators of Indian heritage working on the film felt Pavitr needed to be more realistic.
“It really spoke to the spirit of collaboration on this movie,” he explained.
Mr. Varma claims that, despite the fact that the picture is primarily aimed at an audience outside of India, the cultural features are not sloppy or stereotypical. “And the fact that this Indian Spider-Man was in one of the best Spider-Man films made it even better.”
According to Mr. Devarajan, the film “changed the costume, but the heart, character, and unique Indianess of Pavitr remained the same.”
He hopes that this is just the beginning of Pavitr’s development as a Marvel character.
“It only took Pavitr 20 years to go from that comic we created to the big screen,” he says.
“Hopefully, we won’t have to wait another 20 years to see the live-action version.” “India requires a Spider-Man!”