Ever since childhood I have loved to pretend that I like to read. Some of my earliest memories include sitting cross-legged, flipping through pages of books I could not read, and looking at odd photos I didn't really understand.
At that age of infinite curiosity and infant awareness, comic books were a godsend gift. They were colourful. They had plenty of pictures. They had lots of action. Plus, they made literal sense.
My comic books providing gods vaguely resembled my older cousins. They were huge “Raj Comics” fans. Raj Comics is the company that introduced India’s first two superheroes. My brothers had a sizeable collection of both “Nagraj” and ‘Super Commando Dhruva”.
Their loyalties however tilted more towards Dhruva. Being the most gullible member of the lot, I converted to the cult of “Dhruvism” without resistance.
Clad in bright yellow and electric blue, Super Commando Dhruva has been a groundbreaking superhero in the Indian pantheon of comic book heroes.
A superhero sans superpowers, Dhruva relies on his wits and impressive physical prowess to beat the evil. He started as a teenager, who guards the fictional city of “Rajnagar”. His only super skill is his ability to communicate with animals and birds. He has a fantastic array of gadgets that come in handy. He also has a knack to use his environment in any given situation to his advantage. He is supported by “Commando Force”: a bunch of three friends he has trained.
Rarely intimidating, unerringly effective and ever so peppy Dhruva charmed my childhood in a big way. In fact, I learned to read through comic books.
My fandom grew with age, and arduous realities of India in the 90s gave it a slightly romantic touch.
The thing is, enduring inconveniences and pronounced pleasure live at the heart of pure adulation.
I used to look forward to long and tiresome bus journeys. It meant laying my hands on the latest comic books at bus stations’ bookshops. I grew up in a small village in Konkan, Maharashtra. I saved my prize money to send “money order” to Delhi, and ordered new comic books directly from Raj Comics. Owing to the 2000 miles’ transit and the bureaucracy of the Indian Post, my wait used to last for roughly two months.
But the damned trouble was worth it.
The thing is, enduring inconveniences and exaggerated pleasure live at the heart of pure adulation.
However after a point, growing up messes up with unadulterated devotion. Even if you don’t grow out of something, you still gain exposure to wider realities and gain a somewhat rational perspective.
And the thing is, rationality results in the convolution of devotion.
I never grew out of comic books, but I widened my range.
I was a Batman fan since childhood too, but it was after growing up that I started reading his comic books. As I expanded my DC horizons, my devotion to Dhruva began to crack.
Anupam Sinha, the creator of Dhruva, has admitted that the character is deeply inspired by Batman and Robin.
That is an understatement.
The backstory of Dhruva goes like this:
Dhruva is son of Radha and Shyam — acrobats at the “Jupiter” circus. The prodigious child is deeply loved by everyone at the circus. Various performers train him in their crafts such as communicating with birds and animals, martial arts and acrobatics.
A rival promotion attacks Jupiter circus and burns the whole place down. 14 years old Dhruva loses everything including his parents.
The distraught boy sets on a mission to avenge this loss. It is at this juncture he meets assistant police commissioner of Rajnagar, Rajan Mehra.
Rajan Mehra not only saves the boy from going to the dark side, but he also adopts him. The Mehra household consisting of Rajan Mehra, Rajani Mehra and their daughter Shweta thus becomes the new home of Dhruva.
Shweta is a tech genius. She builds numerous gadgets including the utility belt for Dhruva. In her pursuit to protect her superhero brother, Shweta herself goes on to become a vigilante superhero called “Chandika”.
In Batman terms, it can be summed up like this:
Dick Grayson (the first Robin, who later becomes “Nightwing”), the youngest son of circus acrobats — Graysons, has the abilities of Bruce Wayne (Batman). Dick is adopted by commissioner Jim Gordon. Barbara Gordon (the Batgirl and later on “the Oracle”) the tech genius daughter of Jim Gordon, becomes his adopted sister.
Reality often stings like a betrayal.
The inspiration does not end here.
For every bat-shaped object, there is a star-shaped object. It also is an obvious reference the fact that “Dhruva” means the North Star in Sanskrit. Just like Batman, Dhruva too has a utility belt that carries every useful thing in several universes in roughly 8 small compartments.
Dhruva’s archenemy is “Grand Master Robo”. A half man and half robot, he is a combination of “Ras Al Ghul” and “Deathstroke”. His daughter, Natasha, is Dhruva’s enduring love and everlasting torment, (that’s Talia Al Ghul). For the “Riddler”, there is the “Quizmaster”. For the “Catwoman” there is the “Blackcat”.
Dhruva’s best friend is Raj, who lives in Mahanagar. He wears glasses and works as a journalist in the day. Off duty, He spews venom as the invulnerable “Nagraj”. This may remind one of a certain Clark Kent from Metropolis.
Reality often stings like a betrayal.
Realising these “parallels” left a similar impact.
I grew out of Dhruva more quickly than I ever imagined I would. And, ironically enough it was through Batman I rediscovered Dhruva.
My generation has seen the Batman through geniuses of Frank Miller, Jeff Loeb and Grant Morrison to name a few.
The Dark Knight version of the Batman has become the most iconic superhero to have ever existed. The character is stunningly multi-dimensional in its exploration of human psyche. Its iconic issues such as “Killing Joke”, “Year One”, “Hush”, “The Long Halloween” or “Dark Knight Returns” are rich in depth and soul that is rarely seen in graphic novels.
Post 1987, when Frank Miller’s “Year One” was published, Batman transcended typical superheroes to become a cultural and literary icon.
It was going through some of the older Batman issues, published during late 40s to 70s, which reminded me of Dhruva.
The campy, zany and over the top fun of older Batman is something alien to the broody Batman of today. The Batman of the yore is bright, chirpy and eccentric. Sounds of explosions and fists in his stories are loud and literal. The content is quite cheesy and at times even sentimental. Traditional American values appear throughout these stories.
It is then I realised that while imitating some specific elements of Batman, creators of Dhruva internalised the charm of the older versions of Batman. And in doing so, they ended up creating the first Indian superhero, who embodied the spirit of their India.
There is no other character that can encapsulate what India of the late 80s and early 90s must have felt like the way Super Commando Dhruva does.
India went through intense social turmoil in the era.
On one hand, issues like Mandal Aayog, Shah Bano case, and Ram Janmabhoomi Andolan sparked massive transformation of how India interacted with itself. On the other hand, end of the cold war and liberalisation of the Indian economy altered the way it interacted with the world.
When violent protests rampaged on many streets, children from urban (in disposition) families including me were watching “The Jungle Book” and “Batman” on colour television.
What it meant to be Indian had never been more fluid than it did then, especially so for the urban India.
Individually and socially there was imitation of many things American. Within homes, typical Indian family values still endured.
The blend of these contrasting and even conflicting elements is basically the essence of Super Commando Dhruva. He is very much western in terms of how he operates, and he is very much Indian in terms of how he lives.
Dhruva is a strong individual who fights the evil on his own. But unlike almost every other superhero, he lives with a happy family. He is his mother’s son, who often eats his dinner on the dinner table. He banters with Shweta just the way a normal older sibling would.
Very uniquely, he has no secret identity. He is always aware that his family may be targeted by a villain, but he posits enough trust in himself and his family to deal with it.
Dhruva essentially is a good human being without the god complex. He wears his vulnerability on his sleeves and still saves the day. He loves in an understated way, and he handles the loss stoically. He has many friends, and he is kind to the enemy.
His tragic past is his inspiration, not his identity.
There is a sense of harmony between what he does and what he is underneath, and that’s what defines him.
In a nutshell, Dhruva is strong-willed, conscientious and compassionate.
India has celebrated these traits in its mythical kings and epochal heroes for a several millennia.
Moreover, for all the undeniable imitation, I must admit that Anupam Sinha and Sanjay Gupta of Raj Comics did produce many entertaining stories. Some of the villains are original and enthralling. I have had a gala time reading those outlandish and dramatic comic books.
It is amazing on this backdrop that Dhruva could never become a phenomenon it could have. He could not become a part of India’s popular culture.
I believe it happened for a fundamental reason.
The character and its creators played at a very peculiar intersection.
Dhruva is a Hindi and urban character. In the heyday of Dhruva in the 90s, most of the Hindi belt (North and Central India) could not identify with a westernised urban character, and the urbanised population of non-Hindi states was not inclined towards Hindi literature. Hence only a narrow section of the population had some exposure to Raj Comics, and the company could not reach out to larger masses.
Gradually with the advent of internet and globalised market, the situation got increasingly dire.
During its thin years in early 2000s, Dhruva was the constant star for the publication. Just like the world in his stories, he saved the day for the company every year, but now even he is sliding in oblivion.
Today Raj Comics is in a very serious trouble. Sales have dwindled drastically over the years. It releases only a handful comic books each year.
It is worth noting that Batman had endured multiple lean periods during its first 50 years. It has been a whole different trajectory since 1987.
Dhruva in comparison is still only 32 years old.
I sincerely hope that life will imitate art, and Dhruva will meet his own Frank Millers and Jeff Loebs, who will reinvent the character, and give India the hero it does not really need, but the hero it deserves.