Ever since childhood, I have loved to pretend that I like to read. Some of my earliest memories include sitting cross-legged, flipping through the pages of books I could not read, and looking at odd photos I did not understand.
At that age of infinite curiosity and infant awareness, comic books were a godsent gift. They were colourful. They had plenty of pictures. They had lots of action. Plus, they made a little sense to begin with.
My older cousins were gods – they provided me with comic books. 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 “Dhruwism” without resistance.
Clad in bright yellow and electric blue, Super Commando Dhruva has been a ground-breaking 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 starts 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 the arduous realities of the 90s’ India gave it a slightly romantic touch. I used to look forward to long and tiresome bus journeys; it meant laying my hands on the latest comic books at bus stands’ bookshops. I grew up in a small village in Konkan. I saved my prize money to send a “money order” to Delhi and ordered new comic books directly from Raj Comics. The 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 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 rationality results in the convolution of devotion.
I never grew out of comic books, but I widened my range.
Since childhood, I was a Batman fan 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. Anubhav Sinha, the creator of Dhruva, has admitted that the character is deeply inspired by Batman and Robin, but that is an understatement. The backstory of Dhruva goes like this:
Dhruva is the 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. However, a rival promotion attacks Jupiter circus and burns the whole place down. 14-year-old Dhruva loses everything, including his parents.
The distraught boy sets on a mission to avenge this loss. At this juncture, he meets Assistant Police Commissioner of Rajnagar, Rajan Mehra. Mehra not only saves the boy from going to the dark side, but 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 Police Commissioner Jim Gordon. Barbara Gordon (the first Batgirl and later on “the Oracle”) the tech genius daughter of Jim Gordon, becomes his adopted sister.
The imitation inspiration does not end here.
For every bat-shaped object, there is a star-shaped object. It is an obvious reference to the name “Dhruva”. Just like Batman, Dhruva too has a utility belt that carries every useful thing across several universes in roughly eight small compartments.
Dhruva’s arch enemy 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 check 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. Ironically enough, it was through Batman that I rediscovered Dhruva.
My generation has seen the Batman through the geniuses of Frank Miller, Grant Morrison and Jeff Loeb, to name a few. The Dark Knight version of Batman has become the most iconic superhero to have ever existed. The character is stunningly multi-dimensional in its exploration of human psyche. Issues such as “Killing Joke”, “Year One”, “Hush”, “The Long Halloween” or “Dark Knight Returns” are iconic and with a richness 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 the period from 40s to 70s, that reminded me of Dhruva.
The zany and over the top fun of older Batman is somewhat alien to the broody Batman of today. The Batman of the yore is bright, chirpy and eccentric. Sounds of explosions and fistfights in those stories are loud and literal. The content is quite cheesy and at times even sentimental. Traditional American values appear throughout.
I realised that while imitating some specific elements of Batman, the creators of Dhruva internalised the charm of older versions of Batman. 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 those decades. On one hand, issues like the Mandal Aayog, Shah Bano case and the Ram Mandir sparked a massive transformation of how India interacted with itself. On the other hand, the end of the Cold War and liberalisation of the Indian economy altered the way it interacted with the world.
When violent protests raged on many streets, children from urban (in disposition) families including me were watching “Jungle Book” and “Batman” on colour television. What it meant to be Indian had never been more fluid than it did then, especially so in 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. Yet, unlike almost every other superhero, he lives with a happy family. He is “maa da ladla” who often eats his dinner at the family table. His banter with his sister is as routine as in any typical household. Very uniquely, he has no secret identity. There is a harmony between what he does and what he is underneath, and that’s what defines him.
Dhruva is genuinely a good human being, who faces his weaknesses and fears everyday while saving the city and often the entire world. His tragic past is his inspiration, not his identity. He loves in an understated way, and he handles the loss stoically. He has many friends, and he is kind to the enemy.
In a nutshell, Dhruva is vulnerable, dignified and likeable.
India has celebrated these traits in every mythical king and epochal hero for several millennia.
Despite the undeniable imitation, I must admit that Anubhav 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 these outlandish and dramatic comic books.
On this backdrop, it is surprising that Dhruva could never become the phenomenon he could have been. There are no movies, no series. He is not a part of India’s popular culture.
I believe Dhruva could never become a mainstream Indian icon for a very 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 i.e. in the 90s, most of the Hindi belt could not identify with a Westernised urban character, and the urbanised population of more developed states was not inclined towards Hindi literature. This left a narrow section of the population which enjoyed its exposure to Raj Comics.
Gradually with the advent of internet and globalised market, the situation got increasingly dire. Today, Raj Comics is in serious trouble. Sales have dwindled drastically over the years, and it releases only a handful comic books annually. During its thin years in the 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 then. However, now, even he is sliding in oblivion.
It is worth noting that Batman had endured multiple lean periods during its first 50 years. It has been on a whole different trajectory since 1987. In comparison, Dhruva is still only 32 years old. I sincerely hope that life will imitate art, and Dhruva will meet his own Frank Millers and Grant Morrisons, who will reinvent the character, and give India the hero it does not really need, but the hero it deserves.
The views and opinions expressed in the article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Tilak Chronicle and TTC Media Pvt Ltd.