This and Zero were the two movies requested for re-reviews, and I have to actually re-watch Zero before re-reviewing it, versus Ra.One which I have seen so many times I can review from memory. So Ra.One wins!
Superhero stories aren’t action films, they are Myths. This is something American society came to sometime in the 70s/80s, this realization that the superhero was a metaphor for American experience, was what marked change in our world, and was so much bigger than just the comics that created it. The rise of the big budget prestige superhero movie came after the characters had already been deconstructed in graphic novels, novel-novels, academic writings, all kinds of things. When the Michael Keaton Batman movies and the Christopher Reeve Superman movies came out, they were picking up on that knowledge. It wasn’t about the onscreen spectacle, or small children dreaming they were powerful, it was about what having power means, how you wield it, and why.
Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, and the X-Men mean everything to American culture. Superman is the immigrant story, Batman is the capitalist hero, Spider-man is the everyman, and the X-Men are the way we deal with minorities (racial originally, and Queer in the film reimaginings). The Marvel series has found ENORMOUS success by starting with the themes and then moving on to the heroics. Redemption, responsibility, family, love, all kinds of Big Themes.
The problem with translating Superheroes out of American society is that other societies already have their own heroes. You can’t just jump in to treating Superheroes as a universal metaphor for society when you go to a new country. The same metaphors that America uses in Superman, Batman, etc. are ones that in India come from Krishna, Ram, Sita, Draupadi, etc. America is a society that is very young and constantly reinventing itself, so we have new myths and are constantly re-writing them. Most other cultures in the world have old pre-pop culture myths that they need to re-write in order to talk about new situations. You can look at Harry Potter-King Arthur. Or Bahubali-Krishna. America and our superheroes are the outlier, not the norm. Which is also, weirdly, why our version of superhero stories has been so easy to translate around the world. We aren’t dealing with an ancient social construct that informs every moment of life since birth, we are creating a narrative that can be embraced by all the new people who come to our shores. And can be exported in the same way.
So here I am in India, where there is a clearly defined hero type and hero story, and I can either work with that existing story and make one of the very popular and successful variations on the Ramayana or Mahabharata (Main Hoon Na). Or I can steal images and ideas from American superhero films without quite grasping their full meaning (Krrish). Or I can come up with a central concept and build an original Indian hero around that (Mr. India, Shahenshah, Singham, etc.). And that brings me to Ra.One. Ra.One didn’t start with “I want to immitate American superhero movies” it started with “I want to make a film my son would enjoy”. Ultimately, this is SRK’s love letter to Aryan. That’s why he agreed to the script, and that is the direction in which he steered the story, and that is where he found the center of his character.
Ra.One has a lot of flaws, tonal shifts, sometimes unimaginative special effects, a plot that isn’t quite tidy enough, but overall it works because it has a heart. It is the story of how any man can become a superhero for his child, how modeling good male role model behavior for a son who just hit puberty is about more than action scenes, just about father’s and sons.
The opening of the movie, the crazy dream scene, tells us what we need to know. Our hero’s son is at that age where he dismisses his Dad, makes fun of him, is embarrassed by him. But in his heart of heart when he dreams of a Hero, he sees his Dad. It’s Shahrukh’s face in his fantasies.
The adaptive artificial intelligence blah blah explanation for where the hero G.One comes from, that’s just another way of saying “a father’s love survives death”. Shahrukh put his own personality, values, thoughts into the video game he created. You could tell this same story by having a son inherit his father’s journal and have visions of his ghost giving advice when he reads it. In fact, that IS the story of Lago Raho Munna Bhai, a hero who immerses himself in the writings of Gandhi until he starts having visions of Gandhi giving him advice.
Red Chillies made a special effort to by the rights to “Stand By Me” for the movie, and then they were careful where they placed it. It’s not a fight scene, it’s not life or death, it’s G.One helping around the house, being a friend, just being there for this kid. He doesn’t need a Superhero, he needs a father. But at the same time, all father’s ARE superheroes to their children, so that’s part of the father he needs. Not always, but sometimes.
Both SRK’s in Ra.One die defending their child, even though they know they cannot win. G.One is fighting a lot harder and longer and with more power, but it’s the same decision at the heart of it. It’s really important for a superhero movie that in the first half we see Regular SRK obey a mugger. He doesn’t want to be a hero, he just wants to get his son and himself out of this situation even if it looks cowardly. And at the end of the first half, we see Regular SRK face off against a supervillain and lie to protect his son, knowing he will be killed instantly if he does so. G.One the robot has all kinds of powers and things, but in the end he makes the same decisions of preferring to run away in order to protect his family, and then when there is no other option, to stand and fight to his death.
This movie was made when SRK’s son was just entering the age of rebellion and when SRK was getting close to the age he was when his own father died. It’s a silly superhero movie, but if you look at it in terms of SRK’s artistic life, it’s one of his most personal films. Is this how he processed his grief when his own father died when he was a child? By imagining his father’s lessons living own, by pretending his spirit is there still protecting him? Is this his fear for himself, that he will leave his child and his wife with nothing if he dies, that he has to find someway of leaving something behind to protect them?
Is the movie Ra.One in fact SRK’s own Ra.One message? If he died at the same age as his own father, his family would have this film to look to when processing grief, fear, whatever else?