West Bengal’s chief minister promised to turn Calcutta into London. But Joss Whedon in the Marvel comics saga, The Avengers, has gone backwards instead. Calcutta in the age of superheroes looks suspiciously like the one described in the City of Joy circa 1985 – cramped, squalid and leprous.
In the 1992 film version of City of Joy, Patrick Swayze played the do-gooder doctor exorcising his personal demons by saving the lepers.
This time around Mark Ruffalo is Dr Bruce Banner keeping his inner Hulk under control by saving the eternally ill slum-dwellers of Calcutta.
But why is he hiding out in Calcutta? “Joss (Whedon) and I were wondering, ‘So where is Bruce Banner?’ And I said, ‘I think he’s in a leprosy colony’…. It didn’t turn out to be a leprosy colony, but he’s in the slums in Calcutta, which I thought was a cool place to find him at,” Ruffalo said in a recent interview quoted in The Telegraph.
I guess it is “cool” given that the other cities that share screen time with Calcutta are Manhattan and Stuttgart. Unlike poor Calcutta, however, they look like cities actually worth saving from marauding alien hordes.
Mark Ruffalo, who plays Dr Bruce Banner in The Avengers, keeps his inner Hulk under control by saving the eternally ill slum-dwellers of Calcutta. Marvel.com
When the evil Loki decides to unleash his extra terrestrial army on Manhattan, Captain Fury fights the council of leaders tooth and nail when they want to send in the nukes to wipe out the city. This is not any island, he thunders at the council, this is Manhattan. One wonders if he would have ridden to Calcutta’s rescue with equal fervour.
Calcuttans should be glad though they were spared Stuttgart’s fate. When Loki decides to announce his diabolical ways to the world with a flourish, he seeks the opera house in Stuttgart as his staging ground. In a scene that looks straight out of some Nazi news reel, cowed Germans kneel in front of him with submissive alacrity until Captain America lands with a grand NATO flourish to save the day. Had Loki chosen Calcutta the crowd would surely have been larger but much more argumentative and much less disciplined in its submission.
But it is still a mystery why Bruce Banner relocates to Calcutta. This is not the reverse migration story that the New York Times is writing about where the West comes east in search of the future. “For a man avoiding stress you picked a helluva place to settle,” the Black Widow tells Banner. That is an understatement. Given Calcutta’s pea soup of notorious traffic jams, stifling sweaty heat, and frustrating torpor of lackadaisical inefficiency, Bruce Banner should be exploding into the Incredible Hulk every second day. That he keeps his cool in Calcutta is one of the unexplained mysteries in The Avengers. However the vision of an out-of-control angry Trinamool-green monster running amok on Calcutta’s congested streets would have been gripping and not entirely out of place.
The Calcutta cameo in The Avengers is brief. It was not even filmed in Calcutta. Those scenes were outsourced to some set in New Mexico. We cannot quibble too much about that. That fantasy time capsule vision of India is difficult to find in India anymore. Sooraj Barjatya recreated an entire small Indian town in New Zealand for a Bollywood film. “We worked with the Indian community in New Mexico, where we shot the movie, to recreate a very realistic version of India,” producer Jeremy Latcham told the media.
Realistic as long as your vision of India and Calcutta is about “congested, chicken and livestock-bred streets.” Indian American actress Rashmi Rustagi who plays the Hulk’s patient in the film used those criteria to applaud the Joss Whedon vision of Calcutta – all slumdogs, no millionaires. Calcutta may have its problems but this is a complete throwback to an older idea of India, where the lights are dim and the televisions flicker feebly, where wide eyed children tug at the sleeves of the good phoren doctor and whine plaintively “mere baba sick.”
It works because the film itself, despite its gee whiz 3D special effects, is an unabashedly old-fashioned American movie. “People might need a little old fashioned,” one character reassures Captain America when he wonders if his old red, blue and white uniform is a little too uncool for today’s day and age. This is a movie about old-fashioned everything.
These days superheroes are not just super. They are angst-riddled misfits inside the costumes of dark knights. The Avengers are from a simpler age. As the film says it’s about “believing in the idea of heroes.” In that simpler age, a place like Calcutta also fulfils a simple old-fashioned role – a black hole, the heart of darkness, a place where troubled heroes can atone for their sins. Mother Teresa has been dead for 15 years, but they are still holding out for her in Whedon’s Calcutta.
The only sign that the world has moved on comes not in the script of the film but in its rollout. The Avengers opened around the world in 39 countries, a week before it opened in the United States. It’s already done bang up global business netting $178.4 million. It opened in Number 1 position in every country where it debuted says the Los Angeles Times.
The businessmen in Hollywood are aware there is a new world out there. The scriptwriters, it seems, are still blissfully stuck in the old one.
Note: Kolkata has been called Calcutta in the piece, keeping with its reference in the film.
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