Of the many differences between Hollywood and its Indian counterparts (Bollywood in Mumbai, Tollywood in Andhra Pradesh, Kollywood in Chennai, Sandalwood in Bangalore, etc) is that there are a dearth of big-budget movies aimed at kids, and save Mr. India (which was almost 25 years ago now) not a lot of homegrown superhero movies. The Disney production Zokkomon takes advantage of the open field, offering a slickly executed movie aimed squarely at young audiences, starring a kid superhero. Zokkomon should appeal to kids of all ages, all over the world; though a bit creaky in places it’s well enough executed, and with such a positive message, it’s hard not to like it.
The superhero part of Zokkomon takes a while to kick in. We’re introduced to Kunal (Darsheel Safary), an orphan of about 11 or so, living a relatively happy existence at a boarding school, when one day the headmaster pulls him aside and explains that Kunal’s uncle, headmaster of his own school, insists that he go there instead, and being his legal guardian, it must be. Kunal is unhappy to leave his friends behind, but has no choice. He soon finds that his uncle’s school, despite receiving large amounts of subsidies for supplies and facilities, is poorly run and staffed with incompetent teachers who beat and humiliate the students to keep them in line. In fact, the whole village is run in similar fashion, with a hellfire and brimstone swami terrifying the populace, keeping them meek and superstitious. Kunal, as an intelligent, educated, good-hearted boy, clashes with this new environment, and is beaten by his teacher, though he makes friends with the other kids.
One day, Kunal’s uncle (Anupam Kher, rocking one of the funniest and fakest toupees yet seen in cinema) takes him to an amusement park, and deliberately loses him. The uncle goes back to the village and announces that Kunal has been killed in an accident (as part of a ploy to get his hands on Kunal’s inheritance, I think; the movie doesn’t get into this, and is perfectly content to have the audience just think the uncle is bad for the sake of being bad, which works just fine). Kunal, very much alive, wanders the streets and is befriended by a charming vagrant named Kittu (Manjari Fadnis), who immediately becomes a sister/mother/best friend figure to Kunal. The cops, however, frown on Kittu taking up residence in movie studios and museums and wherever she can sneak into at night, and arrest her, just as she’s about to accompany Kunal back to the village to see his uncle and ask him why he left him at the amusement park.
Kunal travels back to the village alone, and quickly finds that everyone thinks he’s dead and a ghost. The only place he has left to turn is the scary old village loner (also Anupam Kher for some reason; my best guess is because Anupam Kher is awesome, but I could be missing something) who turns out to be a scientist who had tried to bring reason and enlightenment to the village, only to have Kunal’s uncle burn down his house and use the clergy to have him branded an outcast frowned upon by the gods. Bitter, the scientist retreated to the village haunted house to study in peace. Seizing upon Kunal’s return as an opportunity to teach the uncle a lesson, the scientist (whom Kunal charmingly dubs “Magic Uncle”) employs Kunal — by Kunal’s choice, it must be noted — to take advantage of the town’s superstition to employ some very fancy science to appear as a ghost/superhero named Zokkomon. Zokkomon awakens hope in the hearts of the village children and, soon, the rest of the villagers. And the uncle, in grand supervillain fashion, decides he must be stopped.
It’s a fairly standard superhero origin story, except for the fact that throughout, although Kunal is an extremely bright kid (one might even fondly call him a nerd) he’s still very much a kid. Becoming Zokkomon doesn’t go to his head at all, not even for one of those contrived flirtations with the dark side substandard superhero stories impose on their protagonists. All Kunal wants is a home where he’s loved, and to go to school to learn actual stuff instead of just doom and gloom superstition, and for all the other kids to have those things too.
That’s what makes Zokkomon fun as a superhero story: Kunal isn’t an extraordinary kid. All his superheroics are pulled off with science, and the movie totally endorses the point of view that if you’re smart and study and work hard, you can achieve great things. If I may be excused for a minor spoiler, the fact that all the kids in the village decide to become Zokkomon as the heart of what this movie’s all about: instead of looking up to those with power, become one of those people.
Some of Zokkomon’s special effects are a little clunky, and oddly, those effects stand out more here than they did in Once Upon A Warrior because the rest of the cinematics are so slick. Director Satyajit Bhatkal doesn’t dwell overmuch on the effects, though, focusing its efforts more on the characters and the pro-science, pro-education, anti-oppression message, much to its benefit. Combined with the Bollywood/Disney gloss, that makes Zokkomon a very fine entertainment, and certainly something you can watch with your kids.
As soon as kids are able to read subtitles, but before they get cynical, Zokkomon’s a picture they should see. It strongly endorses science in favor of superstition, always a good thing, especially in the young. It stresses the need to have an open heart and approach the unknown without fear. And it teaches that anyone whose heart and mind are in the right place can become heroic through deeds. That’s my kind of superhero story.