Introducing : Bankelal!
While talking about old Indian comics we have often referred to the Superheroes as a Pantheon, as a veritable version of Swarg-lok, Mount Olympus or Asgard where Gods live waiting for their twilight. And in that context Bankelal is India’s very own Loki Lie-smith, the mischief maker God, he is also to some extent a derivative of Narad Muni, if Narad Muni was a villain. Although his look can be said to be most closely modeled on Mehmood, who was (like Banke) at one point the undisputed king of Comedy in India.
And before I proceed further let me present to you a conundrum – Is Bankelal a villain or an anti-hero. Perhaps by the end of reading this, you would have an answer to this question.
Set in an indeterminate mythological past of Kings and Kingdoms, monsters who roam the earth, living in mountains and forests, angry sages with magical powers (and punny names) and Gods who were easy to please, Bankelal is the story of a no-good do-gooder. His purpose in life is to depose of the King of Vishalgarh (Raja Vikram Singh) and become king in his place. However, he fails miserably and hilariously in each of his attempts because he carries a life-long boon/curse given to him by Lord Shiv since as a child he had tried to prank the God who had come to his house for lunch by dipping a dead frog in a glass of milk and serving it to him. An enraged Lord Shiv curses him that he would remain a prankster throughout his life and would suffer because of it, but once Bankelal’s parents plead a reduction in the curse he relents and adds a boon that whenever Bankelal tries to do something bad to someone, he would end up doing good or helping that person (Kar Bura to Ho Bhala).
Convoluted? It gets better.
Bankelal finds favour with Raja Vikram Singh as he ends up saving his life because of his boon/curse. It is because of his proximity with the king that he starts dreaming of Raj-yog himself. Each of the comics follow a simple structure, Bankelal finds a scheme which would help him kill Raja Vikram Singh, simultaneously there would be another king or demon or man who would be trying to kill Vikram Singh by praying to a God or a Sage for a boon in helping defeat the Raja, the God/sage would grant the boon but with an added rider (For example – You are immortal unless a black crow shits on you in the evening, in which case you are dead) Bankelal would try to join forces with them, and in the end something random (which would most probably be linked to the rider that the God/Sage added) would defeat them with the monster lamenting ‘Meri Maut aise hi honi thi’ (I was cursed to die this way).
In most of the comics Bankelal’s association with the other villains would be found out, but he would on the spot make a story saying that he did all this at the behest of Lord Shiv who had come in his dream and foretold an attack on Raja Vikram Singh, to prevent which Bankelal would have to join forces with the villain. This extempore of his never fails, and Bankelal never succeeds. And in an interesting and complicated twist it would be revealed that had Bankelal not interfered in the plan of the other villain by trying to aid them, they would have succeeded in killing Vikram Singh and helped achieve Banke’s objective. In more than twenty five years of existence Bankelal has not yet learned not to interfere.
For a long time Bankelal was the one true comedic character in Raj Comics who had his own title series. Bankelal’s artwork was helmed by a legend of Indian comics Bedi ji (who was also responsible for Hawaldar Bahadur in Manoj Comics) and was cartoonish and colourful. Bedi ji added his own colloquial Punjabi phrases in a decidedly non Punjabi comic book, Bankelal and other characters would often say Hun Appa Da ki Hou, Hun Appa Da Kuchh nahi ho Sakda, most of the dialogues were appended with laughter ‘Hi Hi Hi’, and in tragi-comic situations the character would say ‘Bu Hu Hu Hi Hi Hi’, crying and laughing the whole time.
The dialogues, mantras read by Sages, and prayers were often peppered with anachronistic insertions of hindi film songs (which were usually topical for the time that the issue was released). The Sages and Gods’ names were hilarious (Rishi Kaatacharya, Rishi…) which often denoted what the Rishi was supposed to do. The monsters tried to be macabre but are felled by the simplest of things. For a comic which was targeted (but I guess not entirely so) to children there was a decent amount of murder and mayhem, but the drawings and the dialogues made sure that it never strayed far away from humour. As with the boons even curses had riders attached to them, so all angry Sages gave an escape route to the sufferer.
Bankelal was populated with a motley of hilarious supporting characters, along with the rotund and good natured Raja Vikram Singh (who was a just king, but was quite gullible), Rani Swarnlata, their son Mohak, a cowardly and wily Senapati, and then there were ministers for everything. There was a Prabandh Mantri (Management Minister), a prathna mantri, and a Nara Mantri (Slogan Minister) whose job was to shout slogans. Bankelal also has a horse named Chetak, who is the only series regular to actually know what Bankelal is scheming about, he often foils Bankelal’s plans or at the very least leaves him flat on his face (All animals in the comic can speak to each other and have intelligible dialogues which humans do not understand, and all of them are on an equal pop-cultural reference footing as the humans)
The appeal of Bankelal lay in the absurdity of the story lines, in the laugh-a-minute dialogue, and in the fact that the reader tended to root for Bankelal the mischief-maker, knowing fully well that he was going to lose in the end, but it was fun to hope for Bankelal to come close to winning just to see what long and elaborate explanation that he would come with. You see Bankelal has no superpowers at all except for a silver tongue and a cunning brain and a never give up attitude. A word of appreciation is required here for Tarun Kumar Wahi, who wrote comics on an industrious scale, helming multiple titles including Bankelal and coming up with the long and wrapped in themselves storylines of Bankelal month after month without repeating plots or relying on arch-enemies (Bankelal has none in terms of repeating characters) and making sure that he leaves his readers laughing is quite a tough task. Comedy in in fact a very tough genre to pull through. How much of the humour was Wahi ji’s and how much was due to improve/ad-lib (sic) while drawing the comics by Bedi ji, we would need the help of Raj Comics insiders to discern the same.
The dialogues and situations are all of the level of a Marx brother’s comedy, with every character (man/animal/demon/god/inanimate) participating a game of one-up-manship when it comes to quips. The situations are bizarre, sample this – The Nara Mantri (Slogan Minister) mistakenly shouts ‘Jai Mata Di’ in a normal Darbar day (he is half-asleep) and it leads to a wave of people shouting Jai Mata Di, which goes out of the palace and soon in a deliciously absurd segment covering two pages the entire kingdom is shouting Jai Mata Di and an impromptu Jagran is organized with Pundits, Pundals and Prasad. Half way through the Jagran the Slogan Minister wakes up and says sorry, that he said Jai Mata DI because he was attending a Jagran in his dream, but now that the Jagran is organized let’s get through with it anyway.
Such comedy is abundant in all Bankelal books, and you revel in it page after page never once questioning the logic behind it. Because logic negates the magic of these comics.
In an unfortunate incident, Bediji passed away a few years ago, leaving behind him a legacy of hundreds of comics of Bankelal and Hawaldar Bahadur which no other artist would be able to match. The subsequent editions of Bankelal lack the original spark, and the new comics feel like visiting a restaurant where the food is good, the ambiance is good but because the main chef has left you do not really get the missing secret ingredient in the galawati kabab.
Bedi ji was generous enough in his lifetime to give to any new fan enough comics to read and fall in love with the madcap world of Bankelal. Try out a few of the older issues, and before the day ends I am sure you will be saying to yourselves ‘Woh Maara Papad Waale ko’ (No translation would do justice to this nonsensical phrase).
DISCLAIMER: OPINIONS EXPRESSED BY MEN OF COMICS CONTRIBUTORS ARE THEIR OWN. ALL THE IMAGES ARE PROPERTY OF RESPECTIVE PUBLISHING HOUSE.
During the day Vaibhav Srivastav sells Time to a city that doesn’t have any. On full moon nights and mostly half past ten, he turns into a writer. He likes doubling his happiness and drowning his sorrows in a pond of comic books and novels. When neither writing or reading he dedicates his life to Fantastic Pop Cultural References and where to find them. He has recently inflicted his collection of short stories ‘Borrowed From Tomorrow’ upon an unsuspecting world.