Science Fiction in Indian Cinema – The Awesome List

Ra.One

Inarguably, Science Fiction is not a very popular genre in the land of the Indian film industry. The Indian film industry, as a whole, produces more than 600 films a year and not even a handful can boast to be in some way linked to this genre. This is quite embarrassing given the fact that majority of the Hollywood blockbusters have their SFX work outsourced from the country’s brilliant creative workforce. Of course, one can raise such arguments such as reincarnation or ghosts to be some sort of science fiction. Well, if that was the case, then we should rest it right now and crown Twilight fans aka tweens to be the scifi nerds of this generation.

Moving on, science fiction is about taking that flight of imagination into the realms of the unexplored and the unexplained, but still somehow governed by the laws of physics, chemistry and biology (and all of its sub-categories). And in the words of the great Morpheus – some rules can be bent, others, broken. Hollywood has been able to explore into the extremes of science fiction and has produced brilliant cinematic interpretations of some of the brilliant works by Arthur C Clarke, Philip K Dick and Isaac Asimov. And looking at the summer blockbusters over the last couple of years, science fiction has been the genre of choice. Why hasn’t Bollywood been able to replicate the same sort of success from scifi? Things might be changed when Ra.One hits the theatres this Diwali. After all, a good story is a good story.

Let me put forward my argument of the Indian movie scifi genre with a few examples. Some of these are wickedly entertaining and brilliant pieces of cinema. Others proved to be pure abomination. In this list, I will be discussing 5 such movies which grace the awesome list of SciFi in Indian Cinema.

The Alien(1967)

We kick off this discussion with the 1960s cancelled project – The Alien, helmed under one of the greatest auteurs of cinema , Bharat Ratna – Satyajit Ray. This is one of those sad stories of how a creative mind was exploited by Hollywood honchos. Ray’s script was to see the light of the day with Columbia Pictures hiring Marlon Brando and Peter Sellers in the cast list. And then, shit happened. Ray’s Hollywood rep – Mike Wilson got Ray’s script copyrighted as a co-writer, even though he had to do nothing with the creation of the script.

The Alien’s screenplay portrayed the outer space creature in a positive light. Ray’s biographer drew Robinson, described the screenplay to have a scene where the alien sees a flower, and his eyes glow with a yellow light, and then it passes his hand over the plant, and the flowers start to bloom. The alien looks pleased. That was written in the year 1967. And in the year 1982, a certain filmmaker by the name of Steven Spielberg came out with a little known feature film called E.T., and claimed it was all original. Read more about it here.
India’s first attempt at sci-fi was met with a tragedy, ambitions taken down by greedy Hollywood studio men and then later profited by plagiarists who posed as visionaries.

Mr. India (1987)

Sridevi as Chaplin - Mr.India

And then, after two decades of reincarnations, shape shifting snakes, revenge dramas and lost and found stories, Shekhar Kapoor came up with his own version of “the Invisible Man meets jingoistic Manoj “Bharat” Kumar”. The result was a protagonist as a Mr.Goody Goody India, who has orphans to raise, a violin to play, a pot-bellied Bawarchi by the name of Calendar, and seduces Sridevi in a blue sari. An epic formula for an epic movie. But wait, there’s more. There’s the telephone in the chief editor’s office which always gets wrong numbers. There’s junior versions of Aftab Shivdasani and Ahmed Khan. There’s Daaga and Tejaa and Miss Hawa Hawaii. There’s Professor Dadamoni who has been hiding the invisibility wristwear all this while. And there’s Mogambo with his fucking epic lair which can put Dr.No to shame.

Just like the most loved SciFi movies of the 80s, Back To The Future, Mr.India very efficiently and very smartly picks up the naughty aspects of invisibility and keeps the audience at the edge of their seat. From winning money at a casino (aided by Sridevi in a Chaplin avatar – see pic above), or beating up villains as Bajrang Bali, Mr.India had all the goodness, jam-packed to the brim. And it even answers how would a leather chair look like if an invisible man was to sit on it. Ask Annu Kapoor! Even the slight mention of Mr.India makes me want to rewatch it all over again. And that’s what we call fucking epic.

Koi Mil Gaya (2003)

Jaadoo - Koi Mil Gaya

Like it or not, Rakesh Roshan did make India’s version of E.T. meets Close Encounters meets Forrest Gump, and that sort of amalgamation is only bound to be good, by virtue of its constituents. It spawned future superhero elements, which we’ll not cover under the scifi umbrella [The same reason we do not consider vampires to be science fiction]. Of course there are the annoying bits here – in your face Bournvita promotion, female lead being treated as a competition prize, and some really annoying teacher whose best Tech question is – How do you Copy and Paste files in Windows? Seriously, even my mum can do that.

But above all these pitfalls, there’s the blue and rubbery Jadoo, who wants to phone home. He is solar powered, and can transform the limping loser to the dancing hero. If only for that, and for Rekha, Koi Mil Gaya is a worthy mention on the SciFi list of Bollywood.

Patalghar (2003)

Patalghar

The very same year as Koi Mil Gaya, a Bengali movie, much humbler in terms of scale, but thumping with a heart as big as Godzilla’s, Patalghar - directed by debutante director Abhijit Choudhury, made splashes and waves across the Indian film festivals. Sadly, beyond the local Bengali cinema circuit, this did not meet the commercial reception it deserved. But nevertheless, it was filled with colourful characters such as Aghar Sen (Soumitra Chatterjee), Bhootnath Nandy (Joy Sengupta), Vik (Biplab Chatterjee), Begum (Mita Vashist) and a very cracking role by child actor Sourav Bandopadhyay as Kartik. Based on the story by Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay, Patalghar‘s charm is in the innocent, simplistic yet charming imaginations such as an alien planet called Nyapcha, a powerful annihilating machine , and of course Aghor Sen’s book of riddles. It almost gives a sort of Satyajit Ray deja vu. For cinephiles who love scifi for the sheer concept, and the execution of simple ideas, this is a must watch. It excels in the technique as well as the story-telling.

Endhiran (2010)

Endhiran - Robot

Finally, Shankar’s Endhiran is the most obvious entry on this list. By virtue of its magnitude and scale, Endhiran knocks down even its Hollywood counterparts. There’s quotes flying from Isaac Asimov’s The Three Laws of Robotics. There are three Rajnis..wait, there’s actually way too many for you to count. There’s facemelting action sequences which can make Michael Bay look like a amateur. There are some annoying plastic bits in the form of the screaming Mrs. Rai Bachchan, and the slap-worthy mother who is furious to see her naked daughter being rescued from a fire [ The biggest WTF moment of recent years].

But Endhiran rises above all of that. Its action sequences have been embedded in tech and scifi blogs around the world, and even people who have no idea of a South Indian film industry, now swear by its magnificence. The idea of AI reaching such a stage to develop human emotions such as anger, envy and love is a direct nod to Asimov’s Bicentennial Man. That and Danny Denzongpa’s evil chipped Rajni clone bots, complete this list.

As for the abominations in this genre, we have quite a few examples of how it should not be done. In recent memory, Love Story 2050 (2008) and Action Replayy (2010) come to my mind. As I look forward to the big budget blockbuster Ra.One , all set to invade our movie screens, I hope it does rule and smash all box office records. So that the future of Indian cinema can see more and more scifi elements and whacky ideas find onscreen life.

As always, this list is incomplete. So please leave your thoughts and suggestions in the comments below. Cheerio!

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4 thoughts on “Science Fiction in Indian Cinema – The Awesome List

  1. I’ve never heard of Patalghar but am very intrigued! I’m kind of pleased with myself that I have seen all of the see-able films on this list (even the bad ones) even though I am in no way well-versed in sci fi from ANY culture.

    Also: AJOOBA? AJOOBA! ALWAYS AJOOBA! :D

    What do you make of the idea that Indian cinema doesn’t tend to do sci fi because mythologicals (and the not-as-direct re-tellings of the epics) meet much of the same urge to project the human world (and its laws) into non-human arenas? I don’t have a strong opinion on this, since I haven’t seen any mythologicals, but I do find it kind of surprising that there aren’t more Indian sci fi films simply because of the easy link to escapism and depiction of universal values and “right” (as is so nicely done in Mr. India).

    And what’s the role of budget? I’m not saying that effective sci fi MUST be big budget (and I am sure fans of other cinemas could easily point to very low-budget but still awesome sci fi from all over the world), but do you think that perception is pervasive enough that it has discouraged some Indian directors/writers/producers from even trying?

    [Reply]

    Sujoy Reply:

    @Beth,
    I was very pleasantly surprised by Patalghar, and I’d highly recommend it. And bravo to have watched the movies on the list :)

    As for Ajooba, I would technically not consider it SciFi. Its more like Zorro meets LOTR :P

    I suppose Indian cinema prefers to delve into the mythological territory more easily than treading upon unknown scifi land. As a TV watching nation , we have been brought up watching the Ramayana and Mahabharata as our staple Sunday morning entertainment. And I suppose, there is the religious connection as well, which makes us accept mythological stories. Having said that, the only mythology related movies we have seen in the last few years are in the form of cartoon movies such as – My Friend Ganesha, Hanuman etc. Mr.India is a very rare species in the Indian cinema family.

    The thing is, most scifi movies are pure concept based – such as, what if a man was to become invisible, what if the robot starts to fall in love, what if dinosaurs were recreated, what if it is all a dream… so on and so forth. And you know, that this pure concept movies do not go hand in hand with Bollywood. Bolly producers are happy churning out boy meets girl, and the many permutation combination linked with that cycle..which is a shame.

    As for the scale, of course, budget is not a definite criteria to make a scifi movie. A scifi movie can be made without any VFX. But even Hollywood has those in very small doses. At the end of it, the perception has to change. Indian cinema has to grow up from making only romances and family stories (yes, we can’t have enough of it), and make at least 10 such pure concept movies out of the 600 produced in a year.. like maybe, a zombie outbreak in Delhi, a futuristic serial killer on the loose in urban Mumbai, a monster creature attacking Kolkata, or even a biohazard story set in Goa – aaah, I could start pitching these ideas to SRK :P Maybe in good time.

    [Reply]

  2. Hm, I always thought sci-fi wasn’t that popular in India… or rather: there are quite few Indian sci-fi films, compared to other film industries. That story about The Alien sounds horrible, poor man!
    I liked Koi Mil Gaya, even though it’s a mixture of various Hollywood blockbusters, it’s very sweet and the two leads (+ Jaadoo) did a good job.
    Endhiran is actually the next DVD I was planning to watch, either tonight or tomorrow, so… I’ll see what I think of it.

    [Reply]

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