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Happy Dussehra and Diwali to all Readers.          November 2019 Edition of Power Politics is updated.
Issue:June' 2019


A Sci Fi temperament missing

Gautam Kaul

My favourite all time great S c i e n c e Fiction film is ‘2001: A S p a c e Odyssey’. I do not worry of the year gone by. One can pick that year and put it down to 2030 and it would remain fresh and futuristic.
This film was a worldwide success. In New Delhi when this film unspooled at the spacious Odeon Theatre, I sat glued in my seat as the Space Shuttle took my hero to the Mother Ship to the sound track of Strauss’s Blue Danube. This film was not short of classical music as it started with the spirited Richard Wagner’s overture, Thus Sprach Zarathustra. India’s tryst with Space travel had just begun with our astronauts talking of reaching the Moon.

Moon has always fascinated mankind. It was as if it was an umbilical chord which was cut off but the relationship with the mother womb was never severed. Because the Moon has remained a constant visible self in an envelope of darkness , no living creature has escaped its notice. The oceans, too, are influenced at least twice in 24 hours.

The unletterd scientist has measured its waxing and waning and brought out its calculations, the writer has written on its effect, the poet to has spared no words and the illustrator has also painted it in various moods and positions.

When cinema took roots, the first of the science fiction film made, was by the Frenchman, George Melier's ATrip to the Moon(1902). It remains a classic. It set the style for the development of the theme among other film makers who did not look at the moon and the stars but viualised a world on Earth which was controlled by machines and machine like humanity.

A silent film like Metropolis (1927) made by Fritz Lang of Germany is still to be conceived by anyone in India.

Apologists for Indian Cinema still believe that Indian cinema was also close to sci-fi but the route taken was the recreation of the mythological films. Leave aside Raja Harishchandra (1913) or Pundalik (1912), films life Kaliya Mardan (1919) , Mohini Bhasmasur (1913) were claimed as sci-fi films and used the available technology to bring to life images which were bigger than reality.

This raises the question of how should we define science fiction literature, and science fiction film. Apparently the agreed definition will not fit the two genres.

Science fiction literature often tells us about science and technologies of future involving human elements and behavior. The stories are woven around partly fact or partly fiction and argued by the writer himself.

Science fiction films are a genre that use speculative data to develop a futuristic world not fully acceptable by the present viewer. It uses machinery and engineering to create robots and systems to create a world that may exist by mutations.

The earliest evidence of science fiction literary writings in India is probably in 1879 seen in Bengali literature and in 1900 in Hindi literature. Some of country’s most reputed writers like Sarat Chandra Bose and R a b i n d r a n a t h Tagore also wrote science fiction short stories . Indian cinema still took time to germinate.

After schools and colleges in the nation introduced the learning of subjects of science, a slow transformation in discussion on speculative life and an era of comfort began. This received a big impetus when electricity lit up the homes and offices in towns.

The first four decades of Indian cinema only received stray example of science fiction films. These films came from European studios and USA. Among the first post independence era film which was discussed in informed circle was a Tamil-American production Kaadu/The Jungle (1952). The characters in this film discovered mammoth elephants , and odd shapes creatures in Indian forests and used even flying shoes to journey through these jungles!

This film was shot in the jungles of Mysore and would have certainly not fired the imaginations of the local audiences, save for the Indian producer T.P. Sundaram, who went on to make some additional science fiction films, including one titled Chand Par Chadaayi (1967)(Visit To The Moon) with Dara Singh in tow. Some academic consider this film as the fore runner of sci- fi in Indian cinema. Far from it. We have some genuine sci- fi films in Indian cinema if we go by the definition we have set before us.

An early science fiction film which came to Indian cinema theatres was One Million BC (1940) made by United artists and which featured Victor Mature. The film’s Indian journey was postponed because of import restrictions due to the WWII, and came in 1950. The film talked of life of prehistoric humans one million years ago, and was a wholly speculative effort because humans did not exist at that time but were simply homo erectus.
It was in 1957, that a multi lingual, Tamil, Telugu film produced by K.V. Reddy was made in Madras which hit the theatres in South India. Since public memory is generational in cinema, film Maya Bazaar is considered the ‘greatest ever film’ made in the history of Indian Cinema. The film finally after a commercial run of over one year in south India, moved into Hindi heart land and did very good business . It was certainly the most expensive film made in south Indian cinema until Baahubali-2, made in 2017. The film’s last reel was concentrated with the wonders of c i n e m a t o g r a p h i c advancements which mersmerized its audiences of the day. When one recalls, this was the year 1957 and in India, one needs to applaud the virtuosity of Marcus Bartley the cinematographer of film Maya Bazaar. What still remained is the fact that this film will not fall in the category of Sci fi films.

Finally, India welcome its first science fiction film in 1958. It came from a most unlikely quarter and when it was premiered in Calcutta, the audiences were taken aback with its narrative style. The critics said, it was a man vs machine conflict done with some verve and acute simplicity.

Film Ajantrik was directed by Ritwick Ghatak, better called the ‘infant terrible’ of Bengali Cinema., It had music by Akbar Ali Khan. The film featured an old Cheverlet jalopy which was use by its driver as taxi, to transit passengers of all types in rural Purnia.

The film focused on the hero sharing small talk with his passengers, but occasionally, he talked with his old car named ‘Jagaddal’, That was nothing new. But in this case the car had its own soul and reacted to her driver’s talk. When the talk was between a mechanical structure and its human master, the theme moved into science fiction. The film was publicized as a comedy, and not as a sci fi but the narrative placed this film in pure science fiction genre.

Ajantrik was essentially the story of a car possessed, which could become jealous, revengeful, or affectionate. The same theme was used by John Carpenter in 1983 in his film Christine, but here Carpenter’s film became a horror ride in a small town.

From 1960 onwards educated Indians started reading on space travel. The story of USSR’s Sputnik, then of Gagarin and Valentina Tereshkova amazed a whole generation. USA added additional material on space travel and in its publicity it allowed the ordinary person to become more educated. Hollywood began to share more sci-fi films along with the romantic genres. Entertainment worldwide took a small swing everywhere, and India was not spared too. Script-writers began to allow themselves the luxury of risks with science fiction on the screen.

In 1964, audiences had to start straining themselves to contemplate seeing the invisible man, when the first such film Mr. X in Bombay, emerged with Kishore Kumar and Kum Kum. The film became a moderate commercial success because of the novelty it provided, but today it is still recalled for its one song, ‘Mere Mehboob Kayamat Ho Gi…’. The invisible man theme was again repeated in film Mr. India (1987) directed by Shekhar Kapoor. By now a new generation of children had become familiar in India with space travel terminology , and think wild. And they made this film a great success.

Indian cinema indulged in pseudo sci-fi themes also in regional cinemas. Tamil Telugu and Bengali cinema made films even if they remained crude productions but they entertained their audiences. The audience taste ran ahead of the local products after a host of films made in the USA based on use of highly sophisticated model computer generated technology and the whole series of Star Wars films, began to entertain Indian audiences. It was when these foreign films began to snatch away their youthful Indian audiences in huge numbers and made more money than the biggest block- busters made locally, that enterprising film producers contemplated to offer competition to their foreign counterparts.

Shah Rukh Khan financed Ra.One in 2011, and proved at some risk that Indian audiences could sit through a three hour film provided it had the staple of entertainment in Indian cinema. But I do not rate him as a pioneer. In fact, it was Rakesh Roshan who made in 2003 Koi… Mil Gayaa a straight inspiration from Spielberg’s ET. He followed his success later with Krrish (2006).
Roshan once again made two more clone versions of Krrish and has announced he will make a fourth film in 2020. The success of this themed film indicates that Indian audiences are now coming around to sitting through science fiction cinema provided it entertains. The final test I would give to my friends, is to sit through a screening of film like Solaris (1972), arguably one of the greatest Sci-Fi film ever made, or the Oscar winning Gravity (2016) without fidgeting!
A major contributor to the rise of science fiction films in Indian cinema has been the swing in the younger generation to accept computer technology in its variations, and put it to use in their everyday lives.
This has led to the rise of a whole vibrant industry in special effects or VXS. India has emerged as a world class leader in creating special effects for films and related demands of visual activity. The whole series of Jurasic themes, Star Wars and films like Life of Pi(2006) had chunks of creativity developed in the VXS shops of Hyderabad, Chennai, Mumbai and Bangalore. The successful use of VXS and the fact that this technology is available within arm’s reach, has caused a herd mentality.