This Friday sees the release of Anand Gandhi's OK Computer, a streaming series that calls itself India's first sci-fi comedy. Sci-fi and Bollywood have had a patchy relationship so far. The release of OK Computer is probably a good time to look back at what went well and what really didn't in some of our science fiction cinema.
In Mr India, Anil Kapoor's character inherits a device from his father that renders the wearer invisible. The love duet between him and Sridevi is charged with an erotic current that is layered with his invisibility. The impression given is that Sridevi is entirely alone, but Kapoor keeps turning up to sing lines of the song and vanishing (literally, with very clever editing) as the lyric ends. So Sridevi, clad in a blue saree that is at once billowing and clingy, performs Saroj Khan's suggestive choreography all alone, but giving the idea that she feels Kapoor's touch. In one sequence, she dances amongst a row of red screens. Every time the camera moves behind one of them, we see two shadows dancing together; every time it comes out from behind the screen, she is dancing on her own.
Writer-director Arati Kadav successfully put together our oldest myths with the soul searching of a Hollywood space film in Cargo. Vikrant Massey and Shweta Tripathi each play a rakshas, a demon in charge of ferrying the dead into the afterlife. They cleanse and heal the dead before sending them on their way. The update is that they look like astronauts and they live in a spaceship. They communicate with their superiors (one of whom has a third eye) via video, they wear t-shirts that say, 'Keep calm, you're already dead', they read e-newspapers with headlines like 'YANTRIK RAKSHAS PROTEST BREAKS OUT'. But they both also grapple with the biggest space-movie questions: what does life mean? What is its purpose? And how important is human connection?
An Arati Kadav film, in which a young budding scientist named Chetan decides to impress his crush with the makeshift time machine he's built. He's used cardboard and amateur wiring to make it, but he swears it works. He and his girlfriend go on little animated adventures in the machine. She is impressed, but also excited. Later, Chetan is visited by his future self, who reminds him to hold on to his youthful innocence. The girlfriend is more important than the time machine: sci-fi must foster romance, not make it a byproduct.
Aditya Roy Kapur plays Bunty, whose parents (Akshay Kumar and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan) are on the verge of divorce. His girlfriend's grandfather is – wouldn't you know – a scientist who has built a time machine, so Bunty travels to 1975 to right his parents' marriage at its very beginning. However, beyond this and some gaudy reconstruction of '70s Bombay, there is no real inquiry into the implications of Bunty spending time in the past: he drops many hints, such as referring to his parents as mom and dad, but they don't pick up on anything, or see anything odd about this man suddenly interfering in their lives and orchestrating a romance. By the predictably happy climax, Bunty safely goes back to the present. There is never any time-related danger (what happens when his parents in the present remember being set up by him, for instance?), which, after all, is what makes time-travel films fun.
Rajit Kapur played an enigmatic pundit in Baar Baar Dekho, who may or may not have sent the protagonist Jai (Sidharth Malhotra) on a time-bending journey through his own life. The idea was to get Jai to realise the value of balance in life, but it involved invocations of the seven vows of a Hindu marriage and a permanently confused-looking Jai careering through decades of his family's lives, one day at a time. Somehow the smooth, tasteful world of Baar Baar Dekho's future didn't gel well with the pundit's tendency to pop up and dish out life lessons with a sage smile.
There were a lot of things wrong with this film, starting with the misspelt title. Ajay Devgn creates a 'futuristic car' (his words) but is duped by competitors who kill him by drowning him in the car. Years later, his son finds its ruins and repairs it. The car, now sleek and flashy and purple, is possessed by the dead man's spirit, driving itself around on a killing spree, determined to finish off every last one of its original owner's killers. In the end, after they are all either killed or arrested, the dead father's spirit is finally freed and he ascends to the heavens. It was a ludicrous update on the tired bhatakti aatma trope.
Love Story 2050 had a lot of pretty advanced special effects, but it was hobbled by a toothless attempt at resuscitating reincarnation, hit-and-miss acting and unintentionally funny dialogue. If you could tear your eyes away from a red-haired Priyanka Chopra gyrating to some of Javed Akhtar's most pointless lyrics in 'Lover Boy', there was a robot named "Q-dot-T", which conveniently became QT. QT, a female humanoid robot, bore a permanently surprised expression, spoke in a squeaky voice and was only able to move her mouth in one way. Meanwhile, Priyanka Chopra had a pet robot, this one in the shape of a walking teddy bear who talked to her at great length and was named Boo. It was meant to be cute; it just ended up being cutesy.
The reason, I think, a lot of our sci-fi films fail is because they try to graft sci-fi tropes onto the standard-issue Bollywood template. But streaming has freed filmmakers of the trappings of mainstream masala Hindi movies, so there is a good chance OK Computer will be able to do what many of the films above couldn't – although it does appear to feature a self-driving car that commits murders.