Some of India's earliest science-fiction films, like Kalai Arasi (1963) and Chand Par Chadayee (1967), were space operas with comic, and often outrageous, alien worlds. Aliens are practically human in these films, but what if we could refashion humans into immortals? In Karutha Rathrikal (1967), a doctor invents a drug that gives him powers to commit crimes incognito, a reworking of the Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde bipolarity. Should science help humans act without consequences?
Films like Naalai Manithan (1989) explore that question, but it's never about the science in our films, especially in films about invisibility like Mr. X in Bombay (1964) where it's just a pretext for some visual entertainment. Often, there's more fiction in the science than there is science in the fiction.
Anand Gandhi's OK Computer claims to be the first Indian science fiction comedy. Kannada film Hollywood (2002) billed itself as the first robot film. 1991 film Aditya 369 is said to be the first science-fiction film from India. Are these films really deserving of their claims? We look at science-fiction films from the 50s until the 90s, and trace the historical development of the genre:
Most of Bollywood's first few sci-fi outings revolved around the limitless potential that invisibility could unlock for a single person, and the unintended consequences that could follow. Nanabhai Bhatt's Mr. X (1957), considered to be the first Indian science-fiction film, follows a lab assistant who accidentally drinks an invisibility potion. Bad news: there's no antidote that will make him reappear. When there's a spate of crimes in the city, he's the obvious suspect and must prove his innocence.
In Mr. X in Bombay (1964), the protagonist gets his hands on an invisibility potion and uses it to solve a problem more pressing than world hunger — his lack of a love life. Sudarshan (Kishore Kumar), a poet, falls in love with the singer Shobha (Kumkum), but when she turns him down, he drinks a potion from her father's lab that he believes to be poison. Instead, it turns him invisible and he begins wooing Shobha in that form. (It's not as creepy as it sounds).
Perhaps to ease audiences into what's happening, director Shantilal Soni turns Sudarshan translucent for a song sequence before committing to turning him fully invisible. They smartly denote his presence in several situations though the appearance of an umbrella that he always carries around. The two also have fun with Sudarshan's new superpower, staging several scenes to show it off. An omelette fries itself, a flute begins playing while suspended midair, and evildoers are soundly slapped by forces they can't see. In the film's best sequence, a car driven by an invisible Sudarshan follows a kidnapper in hot pursuit and overtakes him by simply flying overhead (another of Shobha's dad's inventions).
A car being driven by an invisible person is an image that recurs in 1965 film Aadhi Raat Ke Baad, only this time it's mined for horror — a girl lies unconscious in the backseat and is being kidnapped. Director Nanabhai Bhatt's convoluted film attempts to answer one question: How much harder would it be to solve a murder mystery if the main suspect could turn invisible at will? When friends of Ashok (Ashok Kumar), a scientist with an invisibility potion, begin turning up dead, he must find a way to clear his name. It's a plot similar to Bhatt's earlier vanishing man film Mr. X.
These early films adopted a myopic attitude towards invisibility, with the protagonists often using their newfound powers for selfish reasons rather than the greater good. It took till 1971 for invisibility to serve more altruistic purposes. In K. Ramanlal's Elaan (1971), journalists Naresh (Vinod Mehra) and Shyam (Rajendra Nath) are sent to report on a remote island after their boss suspects it of being a criminal lair. They're captured and Naresh's cellmate happens to be an atomic scientist who's invented a ring that can turn its wearer invisible (surely what atomic scientists specialize in). He gives Naresh the ring to fight crime, but there's a catch — it only works when the wearer places it in his mouth (and not on his finger for some reason) and takes off all his clothes. This results in several unintentionally comic moments when Naresh decides to take on the bad guys, but first pauses to strip down. The film leaves many questions unanswered, one of which is: What happens if you accidentally swallow the ring mid-transformation?
Thankfully, Anil Kapoor gets to keep his clothes on in Mr. India (1987), the first mainstream Bollywood sci-fi film. The object that grants its wearer invisibility is a bracelet, with one catch: Though invisible, he can still be seen through red-tinted lenses. While Arun's (Kapoor's) motives for using the bracelet are also altruistic, he isn't above some petty revenge scenarios, like forcing a henchman's girlfriend to feed him the same gravel he's been adulterating foodgrain stocks with. In an interview to Scroll.in, special effects coordinator Peter Pereira explained the mechanics of a scene in which the invisible Mr. India leaves behind muddy footprints on a white staircase: "We used a stop motion technique in which we made one footprint after another as static images and then shot them one frame at a time. When you played the frames in sequence, it is as though an invisible person's shoes are leaving footprints."
Another film that released the same year as Mr. India explored the more nefarious consequences of scientific advancement. In Mr. X, written and directed by Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, a student (Imtiaz Khan) steals his professor's invisibility potion to commit a series of crimes across the city. Flashbacks make the professor out to be as shady as his student — showing a complete disregard for scientific ethics, he initially tests the potion out on his dog. The film is upfront about its influences, even name-dropping HG Wells at one point, but fails to explain why the student dresses like a low-budget Rorschach from Watchmen, swathed in bandages.
The Professor (Thilakan) in Malayalam film Jaithra Yaathra (1987) invents a gadget that makes its wearer invisible. He also invents visibility shades to counteract his gadget. His student, Ravi (Nizhalgal Ravi), uses the gadget to avenge his brother's death, but mostly to settle petty scores. Invisibility is used to create chaos and for comic ends. The superb conceit of goggles that turn one visible again is underutilized—only the Professor uses it to observe Ravi. Invisibility, unlike immortality, appears to excite no moral questions. A person who lives forever can probably cause a lot of harm, but how bad can a brief disappearance be?
Director A. Kasilingam's Kalai Arasi (1963) has aliens from another galaxy visit earth and Mohan (MGR) follow them back to their home planet. They look like us except for their sartorial preferences. They like tight shorts and safari helmets. Their spaceship has a distinct steampunk sensibility — levers and crankshafts everywhere. You even hear the periodic puff of escaping steam that apparently powers its cross-galaxy travel.
Writers T. E. Gnanamurthy and Raveendar make their humanoid appearance plausible by situating them in a spiral galaxy similar to ours. There is, however, one fundamental difference between us and them: the aliens are lovers of art to a fault. They've come to abduct talented artists from Earth and make them better ones. Their spaceship has a tiny screen that's a precursor to Google Earth. They wear goggles that must have inspired Google Glass. But since they don't have Google Search, they must manually scour every Indian region to find artists.
What's surprising, especially since this is the first science-fiction film in Tamil, is how people react to a UFO. Mohan is with his friends when a spaceship flies overhead. He practically yawns an explanation, saying that experts believe that aliens from other galaxies would visit earth at some point in time. His blasé friends are instantly convinced, feeling as much awe upon seeing a spaceship as an odd-looking cow.
That's in stark contrast to the feeling of wonder in Satyajit Ray's The Alien (based on his story Bonkubabur Bandhu), had it even been made. Ray's biographer W. Andrew Robinson describes a scene from the unproduced film: the alien visiting earth is curious about a blade of grass, its eyes light up when it sees a plant and it emits a high-pitched sound that's like a laugh. The script predates Steven Spielberg's ET by over a decade and Ray had even alleged that parts of ET were plagiarized from The Alien.
Hindi film Chand Par Chadayee (1967) released two years before the first manned mission to the moon, which is perhaps what emboldened director TP Sundaram to take creative liberties with the subject. Astronaut Anand (Dara Singh) wears a full spacesuit to business meetings but turns up at the launch in a suit and fedora. By the time the spaceship takes off, he's shirtless. It's that kind of movie. His sidekick Bhagu (Bhagwan) tags along, convinced the moon is swarming with beautiful women. Spoiler alert: it is.
For a film that includes ridiculous scenes such as the Moon inhabitants sentencing Anand to fight a (clearly fake, very skinny) gorilla and parachute-wearing Moon women dancing above the clouds, the film was astonishingly prescient in terms of technological advancements. A high-ranking Moon citizen and the king of Mars videochat, and even communicate through a Google Glass-like device in which a real-time video of the caller appears on the lens of a pair of sunglasses. It's a shame that the film's writer remains uncredited.
The same year as Chand Par Chadayee's release, Martians visited Earth in Nisar Ahmad Ansari's Wahan Ke Log. In the film, aliens carry out a spate of diamond thefts, sending floating transmitters into the houses of rich merchants and burning them to death with a laser if they refuse to comply. Since they're dressed in spacesuits and wear opaque helmets, the only hint of their otherworldly identity is their three-fingered scaly hands. Even more impressive is their ally on Earth, Anil Chakravarty (Ansari himself), whose sophisticated surveillance system and remote-controlled bombs allow him to kill anyone close to uncovering his secret. The film ends with a dramatic aerial combat between the aliens and the Indian Army, and the big reveal that there were never any Martians, just members of Chakravarty's organisation, who disguised themselves and looted the rich in service of an unnamed "enemy country". Threats on Earth are closer than they appear.
Just as the vastness of space can be liberating, so can the invention of certain drugs that give their users powers. In P. Subramaniam's Malayalam classic Karutha Rathrikal (1967), the soft-spoken Santhan (Madhu) invents a drug that changes his appearance and gives him the ability to kill people. He's unable to make an antidote (perhaps, because of impure ingredients) which leads to his own death. An adaptation of RL Stevenson's Strange Case Of Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde, Karutha Rathrikal has an ambivalent stance towards the morality of science. We don't actually see much science, except in a comedy track that explains the concept of an antidote.
The idea of an antidote becomes extraordinarily important in this subgenre, in which a scientist (typically out of hubris) invents a drug that gives him superpowers.
In Naalai Manithan (1989) the fate of the world hangs on Dr. Shankar (Jaishankar). After winning the Nobel Prize for inventing an AIDS drug, he creates another one that wakes the dead. Shankar's hubris prevents him from acknowledging the side effects of his immortality pill: violent and anti-social behaviour. Just as in Karutha Rathrikal, a scientist's individual choices shape how science plays out.
By taking moral responsibility for his out-of-control inventions, the scientist ends up as the villain in these films. Both Santhan from Karutha Rathrikal and Shankar from Naalai Manithan die as a result of pushing the limits of human potential. This, however, isn't the case for The Professor (Ananth Nag) from Kannada film Hollywood (2002), which claims to be India's first robot film.
If the Professor's humanoid robot US-47 goes rogue, it's the robots fault, not his. In Karutha Rathrikal, Shankar pays for his invention with his death. In Hollywood, however, the Professor simply dismantles the malfunctioning robot. A rogue invention is only a technical problem, not a moral one. The film doesn't ask, like Naalai Manithan does, whether science leads to progress. Why embargo an invention when you could simply dismantle it if it's not useful?
Not quite human, not quite machine is the vehicle at the center of Ajantrik (1958), considered to be one of the earliest Bengali sci-fi movies. Director Ritwik Ghatak explores the relationship between a small-town driver, Bimal (Kali Banerjee) and his battered taxi by humanizing the vehicle through a combination of visual and sound effects. When Bimal pours water into his car radiator, the sounds are those of a thirsty human gratefully gulping it down. When Bimal's female companion touches his shoulder, the car goes into a frenzy, perhaps out of jealousy. Is the taxi sentient, or is Bimal projecting his emotions onto it? "That isn't relevant," says editor Arjun Gourisaria. "The film is a complex one. Ghatak is saying that under capitalism, we see the value of everything in economic terms. But Bimal values his taxi beyond that."
In Aditya 369, written and directed by Singeetam Srinivasa Rao, Professor Ramdas (Tinnu Anand) fusses around Bunsen burners, absently messes with his Einsteinian hair, and chews a pen while typing on a computer. He also invents a time machine. You believe that, because the walls of his lab are covered in clocks displaying different times, as if it doesn't matter what the actual time is. For most of the film, Balakrishna's Krisha Kumar visits Krishnadevaraya's court and gets caught up in palace intrigue. What's interesting is when he ends up in an apocalyptic-looking 2504 AD.
We see a post-World War 3 Earth, where radiation from nuclear weapons has made the surface unfit for living. It's practically a desert, and humans live underground in hermetic forts. There's also what must be the earliest depiction of a gaffe during a conference call, when someone's wife gets on a public video conference. They even have something called 'Dragon Walk', which is their Spotify. 'Stomach computers' tell people when to eat. But unlike, Naalai Manithan, this isn't interpreted cynically. Rather like the impossible-to-ruffle Mohan from Kalai Arasi, people in 2504 AD are merely amused that their lives are run by machines.
Science fiction is still an underserved genre in our films. Films like Rahul Sadasivan's Red Rain (2013) explore the instinctive terror we feel for something from beyond earth, but recent films have continued earlier templates, with a bit more realism. Arati Kadav's Cargo (2019), Tik Tik Tik (2018) and Antariksham 9000 KMPH (2019) are space operas but the science is believable. Fifty years after Karutha Rathrikal, Maayavan (2017) explores the question of who we really are if we swap brains with someone else. 24 (2016) and Indru Netru Naalai (2015) are entertaining time travel films that take us to the past and, hesitantly, to the future of science fiction films.