Wednesday, 09 May 2012 09:55

Technology and Masala make Good Curry

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A Glimpse into the World of Hindi Science Fiction Film

Science fiction, both in literature and cinema, has been an underdeveloped genre in India. A Bengali story by Jagadish Chandra Bose, written in 1897, is arguably the first science fiction story written in India. Some critics have claimed that there are elements of science fiction in earliest Vedas as well as in two epics –The Ramayana and The Mahabharata; this argument falls in line with critics of Western literary traditions who identify The Epic of Gilgamesh as the first work of science fiction. Broadly speaking, both in India and in the Western literary tradition, SF is generally recognized as a genre that developed in the late 19th century. However, Indian literature and films do not have significant representation in the science fiction genre.

As such, to Indian readers and film audiences, the realm of science fiction literature and films, although not unknown, is not a familiar one. Usually the world of science fiction is out of the ordinary, sometimes out of this world, set in alternate spaces such as another planet in a future time frame, and the fictional or imagined world is made credible through a variety of real/unreal scientific theories or pseudo-science. For example, in her novel The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula Le Guin presents genderless society on an imaginary planet, Winter.  On the other hand, there is the development of Cyberpunk, comparatively a newer, postmodern form of science fiction, where the action generally takes place in computer generated virtual reality. William Gibson’s Neuromancer takes the readers into a virtual world of crime, pop culture, and technologically savvy counter cultures. Given that science fiction has been overshadowed by the new media and the visual world, cinema has adopted it as a popular subgenre. In the West, SF films have generally been a Hollywood game; films such as The Matrix, The War of the Worlds, Blade Runner, Star Wars, Terminator, and I-Robot to name a few, most of which are based on known literary works of science fiction, have gripped audiences worldwide. 

Hollywood style SF films have not appealed much to the Indian audiences which are all too used to formulaic musicals, and have thus mostly rejected the SF films. Nonetheless, some of the earliest SF films in Hindi include Mr. X (1957) starring Ashok Kumar and Nalini Jaywant, Mr. X in Bombay (1964), Chandralok, and Mr. India (1987); lately, producers have shown more interest in the genre, and in the last few years more SF films in Hindi have been produced; notable are Love Story 2050 (2008), Krrish (2006), Robot (2010), and Ra.One (2011). Science fiction films have been made in Bengali, Malayalam, Tamil, and Telugu as well.

Ra.One:
The latest Hindi SF film, Ra.One (Random Access Version 1), tries to break the Bollywood boundaries and enter into the world of Hollywood’s technological extravaganza.  With a budget of some 150 crore rupees, it is the most expensive film produced in India. Though a commercial film, Ra.One is progressive and noteworthy for trying to bring Western style technologically oriented science fiction film to India. Whether it is desirable for the Bombay film industry to emulate Hollywood is a debate by itself. Nonetheless, Ra.One is the latest mega-technology cyberpunk film project, undertaken and jointly produced by, Eros International, and Red Chillies Entertainment, a company owned by Shahrukh Khan, the internationally known and loved actor popularly identified as the ‘King of Bollywood’. Directed by Anubhav Sinha, and released both as 2D and 3D, the film is cutting-edge for the use of technology, and is worth watching for its visual effects that leave the spectator spell-bound.

Plot: Shekhar Subramaniam (Shahrukh Khan) is a video game designer working for Barron Industries, a company in the UK, and living with his wife Sonia (Kareena Kapoor) and son Prateek (Armaan Verma).  Shekhar is asked to build a video game that is different and innovative. While he works on creating the game, Prateek challenges his father to create a game where the villain is powerful and cannot be defeated. Shekhar, along with two other employees, Jenny (Shahana Goswami) and Akashi (Tom Wu) creates a motion-sensor based game, and he lends his face to the lead character which is named G.One, pronounced Jeevan. Ra.One is the antagonist in the game; the name is a play on the mythical demonic character Ravana from the Indian epic The Ramayana. When the game is launched, Prateek plays the game as ‘Lucifer’ and nearly defeats Ra.One in the second level of the game which is built in three levels. Angered, Ra.One, which is a shape-shifting character, leaves the virtual world and enters the real world, in order to destroy ‘Lucifer.’ Once out, Ra.One kills Akashi as well as Shekhar. Prateek realizes that the only way to control Ra.One is to make G.One ‘alive’ and bring him into the real world. Jenny, the third and the only surviving creator of the game, helps bring G.One (Shahrukh Khan) out of the game to the real world, and thus starts the story of an android entering the family life of Sonia and Prateek; the three eventually move to India, but are followed there by Ra.One, who now has taken the form of a billboard model (Arjun Rampal). Ra.One plays havoc in India, and the fight between Ra.One and G.One leads to some of the most interesting special effects scenes in the film, as G.One tries to save Mumbai’s Chatrapati Shivaji Terminus, formerly Victoria Terminus, from crumbling. Eventually, G.One is able to defeat Ra.One as Prateek finds a loophole that his father had left in the programming; thus evil is defeated at last, and the family finally goes back to the UK, to start a new life.

As one watches the film, it is easy to see the influence of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, wherein a scientist Victor Frankenstein creates a monster, and regrets the move. Once having to deal with Ra.One, Prateek realizes that he had asked for a monster similar to the one created by Shelley’s scientist, and reckons that while evil may look ‘cool’, it generally brings devastation in society. The debates about the ethical use of science abound in our modern social order which is dealing with the issues of the creation of atomic bomb, cloning, genetically modified food, and the overall disconnect that human society is facing in a world that is ‘connected’ via a technologically advanced social networking world of Facebooking, Twittering, and Googling. Per se, science fiction deals with contemporary social anxieties, and provides a commentary on the issues that we face in our day-to-day lives. Ra.One with its base in Indian mythology, as Lord Ganesha, Dassera festival, and the age old battle between good and evil evidenced in the two Indian epics, are part of the film, creates an interesting mix of the world of science and mythology. Consequently, though a technologically advanced film, Ra.One is very much a masala film. A hotchpotch mixture of Terminator, Spiderman, Superman, and Bollywood masala, the film creates a unique place for itself in the cinematic world at large. Can a Hindi film exist without the hero singing a dance number, and praying to God in difficult times? It is amusing to see a character from a video game once out of the game console sing the number ‘you are my chamak challo’ and pray in a temple. One cannot help but wonder what Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator would look like sitting and praying in a church. However, it is such touches of Bollywood sentimentality and the use of mythical framework that render Ra.One an intercultural film; the transformation of a mythical character Ravana into technological character Ra.One lends the film its Indian touch. SF is after all, about suspension of disbelief. When watching Ra.One one has to be willing to suspend disbelief and simply enjoy the world created on the screen – logic does not help if one desires to know why an android is dancing with a beautiful maiden. If not for the appearance of Lord Ganesha’s idol at the end of the wonderfully filmed train sequence, or the defeat of evil Ra.One, reminding audiences of the reign of Lord Rama, and the conquest of demon Ravana, and the triumph of virtue over vice, the film would have been another Hollywood film. And as for the chamak challo dance sequence, one has to remember that Indian audiences cannot be appeased without a song. Historically, Bollywood films without a song are very few, and can be counted on one’s finger tips.

With a focus on video gaming and the technology that is bound to attract the young generation, the film has been marketed as a family film; however, this claim has to be taken with a grain of salt. Unless it has become normal for children to talk of condoms, and to see scantily clad women in sensuous dance moves, the film is certainly not a ‘family entertainer.’ The film has been criticized for profanities, as it could have easily done without them. Yet, the film will not disappoint those interested in seeing a technology driven action/thriller film with a stroke of traditional mythology. Also, Khan’s claim in many interviews, that India too can make hi-tech films, is certainly fulfilled.

Asma (Dalal)Sayed holds a Ph.D in Comparitive Literature. She teaches in several universities. Her book World  on a Maple Leaf: A Treasury of Canadian Multicultural Folktales has been published recently.

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