NEW DELHI: India may have taken the historic step to launch its second moon mission Chandrayaan 2 but Indian cinema has long chosen to remain shy of the space and science fiction genre. Mission Mangal, based on the story of scientists at the Indian Space Research Organisation who contributed to the Mars Orbiter Mission, India’s first interplanetary expedition, is slated for release this Independence Day. But the Akshay Kumar, Vidya Balan and Taapsee Pannu-starrer is only one of the handful of science fiction dramas the country has produced, even as it continues to endorse Hollywood spectacles like the Star Wars franchise films, Avengers, Avatar and so on.
The science fiction tale begins as early as 1967, two years before Neil Armstrong even took that giant leap for mankind, with director TP Sundaram’s Trip to Moon (Chand Par Chadhayee) where legendary action star Dara Singh travels to different planets with a sidekick, beats up aliens, woos lovely ladies on the moon and participates in contests that involve dancing and sword fighting. More than 50 years later, the science fiction genre in Hindi cinema remains far less dabbled in than expected, with most significant offerings having gravitated towards the superhero zone (Mr. India, Krrish, Ra.One, 2.0) and others landing up as colossal disasters (Drona, Love Story 2050, Joker).
To be sure, making a science fiction film is an expensive affair. Both Ra.One (2011) and Krrish 3 (2013) were made for over Rs. 100 crore, a huge sum for the time of their theatrical release while Rajinikanth’s 2.0 that came out last year, is arguably the costliest film ever made in Indian cinema, at more than Rs. 500 crore.
“The farthest we have gone with the science fiction territory is with superhero flicks," said film trade and exhibition expert Girish Johar. “Of course, our budgets have always been limited (when compared to Hollywood) and at least earlier, we didn’t have the technical expertise. So perhaps, producers felt it didn’t make much sense to back a vision like that."
Johar said the fact that Indian audiences are exposed to Hollywood science fiction spectacles sometimes leads to filmmakers fearing that Indian productions would pale in comparison.
Also, while organizations like NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) are depicted with pride in Hollywood, Indian space research organizations function far more secretively.
“I think things are a little closeted in India because of security reasons," said Mission Mangal director Jagan Shakti. “We have some brilliant people here with amazing native intelligence and if their stories are told, it will only inspire the youth."
Shakti calls Mission Mangal the first original space film in India, a country that has long provided technical support to big-ticket, visual effects-heavy Hollywood productions from offices based out of Bengaluru and Hyderabad. It is therefore ironic that its own science fiction projects have failed to take off- while Saare Jahan Se Achcha, a biopic on astronaut Rakesh Sharma has been indefinitely stalled since the exit of lead actor Shah Rukh Khan, there is no clarity on the fate of astronaut film Chanda Mama Door Ke that was supposed to feature Sushant Singh Rajput.
“We haven’t even tapped the genre yet and Mission Mangal is just a baby step. But now with the success of films like Avengers: Endgame in the country and the way gaming is taking over, India can truly go global with the genre," Shakti said.