Mass-market Hindi cinema cannot afford to buy into sci-fi tropes. It doesn't need to either, says Baradwaj Rangan.
Long before Superman or Batman swooped into my imagination, I was gripped by a crime fighter named Arrow-Man, who, with the aid of his scampering sidekick, Ape-Man, rid the world of the sinister supervillain DecaHeader. I refer, of course, to the Ramayana, whose valiant episodes were revealed to us not in the cold aisles of comic-book stores but at the laps of warm-hearted grandparents. Why don't we have superhero comics in India? Because we inherited our superheroes, we didn't have to invent them.
Most superheroes hold American passports because that is a country without a mythology. Americans needed to hatch myths of their own, about this superhero who arrived from an exploding planet and that one spawned from nightmares about his parents' murder. And yet, the mythmaking was grounded in the thoroughly non-magical — these action heroes needed telephone booths for costume changes, specially equipped automobiles, trustworthy butlers. What an unseemly fuss, when Dharmendra needed nothing more than clenched fingers to reduce opponents to pulp. And no one had to call him Fist-Man.
We've always had superheroes on screen, as the protagonists of our masala movies. They could do anything, as they were moulded from the archetypes established by Arrow-Man, and his other avatar, Discus-Man — and the hero of “Ra.One”, despite his shiny sci-fi surface, is simply the latest embodiment of our home-grown superhero, the masala-movie hero. Action-based Hindi cinema doesn't need the crutch of sci-fi to prop up morality-flecked showdowns between good and evil.
But sci-fi is more than just the action movie centred on a caped crusader. It is the cinema of the big idea, the what-if. What if apes ruled the earth? What if the world is just a simulacrum on a computer? What if you had to go back in time to unite your parents so that you still exist in the present, or — in an evil-twin variant — what if a cyborg landed from the future to obliterate your existence? Hindi cinema has toyed, like a distracted two-year-old, with a few of these ideas, remaking “E.T: The Extra Terrestrial” as “Koi... Mil Gaya” and “Back to the Future” as “Action Replayy”. But market realities are the supervillain. It is impossible to sustain a galvanising what-if charge if you need to keep cutting away to songs and sentiment. A true-blue sci-fi film in Hindi, in other words, is just science fiction.