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Across Time and Space

Science fiction has always fascinated Hollywood, but not Bollywood. The success of "Koi ... Mil Gaya" may revive the genre, says ANAND PARTHASARATHY.

WHEN RAKESH Roshan, producer, director, co-writer and actor released "Koi ... Mil Gaya", the Hindi film vehicle starring his son Hrithik, a few weeks ago, typical Bollywood hyperbole came into play, and the product was touted as the first Indian science fiction film.

Cinematic memories are notoriously short when it comes to remembering movies made elsewhere than in `Aamchi Mumbai'. So the Roshans, father and son, could be forgiven if in the flush of their own good-natured SF (science fiction) film success, they forgot one minor detail: What can legitimately lay claim to be the first made-in-India science fiction film was a Tamil and English language product dating back over half a century — to 1952.

"Kaadu" ("The Jungle") was an Indian-American co-production in every sense: It was directed by William Berke and starred the then resident hunk of Hollywood, Rod Cameron as a `Great White Hunter' accompanying an Indian princess (Marie Windsor) into the jungle to check out why animals are stampeding and killing so many villagers.

The film also featured the Latino actor Cesar Romero as well as our own Sulochana and M. N. Nambiar.

As it turns out, the safari stumbles on a herd of prehistoric woolly mammoths, extinct everywhere except in India. On the technical side too, the film was a rare and early example of creative collaboration, with Dakshinamoorthy and G. Ramanathan contributing the original music and L. Balu editing the film. D. S. Rajagopal and K. Somu were the second unit directors.

Details of the film are fully archived in the Internet Movie Data Base ( under both Tamil and English titles — and a search for the international version will lead to CD and VHS cassette copies still available.

The 1987 Anil Kapoor and Sridevi starrer "Mr India", is also touted by some of its fans to be an SF film — on the strength of a few sequences where the main protagonists are able to disappear and reappear at will. But the claim will not stand serious scrutiny.

It is a different story with "Koi ... Mil Gaya" — where Hrithik plays a mentally challenged youngster with great sensitivity especially in his scenes with the ET-like `Jadoo'.

The film cheerfully seeks inspiration in Hollywood classics like "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and "Star Wars" — and the film may well encourage Indian filmmakers to explore SF after a lapse of many years.

It is somewhat surprising that the world's largest film industry has for so long shunned science fiction as bad for box office.

Its perception is not shared by Hollywood, which for 75 years has regularly turned to SF for inspiration whenever it needed to create a product that would work its commercial magic, unfettered by language or culture shock.

Fritz Lang's path breaking German silent film "Metropolis" and his bold visualisation of a futuristic city where a race of aristocrats ruled over oppressed workers set the standard.

The novels of HG Wells and Jules Verne proved to be a rich mother lode of ideas for English language filmmakers ever since. Wells' "The Time Machine" was brought to the screen three times — in 1960, in 1981 and most recently in 2002.

The idea of Time travel has been milked for hilarious effect in the "Back to the Future" series of films in the 1980s.

But the related field of Space travel has been creatively the richest sub genre of cinematic SF: Stanley Kubrick's filmed version of Arthur Clarke's "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968) turned out to be a many layered product that critics still argue over 30 years later. And four episodes that followed that first "Star Wars" film of 1977 — two sequels and two `prequels' — were proof that with an astute director like George Lucas, story telling can generate more onscreen excitement than strict science.

The idea of alien life forms was first used with chilling effect in 1956 in Don Siegel's "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" and then recycled in two sharply different ways by Steven Spielberg: His 1977 film "Close Encounter... " was a thought-provoking and well documented story that solidified many of the popular fears and clichés about Unidentified Flying Objects or UFOs. The currently running Star Movies serial, produced by him, is an extended treatment along the same lines. The 1982 "ET" on the other hand is more familiar Spielberg treatment — the alien as a cuddly doll.

Both Ridley Scott and James Cameron in their own ways have turned films in the "Alien" quartet (1979 - 1997) into exercises in fusing SF and pure horror.

Sigourney Weaver who appears in all four films as Ensign Ripley, has become an icon of the alien-fighting human, much as Jodie Foster emerged as one of the few examples of a female driving an SF film in the 1997 picturisation of Carl Sagan's "Contact".

The genre sunk to the nadir of bad taste when "The Men in Black" played it for cheap laughs and ghoulish effect in two products (1997, 2002).

Kubrick's murderous computer HAL, has spawned a latter generation of robotic creatures bent on mayhem — from "The Terminator", famously played by `Governor' Arnie Schwarzenegger to the series of faceless vigilante "Robocops", who smoothly transited from big screen film to small screen serial.

Somewhere in the seamless boundary between man and machine reside other screen heroes — from Ridley Scott's "Blade Runner" played by an agonised Harrison Ford to the humanly conceived Ethan Hawke character in "Gattaca", struggling against a genetically engineered master race, to the poignant robot child who wants to be loved in Spielberg's "AI".

The simian rulers of the "Planet of the Apes" and its many sequels (based on a book by Pierre Boulle who incredibly also wrote "The Bridge on the River Kwai") as well as the long-eared crew persons of the endless "Star Trek" films and TV serials exemplify the film medium's continuing fascination with pushing the creative and exotic edge, in going where no Man has gone before, in pursuit of saleable ideas that can be turned into marketable movies. May the (creative) Force be with you.

Scores: creative to kitsch

BY HAPPENSTANCE, Times Music has just released a CD of "All Time Great Sci-Fi Themes" (CD : Rs 360), bringing together the theme music from 14 famous Hollywood films based on science fiction themes.

They range from an all-too-brief snippet of the "2001 A Space Odyssey" theme (lifted from Richard Strauss) to John Williams' breathless orchestral accompaniment to the "Star Wars" films. Williams also wrote the intelligent score for "Close Encounters" while Elmer Bernstein caught the spoofy mode of "Ghostbusters". Many recent tracks from big budget SF flicks like "The Terminator", "The Matrix" and "Total Recall" are as pretentious as the products they are expected to enhance.

Not surprisingly no one ever listens to the theme except in anthologies like this one.

The "Star Trek" theme fares better — because TV demands and gets, better instant recall. And the theme from "Independence Day" by Nicholas Dodd which rounds off the collection is surprisingly sprightly — and appropriate to the flag-waving bogus patriotism of the film. Hard core sci-fi fans will doubtless add this album to their collection.

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