x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

The future of Bollywood?

With RA. One breaking box-office records, we look at the history and highlights of the sci-fi genre in Bollywood.

A scene from the Bollywood movie Robot, which broke box-office records last year.
A scene from the Bollywood movie Robot, which broke box-office records last year.

When the trailers for RA. One hit, Shah Rukh Khan looked like he'd had a makeover by the team behind The Matrix, with years wilting from his face. The action is notable for car chases and gravity-defying flights of fantasy, when a computer world is mixed with reality. For many, the movie seemed like a novelty offering from Bollywood, and yet the Indian film industry has been gearing up to make bigger and better sci-fi films for a number of years.

This has been helped by massive growth in India's computer and animation industry. In 2001, there were 27,000 people working in computer animation, but today that figure is 10 times as much, according to industry sources.

Kaadu (The Jungle) is generally accepted as the first Bollywood sci-fi movie. Made in 1952, the Tamil-American co-production told the story of animals acting very strangely in a jungle. When an expedition to find out what is going on takes place, it becomes apparent that the abnormal behaviour is caused by the invasion of mammoths.

Tamil filmmakers were leading players in the nascent sci-fi industry in India. 1963 saw the release of Kalai Arasi, about a hard-working farmer who falls in love with the daughter of a rich landlord. Then comes the alien spacecraft in a twist that calls out for the film to be remade. Two aliens want to kidnap a human, because although their planet is filled with scientific genius, they're rather lacking in the singing and dancing department and they want to take home a talented artist who can teach their kind how to dance.

Attempts by more established directors to make science fiction movies floundered. One of the most intriguing ideas put forward was by Ray that was to be produced by Columbus studios in Hollywood. Under production in the late 1960s, the film was to be called The Alien and was based on the short story Bankubabur Bandhu (Banku Babu's Friend) by Satyajit Ray. Sadly, the film was cancelled before any footage was shot.

With the Hollywood golden age of sci-fi passing in the 1950s, the appetite for sci-fi movies diminished after these early attempts. Some, like the Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde-inspired film Karutha Rathrikal, slipped through the cracks, but were derivative of better crafted Hollywood pictures.

The mid-1980s unsurprisingly saw the arrival of sci-fi comedy. While American audiences were being treated to Spaceballs and Earth Girls are Easy, Mr India arrived on Bollywood screens. The second-biggest hit in India that year, the film is a cult classic. Directed by Shekhar Kapur, it stars Anil Kapoor, Sridevi and Amrish Puri. Puri plays Mogambo, an insane general determined to conquer India. He has even named an island after himself, which is his base for building hi-tech devices.

The poor orphan boy Arun is the unlikely candidate who must stop Mogambo from completing his sinister plan to take over the world. When he discovers that his late father invented a gold watch that renders the wearer invisible, he has the tools to start battling the evil Mogambo.

The real advances in the genre in India have come in the past decade, which coincides with the growth of Bangalore as the Indian equivalent of Silicon Valley. The most famous sci-fi film to come from the region is Kol … Mil Gaya, made in 2003 by Rakesh Rogan, who also has a cameo as the space scientist Dr Sanjay Susra Mehra, who creates a computer from which he dispatches variations of the syllable Om, hoping to attract the attention of extraterrestrial life. When he receives a reply, no one believes him. In a clear tribute to Steven Spielberg, the hero played by Hrithik Roshan, is the son of the doctor who, because of a mental impairment, can only connect with children. When he finds his father's computer, he manages to summon the aliens by accident. As the police close in, the aliens and the young couple join forces.

Unsurprisingly, the success of the film led to a quasi-sequel, Krrish, in 2006, which was less influenced by ET than its predecessor and had far more superhero conventions, including secret identities and the nosy girl reporter. The film at the time of its release was the highest-grossing film in Indian cinema history, until the release of Dhoom 2 five months later.

Sci-fi films were firmly on the map and in 2010 the release of the S. Shankar Tamil film Robot again broke box-office records. Starring Rajinikanth, Aishwarya Rai and Danny Denzongpa, the film is a mix of Frankenstein and I, Robot. Rajinikanth plays both a scientist and the android robot he has created. When the software of the robot is upgraded to mimic human emotions, the plan backfires as the robot falls in love with the scientist's fiancée and then turns bad in the hands of a rival scientist.

Stan Winston Studios, the company behind many of James Cameron's biggest hits, was responsible for the special effects in Robot and for the first time, a Bollywood film could claim to have effects to match Hollywood blockbusters. At the time, it was the most expensive Bollywood film to be made.

The huge box office takings clearly grabbed the attention of India's biggest stars and pretty soon, Shah Rukh Khan attached himself to RA. One. The film opened to a stellar box-office last week and is on course to smash worldwide box-office records for an Indian film. In many cinemas in India, the film began showing at 8am and nearly every single show has been sold out. The film showed on more screens than any other Bollywood film in history, and when the director Anubhav Sinha said at the film's world premiere in Dubai that "a sequel will definitely be made" it was no surprise, considering Bollywood's love of sci-fi seems here to stay.

RA. One is currently showing in UAE cinemas