The recent Bollywood movie Mission Mangal (Sanskrit for Mars), a science fiction based on the successful launch of India’s moon mission Chandrayaan 2, is being touted as India’s first space film and has received great response from the audience. Bollywood has been producing sci-fi movies for a long time amongst which few have been received well while few were complete failures at the box-office.
Science fiction or sci-fi as a genre is not new in Bollywood but it hasn’t delved into it like Hollywood has. Bollywood’s explorations in this genre began in 1964 with Mr X in Bombay which was not completely a sci-fi movie but dealt with invisibility using a potion made by scientists. Then another 1967 movie Chand Par Chadhayee, the first science fiction movie in Bollywood, had the actor landing on moon along with a sidekick to fight off warriors from other planets. Since then, Bollywood has played around with science-based movies but not delved into the area of space and astronomical explorations as much as expected. Most of the films in this category for Bollywood deals with scientific experiments for invisibility and such or robots, aliens and time-travel.
Then came Mr India (1987), one of the cult Bollywood movies which dealt with invisibility and even featured at the 16th position in a survey done by Time Out London magazine, which enlisted the Top 100 Bollywood movies of all time. The next big venture was the 2003 movie Koi…Mil Gaya which told the story of an unusual friendship developed between an intellectually disabled boy and an alien stranded on earth. This movie gave rise to a superhero franchise with its sequels Krrish (2006) and Krrish 3 (2013). This trend was followed by few other movies which made a mark at the box-office like the gaming background based Ra. One (2011), a satirical comedy with a humanoid alien PK (2014), Robot (2010) and its sequel 2.0 (2018) which had humanoid robot in it. There were others films that could not make a mark and failed colossally like Love Story 2050, Drona, Action Replay and Joker.
The recent addition to this category is Mission Mangal that tells the story of scientists at Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) who were part of the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), India’s first inter-planetary expedition. Bollywood actor Akshay Kumar, one of the protagonists in this movie had also said, “It was a big risk. I had no idea where this film would go and how would people react to science. But it was a risk worth taking.”
Why do sci-fi movies fail to make a mark in Bollywood?
According to Girish Johar, film trade and exhibition expert, the exploration in science fiction genre has been limited in Bollywood, “The farthest we have gone with the science fiction territory is with superhero flicks.” He further added, “Of course, our budgets have always been limited (when compared to Hollywood) 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.”
One of the reason behind this setback is the huge audience Bollywood caters to. In order to attract the audience the matters of science are simplified which sometimes ends up being over-dramatised and is then interspersed with inessential dance-and-song routines. This leads to the loss in the essence of the movie and it fails to convey its story.
Another aspect of comparison with Hollywood movies is the depiction of the organisation National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) as an important part of the movies and as a symbol of pride, while ISRO functions far more secretively in the movies. Even the depiction of the space agency in the recent movie Mission Mangal, has been fictionalised and dramatised so much that it ends up being an unjust presentation of an otherwise professional and dedicated workplace with innovative people. In order to simplify the science behind the mission the movie ends up presenting the mission as a science project rather than a great achievement in history. The genre has developed in Bollywood with development of CGIs and such but it still needs to mature enough to be a true representative of the space organisation.