In 2014, India sent the Mars Orbiter Mission into space, and became the first country to send a satellite to orbit the planet at its first attempt – putting its much richer regional rival China in the shade as it became the first Asian nation to get to the red planet. The project was notable for being led by a team of female scientists; as is India’s second lunar probe, Chandrayaan-2(from the Sanskrit for “moon craft”), which was launched last month and is due to land on the moon in early September. And as the country establishes itself as a space power, Indians have developed an appetite for sci-fi themes in its cinema.
The patriotic outburst that followed the Mars mission has fuelled the latest example of Indian space cinema: Mission Mangal (Sanskrit for Mars), a fictionalised account of the Orbiter Mission. Starring and produced by Bollywood actor Akshay Kumar, it is due for release on 15 August, India’s Independence Day. “I would follow the news about India’s space missions and feel proud of what we were achieving,” says Kumar. “But through Mission Mangal I guess you could say I have an insider’s perspective.”
Kumar, one of the highest paid actors in the world, says he had long wanted to work with the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). Starring in a film about Mangalyaan (“Mars craft”) required him to take a crash course in astrophysics. “I now understand the amount of effort and planning it takes to successfully execute a space mission and my respect for all the scientists and engineers who work on these missions has grown immensely,” says Kumar.
Sci-fi isn’t a new genre in Indian cinema, but it has nothing like the profile it has in the west. It only established itself after the country’s economy liberalised in the 1990s, allowing the entry of satellite channels and foreign movies, as well as studios such as Disney and Warner into Bollywood production. Before then, what little there was consisted mostly of low-budget fare involving superheroes. The biggest success was 2003’s Koi … Mil Gaya (Found Someone), an ET: The Extra-Terrestrial rip-off in which Hrithik Roshan is healed of his intellectual disability – in his 20s, he still hasn’t graduated from a primary school – by the magical touch of a blue alien he befriends, who transforms him into a muscular high-school sports star, girl-magnet and maths genius. With possibly the crassest portrayal of an adult with a learning disability one could ever see, Koi … Mil Gaya was Roshan’s breakthrough performance, making him a star and winning him a national Filmfare award.
Fortunately, sci-fi has moved on a great deal since, given India’s greater exposure to foreign films. “Indian audiences have responded enthusiastically to space and sci-fi films such as the Star Wars series or the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise,” Kumar says. “Unfortunately, it’s a genre that hasn’t been explored in Bollywood.”
One reason might be the box office failure of Love Story 2050 in 2008. A frenzied time travel movie, it broke India’s film-budget record, but its mix of Mad Max futurism, slushy romance and traditional Bollywood song-and-dance routines was a flop.
While Hollywood has a long tradition of making more naturalistic films about space travel – from 2001: A Space Odyssey, to Gravity and First Man – it’s only now, with the enormous strides in India’s own space exploration, that such films are beginning to resonate with the public. “It’s about time” says Kumar, “because this is one genre of film that appeals to people across all age groups. It encourages people to expand their vision and their thoughts, and truly believe that even the impossible can become possible. It is surprising that mainstream film-makers in India haven’t embraced the genre as much as we should. There is definitely so much potential.”
Then again, last year Kumar played the villain in 2.0, a Tamil-language thriller about Chennai’s mobile phones going berserk and arranging themselves into creatures that devastate the city – a bit like a Vodafone version of The Birds. Reportedly with a budget of $76m – costing more than ISRO’s entire mission to Mars – it was a visual rollercoaster and a big commercial success.
Another key factor over the last decade has been the boom in India’s visual effects industry – to which Hollywood outsources much of its own special effects – that has enabled higher quality film-making. While Koi … Mil Gaya looked like a trashy 80s TV show, it spawned a superhero franchise, Krrish, starring Roshan. The fourth instalment is released next year, and each film has exhibited a giant step forward in Bollywood’s use of CGI (as well as Roshan’s acting ability).
With these high profile missions to the moon and Mars, sci-fi is set to become a Bollywood staple. “The Indian audience, especially the youth segment, now constantly seeks newer themes and stories,” says Vikram Malhotra, CEO of Abundantia Entertainment, one of India’s biggest production companies. “There has been so much talk and discussion about India’s space programmes and the achievements of our scientists that even the common man now wants to know more about this fascinating world. And on the big screen.”
• Mission Mangal is released on 15 August in India and the UK.