It is alert level 3 in Aotearoa New Zealand and it’s been more tiring than I thought. Of course I have worked through this period. Not at a COVID-19 testing centre but keeping the wheels of primary care moving. Repeat scripts, ‘flu shots, phone consults, the anxious and the ill. Then there was/is the homeschooling. Utterly, utterly exhausting! I don’t know how parents with more than one child cope but I didn’t even have the energy to read a book. The child can now go to school but we still have homework.
We watched Mr India on YouTube. I thought a classic Hindi film about an invisible man, lots of kids and a comedy would be fun for the child. I first watched it when it came out in 1987. I was in junior college in Bombay. From my middle class, upper caste Hindu, dominant culture perspective it was an innocent time for us teens in India. For our parents, who had been born just before or after independence, building a new nation was top priority. That meant being upright citizens, focused on education and economic mobility, being modern but maintaining traditions and community. India had just come out of The Emergency. The anger was subsiding. Rajiv Gandhi had become the Prime Minister after his mother Indira, the one who declared The Emergency, had been assassinated by her own Sikh bodyguards in 1984. (Why she was assassinated and the aftermath of that requires an in-depth discussion but suffice to say some Sikhs affected by the progrom after arrived in New Zealand as refugees.)
In 1987 Rajiv Gandhi was still popular and perceived as progressive. Someone who would take India into the modern era. I remember a speech he gave invoking Martin Luther King Jr. He seemed to be surrounded by fresh thinkers. Of course at 19 you have different priorities and ‘politics’ was separate from life. Mr India was released that year in May.
If my memory serves me right (because in those days I was an avid reader of Stardust and other filmi gossip magazines, this herewith can be a bit unreliable), Salim-Javed shopped around their script of Mr India for a long time. Popular Hindi male stars refused to take on the role of the invisible protagonist because the idea did not gel with their image. Shekhar Kapur came on board pretty late. It was his second film as director. Sridevi‘s most famous song ever, Kaate Nahin Kat Te Yeh Din Yeh Raat, came about when Feroz Khan told Shekhar Kapur to see her number Har Kisi Ko in his film Janbaaz just to understand how sexy she was in a saree. So we have Mr India. A film about an ordinary music teacher who raises orphans and finds a device that makes him invisible and gives him the power to fight against the powerful villain.
Now looking at it from a grown up, diasporic Indian, film student, filmmaker, writer, enrolled in an M.A. to direct drama and a slightly decolonised lens, I see a not just a fun film but a pertinent film.The Western world largely dismisses mainstream Hindi cinema as tedious and illogical (until now of course calling it Bollywood and whatnot = ‘$$$$’). How can a film industry that started pretty much after the Lumiere brothers brought their magic to Bombay be irrational and meaningless? The template is different from the Western model but we know that storytelling differs across the world. So does cinema.
I will argue that Mr India is a modern, urban ‘native’ story that captures the desires of Indians and the spirit of India across political climes. So I looked for articles and analyses but stopped myself from going down the rabbit hole of academic readings because this is not an assignment for a university paper. 🙂
None of the scanty essays on Hindi science fiction cinema mention Mr India but there is plenty about Koi…Mil Gaya, the most well known Hindi film from that genre. (I’ll give some references at the end of this long post, and not in an academic biblio format.) Mainstream sci-fi Hindi films can be counted on your fingers and I’ll categorise into two periods. Before 1991 and after.This cut off point is crucial because Indian society changed significantly after 1991 when Manmohan Singh opened the Indian economy. The free market benefited the rich and middle classes but nothing trickled down, entrenching successive generations in poverty. The money allowed the Indian to be upwardly mobile, aspirational, travel easily. Materialistic consumption became easy. India prospered but India got more divided along class lines, urban-rural lines and religious lines. She was not prepared for the neoliberal existential anxiety that would settle in like the dust on her roads, ailing and eroding her insides. Much has been written about this that can be found easily online. I blogged about it years ago after I read Thomas Friedman’s book The World Is Flat and Anand Giridhardas’ book India Calling. There is a documentary John and Jane on Indian call centres that mushroomed in India. Anyway. Before 1991 there were only two Hindi sci-fi films. Mr X In Bombay came out in 1964. It is a love story and has an invisible man, a flying car and a mad scientist in a small, straightforward, linear universe. Although there are two scenes that can be considered a comment on Brahman greed when the invisible hero stops four overweight Hindu priests from taking expensive gifts after his fake death rituals. Mr India came out twenty-three years later.
Now cut to 2003. Koi…Mil Gay, starring Hrithik Roshan, is the story of a young man with a mental diasbility who makes friends with a blue alien. Jadoo, the alien has come to earth in response to the sound Aum that has been sent out multiple times by the young man’s scientist father before he dies. Jadoo also ‘cures’ his earth friend’s mental disability plus gives his ‘superpowers. It is now welve years since India became a free market. Neoliberal anxiety has made a home in her psyche. There is deep fear of losing the Indian ethos, tradition and culture (=the Hindu way of life), the apparent outcome of material consumption and Western influence. It is also the time mainstream Hindi cinema travels easily, beyond its traditional overseas markets of the Middle East, South-East Asia and smaller places like the West Indies, Fiji, South Africa. Or the erstwhile USSR. Hindi films can now reach the Western consumer, the affluent Indians who will readily replicate popular cinema as culture(=Hindu culture) to assuage their own diasporic anxieties. Kaching! The few readings I did describe the ‘Hinduised visual regime’ of Koi…Mil Gaya. Jadoo is blue, like the god Krishna. He can use the powers of the sun to heal, like Krishna had multiple powers. And reshaping the ancient Aum’s syllables as a sonic signal when sound cannot travel in outer space! (You know, just like the claim that the sounds of the sun are like an ancient Hindu mantra!) Of course you could argue that Avatar has blue creatures too. But those creatures and the universe they inhabit is informed by various indigenous cultures. It is a story about colonisation and destruction not a religion resurgent as extremist ideology and supremacy. Another reading on Koi…Mil Gaya talks about how the film “re-inscribes the hierarchical systems of oppression that are associated with colonialism”.
All non-Western cultures reference their mythologies while telling stories. So does Indian cinema. Raja Harishchandra is the first film made in India. He was a noble king and his story is told across various ancient texts with slight variations. We all want to see ourselves represented but does India only have a Hindu past and Hindu mythology? Or does Hindi cinema erase India’s indigenous mythology? That is another topic.
The way I read it, Mr India does not reference Hindu mythology, a Hindu past or Hindu nationalism. There was no tension between telling a story about an ordinary Indian man who can become invisible aimed at local audiences and producing a film to entice foreign markets. Thus there are no flash digital effects done in overseas post-production facilities to compete with big budget Hollywood blockbusters. It is not imitative or derivative. The only anxieties are about everyday issues like being able to pay rent or afford food. Of course it is full of classic tropes such as the corrupt and ruthless rich businessmen and the white foreigner who exchanges ammunition in return for gold deities stolen from temples that he can smuggle out. (Bless Bob Christo!) Yet. Mogambo, the second most famous Hindi film villain after Gabbar Singh, who wears a blonde wig and decorative army dress, addressing himself in third person could be anyone. He is stripped of caste, race, nationality and religion. Seema, the spunky journalist, is a single, independent woman whose only aim is a good story. She moves between the traditional saree (used here as a dress of desire rather than submission) and Western clothes with ease. She does not bow to the patriarchy disavowing her self after she finds love. Calendar is gay, his homosexuality is normalised even though the speech and gestures are stereotyped he is not subject to ridicule. The orphan children are not scolded into respecting their elders or told never ask questions. Arun could have been invisible in real life. He is not a typical Hindi film ‘hero’. To make him even more every-man his attire harks back to Raj Kapoor in Shree 420. The invisibility is a salute to the dormant democratic power that Indians have (but rarely use). It is about looking internally to find the ability to resist and fight again our own corruption and an external power. These enemies lurk around at all times and can be anything or anybody because anyone can desire ultimate power and be corrupt at any time.
That is why, to me, Mr India stands out as a modern, urban ‘native’ story that captures the desires of Indians and the spirit of India across political climes.
- Nationalism and Postcolonialism in Indian Science Fiction. Bollywood’s Koi…Mil Gaya. 2003. In multiple journals.
- Science Fiction, Hindu Nationalism and Modernity. In Sci-Fi, Imperalism and Third World Essays on Postcolonial Literature and Film, 2010. Both articles by Jessica Langer and Dominic Alessio.
- Liverpool Companion to World Sci-Fi Film, chapter on Indian sci-fi. 2014.
- Cultural Imaginaries of Science: A brief history of Indian sci-fi cinema. 2015. AV Lakkad.