Dinesh Raheja column: Mission space -- Conquering the final frontier on film

My actor friend, the late Priya Rajvansh, once expressed a desire to travel in space. She wanted the other world experience. Recently, I remembered her warmly courtesy news of the space film, Mission Mangal, dominating the box office.

While films on space missions and intergalactic travel have been Hollywood staples for decades, Bollywood too seems set to conquer this final thematic frontier with recent big-budget productions such as Zero and Mission Mangal and the forthcoming biopic on astronaut Rakesh Sharma, the first Indian in space. 

This year is the 50th anniversary of the first man stepping on the moon in 1969. Who knows, we might have an actor walking on the moon (or maybe doing the moonwalk) in a big-budget Indian film on space travel soon. 

I admit, however, that I am no big fan of sci-fi films. In fact, they hover precariously close to the bottom of my genre priority list. In Hollywood, I think the fascination with space started with the beginning of the Star Wars franchise (1977) and the first Alien (1979)...but today I recall their fabulous tag lines more than the films themselves.

The Star Wars line was: “A long time ago in a galaxy far far away.” And the chillingly brilliant line from Alien went: “In space, no one can hear you scream.” Over the years, I have watched baffled as sci-fi slowly took over Hollywood, but  there’s one space film that I do hugely admire — famed auteur Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

Kubrick’s classic isn't an action film with guns and lasers blazing. Instead, it’s a ruminative tour de force that dazzles you through its imagination, visuals and experimentation. In the beginning, for almost half an hour, there is no dialogue as the narration tracks man’s evolution from apes.

Leading to the climax, you have many scenes with just music and visuals of a spaceship hurtling forward. But what an impact! And what a supervillain in the spaceship’s main computer, HAL, who tries to wrest power from the astronauts.

When the astronaut fights with HAL to allow him re-entry into the spaceship, he has to let go of his colleague’s body.  The visual of the astronaut disappearing into pitch black space is very powerful. 2001: A Space Odyssey is analytical cinema that can still stoke conversations on a variety of topics, including on the trenchantly topical theme of  artificial intelligence.

Our films concentrate on the human angle. Though Mission Mangal is based on India’s real-life successful launch of a space probe to Mars, much of the film deals with the lives of the women scientists (Vidya Balan, Sonakshi Sinha, Taapsee Pannu, Kirti Kulhari, Nithya Menon) who work on the mission with their project director (Akshay Kumar).

The film is particularly powered by Vidya Balan, playing a housewife who beautifully manages both home and work, with the dexterity and determination of a superwoman.

Her multi-faceted and humorous personality finds expression in both small and big scenes: she tracks her ‘missing’ teenaged daughter to a pub and joins her in the revelry, cajoling husband Sanjay Kapoor to dance with her to Ankhiyaan milaun kabhi ankhiyaan churaoon (the director doffs his hat to Kapoor’s hit song from Raja).

And as a career woman, she uses her innovative mind to draw inspiration from a misfired cooking experience to figure out how to minimise fuel consumption for the probe.

Barring the climactic sequences and intermittent scenes involving set-ups and launches, the film doesn’t overdo the technical terminology and keeps the narration accessible. 

Shah Rukh Khan’s Zero may have had excellent special effects on display in the scenes where SRK is training for zero gravity situations before he is rocketed into space, but it was dwarfed by a meandering screenplay that made it all seem as unending as a trip from Earth to planet Mars.

After playing a scientist in Swades and bankrolling Ra.One, science seems to interest Shah Rukh so let’s see what he emerges with next. Sci-fi has paid better box office dividends to Hrithik Roshan, especially alongside the cute extra-terrestrial Jaadoo in Koi Mil Gaya.

Credit must be accorded to our small filmmakers who discovered this theme long before the biggies. I was a huge fan of Dara Singh as a child but his film Trip To Moon aka Chaand Par Chadhai (1967) was tacky even by B-Grade standards. The rocket looked like a garden monument and the sets seemed made of cardboard.

In one scene Singh’s sidekick Bhagwan discovers that the villains derive their strength from their helmets; once he removes the helmets Dara reduces them to pulp...like the rest of the film. Another B-grade favourite actor of mine, N A Ansari, decided to go further than the moon in Wahan Ke Log (1967).

In his venture, an intelligence officer (Pradeep Kumar in his fade-out phase) and Tanuja (what prompted her to do this film?) are relegated to sing songs while men from Mars combine forces with the evil son (Ansari) of a good scientist to take over the earth.

Rather than these films, give me a bar of Mars chocolate any day. But today’s filmmakers with bigger budgets and better technicalities can surely give me something more substantial to chew over. And they will. My guess is that the space film is here to stay.