Science Fiction Reveals a Brand New Niche in Indian Cinema

KPU professor Asma Sayed discusses how Bollywood Sci-fi movies are slowly moving onto the big screen

Dr. Asma Sayed, an English professor at KPU took to the stage at Science World on Jan 20. (Nicole Gonzalez Filos)

Dr. Asma Sayed, an English professor at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, took to the stage at Science World for KPU Speaker Series to discuss science fiction in Indian cinema on Jan. 20.

Despite the cold and the rain, many people managed to attend the free event. One of the attendees was KPU’s dean of arts, Diane Purvey, who introduced Sayed on stage.

Sayed’s talk, titled “Between Science and Mythology: The World of Bollywood Science Fiction Film,” immediately captured the audience’s attention. She began by talking about the relationship between Indian cinema and popular culture.

In her talk, she mentioned that there are two texts that have greatly influenced Indian cinema and literature: the Ramayana and the Mahābhārata.

“Ravana is a ten-headed demon in The Ramayana; Ravana is defeated by Lord Rama. The battle between Lord Rama and Ravana signifies the fight between good and evil,” she wrote in an email to The Runner.

“These two epics are also considered sacred texts of Hinduism and influence socio-cultural life in India. Cinema and theatre are also influenced by another classical text, Bharata’s Nāțyaśāstra.”

While on stage, Sayed showed her attentive audience an example of a sci-fi film that was influenced by these two texts.

The movie Ra. One, as Sayed explained, features an antagonist named after Ravana, a demon king. In the movie, the protagonist G. One defeats Ra. One in a fight between good and evil.

Even though it was a sci-fi film, it also concluded with the actors dancing and singing joyfully after they defeated the antagonist.

Christian Lovell, an attendee, found this interesting.

“I didn’t know that there were sci-fi Bollywood movies that had the same music and dance scenes that you would expect from a Bollywood film,” they say.

As Sayed cruised through her presentation slides, she mentioned that Bollywood is only one branch of Indian cinema and that each province has its own official language and regional culture.

“Hollywood style [sci-fi] films have not appealed much to the Indian audiences which are all too used to formulaic musicals and have thus mostly rejected the [sci-fi] films,” she wrote in a movie review in Awaaz Magazine.

Dr. Daniel Bernstein is a Psychology professor at KPU who also attended Sayed’s presentation. He says he found the talk to be very educational because he didn’t know very much about Bollywood cinema before coming.

“You can’t evaluate [Indian cinema] from the western perspective. You have to treat it as a different thing,” he says. “I didn’t know that it’s rooted in these two ancient texts. I thought that was really cool.”

Sayed says that 1,900 films were produced in India in 2015, the most popular of which are between two and a half to three hours long. India also has the largest film studio in the world, Ramoji Film City, which opened in 1996. According to Guinness World Records, the area measures 1,666 acres.

“Indian audiences, you give them an hour and a half-long film they will come home and say, ‘I got ripped off,’’’ she says. “They are expecting a three-hour film because that is what they are used to.”

She describes Indian films as a masala, a mixture of spices, adding that they borrow elements from mythology, history, social events, romance, horror and many more subject areas.