In the Summer of 2003, the movie Koi Mil Gaya opened on India’s theater screens. While in most respect no different from other big budget Bollywood romances of its day, the picture boasted a couple of elements that enabled its publicity department to set it apart from the pack. If you’ve seen the film, you know what I’m talking about: Our hero, played by doe-eyed muscle farmer Hrithik Roshan, is one of those lovable movie retarded guys, but a lovable movie retarded guy who somehow has to be gotten into pole position to romance the film’s lovable but not at all retarded heroine, who is played by Preity Zinta. How KMG bridges this troublesome, albeit poignant, gap is to have Hrithik granted a genius IQ as the result of his close encounter with a gnomish, benevolent space alien.
I have to confess to finding Koi Mil Gaya pretty god-awful, though I know it has its share of boosters. It’s basically little more than a queasy amalgamation of ET and Flowers For Algernon – though one that, in it’s aggressive sweetness, manages on the one hand to out-saccharine Spielberg’s original and, on the other, to out-patronize every Hollywood portrayal of the developmentally challenged in recent memory. When you think about it, that’s actually quite impressive. But rather than touting those dubious accomplishments, the people charged with marketing Koi Mil Gaya instead chose to focus on the story’s fantastic elements, promoting it as “India’s first science fiction film”.
Even though they were inaccurate, Koi Mil Gaya’s marketers might not have been disingenuous in making that claim. For, though it is true that there in fact had been science fiction films made in India previous to Koi Mil Gaya, those films are very scant in number, and virtually unknown to anyone not old enough to have seen them when they first appeared. This is because those films were products of India’s prolific B movie industry of the 1960s, part of a chapter in the country’s cinematic history that would be all but buried today except for those examples of it available for public consumption on glitchy down-market Hindi VCDs. The subject of visitors from outer space, for example, was treated in 1961′s Miss Chaalbaaz, which saw Bollywood’s reigning dance queen Helen matching wits with the scheming denizens of the planet Mars and their dastardly human collaborators. Invaders from Mars also presented problems for Mother India in 1967′s Wahan Ke Log, a wiggy mix of James Bond and Plan 9 style flying saucer hysteria complete with space-age themed go-go dancing numbers.
In truth, these two cited examples may not just be representative of Bollywood’s output when it comes to alien invasion films, but actually the only examples of it. It’s hard to say, really. But it’s definitely safe to conclude that sci-fi was, as it remains, far from a staple genre in Indian cinema. And beyond sagas of men from Mars, even rarer, it seems, are those films depicting space travel and the exploration of alien planets. There was at least one such film, however. And seeing as it was perhaps India’s first cinematic attempt to put a man on the moon, who better to serve as its figurehead than Punjabi wrestling sensation turned B-movie star Dara Singh.
When last we saw Dara Singh here at Teleport City, he was making his screen debut as the star of the dinosaur-rich 1962 Bollywood peplum King Kong. Flash forward several years to 1967, when Dara would make Trip To Moon, and we find a Dara Singh who has added quite a few jewels to his movie star crown. For one thing, he had appeared in over forty films by this point and had, in the process, become the undeniable king of Indian stunt films. He had played Tarzan, Hercules, Samson and numerous other loincloth-clad he-men, as well as James Bondian secret agents, Zorro-inspired masked vigilantes, and, of course, a fair share of swashbuckling pirates in frilly shirts. But one thing he had yet to play was a heroic, planet-hopping space adventurer. Trip To Moon, of course, would change all of that.
And, by the way, in case you were thinking I had suddenly been gripped by a Tarzan-like disinclination toward the definite article, the title of the film really is Trip To Moon. I’m thinking that perhaps effrontery-averse Indian cinema, with all of its anxious disclaimers about any resemblances to persons, nations, costumes, governments, or “existing facts and realities” being purely coincidental, was afraid to get too specific about exactly which moon they were portraying – and certainly didn’t want to come right out and say that it was The Moon. After all, some of the behaviors attributed to the moon’s inhabitants in Trip To Moon are not all that admirable, and, in the event that it turned out that there actually were people living on The Moon, might be cause for offense. Though, just as with those Bollywood films that deal with bloodthirsty and craven enemies inhabiting a vaguely alluded to area lying just across India’s border, they also wanted to keep open the possibility that it maybe really was them they were talking about. Thus we end up with one momentously non-committal title in the form of Trip To Moon.
Anyway, one look at Trip to Moon will give you a fairly substantial clue as to why Bollywood so seldom tackled the sc-fi genre. And that is the fact that the Indian film industry’s standard of special effects were – as they would remain for decades to come – simply not up to the task. In fact, given its primitivism, it’s pretty mind-boggling to consider the fact that this black-and-white feature was released just a year prior to Kubrick’s 2001. But, to be fair, it is clearly meant to hearken back to a much earlier and more innocent time in film history — most specifically to Hollywood proto-space operas like Universal’s Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers movie serials from the 30s and 40s.
While they are arguably among the most ephemeral of Hollywood’s products, it’s difficult to overstate the impact that American movie serials like Flash Gordon had on even the most far-flung corners of world Cinema. In Turkey, for example, director Yilmaz Atadeniz’s fascination with chapter plays like Columbia’s The Phantom lead to him being at the forefront of what would become a dominant strain in Turkish action cinema during the 60s and 70s. Likewise, the scrappy, thrill-a-minute structure of the serials – punctuated by regularly spaced, improbable escapes from certain doom – is a clear source of inspiration for 1960s Cantonese action films like those in the Dark Heroine Muk Lan-fa series. In Mexico, the very birth of the masked luchadore genre came by way of 1952′s El Enmascarado De Plata, a twelve chapter serial modeled very closely upon its North American cousins. And, finally, in India, it was in part J.B.H. Wadia’s falling under the thrall of the early Hollywood serials that lead to him and younger brother Homi establishing themselves as the kings of Bollywood stunt films under their Wadia Brothers studio banner. So, in fact, Trip To Moon, like many other of Dara Singh’s films, is simply continuing a long tradition of cliffhanger-modeled Indian movies.
In further defense of Bollywood special effects, I’d also like to submit my opinion – as I did in my earlier review of Shiva Ka Insaaf – that the quality of those effects is less the result of incompetence than it is of an aesthetic that is simply different from the one at play in contemporary Hollywood films. Especially when it comes to the odd approach to miniature work, which can be seen as recently as in Bollywood films from the late 90s, I think that those effects are clearly meant to be representational, rather than seamless substitutions for real events. Looking at such sequences, which are shot with conspicuous haste and typically consist of miniatures that are obviously very miniature and lacking in detail – and which in fact often are obviously toys purchased from a convenient gumball machine or nearby five-and-dime – it’s impossible to imagine that anyone involved actually expected the audience to be fooled by them. Instead, I think that those naive gimmicks, in all their charming clumsiness, are meant to call attention to themselves, and as such comprise a polite invitation to the audience to be willing accomplices in their own trickery, and to participate with the filmmakers in the joy and magic of cinema. Instead of the desperate attempts to pass muster with an increasingly cynical and tech-savvy audience that we see in modern blockbusters, the filmmakers here are proffering toys to their viewer as a means of ushering him or her into a place of engagement on a more childlike and innocent level.
As if in deliberate acknowledgement of that aim, Trip To Moon opens on a shot of some toy spaceships being jiggled on visible wires over a miniature moonscape – which pulls back to reveal that, hey, they really are toy spaceships being jiggled on visible wires over a miniature moonscape! And the men doing the jiggling are a group of what appear to be scientist types (beards, pipes) who have set up a temporary laboratory in a remote encampment on a snowy mountainside (in, I’m assuming, the Himalayas).
It appears that what these apparent scientist types are doing is plotting out some kind of a moon landing, but they are soon distracted from that task by a flash outside the window. One of the scientists wanders off to investigate, and is soon greeted by a bewitching melody sung by a ghostly female voice, wafting toward him as if carried on the bitter mountain winds. Soon the voice is given unlikely form in the shape of a woman in a bejeweled floor-length gown, shoulder-length lace gloves and a tiara, who proceeds to perform a fairly standard Bollywood item number while lithely prancing about the craggy, blizzard-swept landscape. This mildly surreal sequence ends when the old professor, having completely fallen under this siren’s spell, is suddenly confronted with her true form: that of a cackling, helmeted spacewoman in a mini-dress, leggings, and high-top sneakers (we’re given a close up of the sneakers, for some reason – perhaps mysterious to me only as a result of the VCD of the film having no English subtitles). Soon thereafter, a gang of thuggish moon minions appear and hustle the fellow into a waiting flying saucer, which then shakily takes off toward the heavens in a display of miniature work no more convincing than the self-referential bait-and-switch we witnessed just a few moments earlier.
Fans of B science fiction movies know that kidnapping Earth scientists is what evil space aliens are all about, and that, when such thing happen, our planet’s greatest minds must convene to come up with an appropriate response. In this case, the assembled suits call upon the services of the heroic astronaut Captain Anand, played by Dara Singh, who shows up in their conference room already dressed in his odd-looking spacesuit and helmet. I should say here that, while Dara was guilty of being a little stiff at times during his early films, by 1967 he seemed to have become more at ease in his movie star persona, often displaying an easy humor and charm that, while not taking him any closer to being a great actor, certainly made him an agreeable enough presence on screen. In Trip To Moon, however, he frequently comes across as being awkward and embarrassed, a state of affairs that I feel pretty confident can be blamed on the staggeringly ridiculous space-wear that costume designer P. Muthu has cobbled together for him. Incorporating, by appearances, everything from flower pots to trash bags to pipe-cleaners, these creations were clearly thrown together from whatever happened to be lying around, but with a misguided eye toward looking somehow futuristic – and also, of course, incorporating Dara’s omnipresent wrestling tights. I also imagine that, with their head-to-toe coverage, they felt especially constricting to a man whose customary gear when parading before the cameras was loincloths, togas and furry barbarian hotpants.
In any case, being a good Hindi film hero, Dara first stops off at his house to say goodbye to his mom before blasting off to the moon — also taking the time to pick up the requisite useless comic relief buddy to take along with him (said buddy being played by the tubby Master Bhagwan, who was a staple nuisance in Indian B films of this period). However, upon arriving at the launching pad, Dara and his pal – whom I will call “Slappy”, simply because, if this were an American film, his character would probably be named something like that – find a gang of burly moonmen pushing against the base of their rocketship in an apparent attempt to tip it over. This provides the occasion for the first of Trip To Moon‘s many wrestling-based fight sequences – something that, if you read my review of King Kong, you know is a standard feature of Dara Singh’s movies. Unfortunately, Dara and Slappy fail to get the upper hand, and are hustled by the moonmen into another waiting flying saucer, which then – via the magic of jiggly Cracker Jack prize-o-mation – whisks them off to The Moon. Or, I’m sorry, “moon”.
Once on moon, Dara and Slappy are put on trial by the Moon King and his court, who believe that the Earth has been plotting to invade moon. The king then seeks to test our hero’s mettle in a series of physical trials. Since Trip To Moon uses Dara’s earlier peplum-inspired films as a template for much of its action – much in the same way that the Flash Gordon serials relied upon the swashbucklers that preceded them – we next get an arena sequence in which he is pitted against a guy in an ape suit, and then against a group of the King’s brutish palace guards. In fact, as a model, the Flash Gordon serials — whose trappings and costumes freely mixed and matched elements of medieval, Greco-Roman, and Prussian military apparel and design – nicely accommodate mid-century Bollywood’s taste for historical mash-ups, and as such make Trip To Moon a spiritual cousin to deliriously era-unspecific films like Dharam-Veer. Hence this whole gladiatorial sequence ends with the King, having failed to win Dara’s submission, attempting to have him drawn-and-quartered by a team of horses. But this, also, is to no avail.
Ultimately Dara wins the trust of moon’s people, along with the affections of the beautiful Princess of moon, but his troubles are far from over. It seems that the evil King of the apparently very nearby planet Mars also has eyes for the Princess, and, having failed to woo her by more conventional means, is not above simply kidnapping her and dragging her kicking and screaming back to his home planet. This, of course, causes tensions between Mars and moon, forcing Dara to intervene, and setting off a course of events that sees the film’s characters hopping back and forth between the two celestial bodies as is they were a mere F Train stop apart.
If Trip To Moon sounds like a treasure trove of kitschy delights, it indeed is. But, sadly, it is also a film that marries epic length to decidedly less than epic content, with the result that, over the course of its duration, those treasures start to lose their luster a bit. Of course, two-and-a-half hours is not all that long by Hindi cinema standards, but in the case of this film, the repetitive nature of the action, the heavy reliance on Master Bhagwan’s comedic antics, and the confining of all of that action within a small number of cramped interior sets tend to underscore the ticking of the clock. The mounting claustrophobia arising from its set-bound look, in particular, will have you pining to see that little palm tree-lined clearing that appears so frequently in Dara’s other movies. Still, it’s impossible for me not to be fond of something this goofy and well intentioned. I just wish that there was less of it.
Thankfully, this being a Bollywood film, there are regular musical numbers to break the monotony, including a Twist from Helen, who is here seen in one of her most frequent recurring roles as the bad guy’s personal, in-house nautch girl. Without question the most captivating of these numbers involves an aerial chorus line – realized, of course, by way of some fairly shabby optical effects – made up of girls who are shown parachuting out of a flying globe. Compared to the other, more conventional dance sequences in the film, this bit made me wish that more advantage had been taken of the space-age themes in the staging of the songs. Perhaps, however, to ask for more in this regard when a film has already given you Helen doing the Twist on Mars and high-kicking airborne moonwomen is a bit on the greedy side.
Finally, Trip To Moon’s Martian King proves that he is indeed a Hindi film villain worth his salt by having his minions go to Earth and kidnap Dara Singh’s gray-haired old mom, after which he has her brought back to Mars and unceremoniously tossed into a prison cell. Such an affront against Indian motherhood pretty much guarantees that we are in for a bang-up finale worthy of a full-blown outer space masala — and Dara Singh, not one to disappoint, fires the first salvo by donning a jet pack and flying to Mars sans spaceship to singlehandedly rain bombs down upon Mars’ major cities. What follows, in rapid succession, are a fight between Dara and a couple of awesome, block-headed robots, a catfight, an attack by a fleet of flying saucers, a battle between Dara and the Martian King aboard a careening out of control spaceship, and, finally, a to-the-death confrontation between Dara and a man-in-suit rhinoceros that is actually not entirely terrible looking. All told, this eleventh hour balancing of the thrill deficit makes Trip To Moon a sound argument for the value of faith, perseverance, and the judicious use of the Fast Forward button.
As far as I can tell, Dara Singh never made a return to the stars after Trip To Moon, which is not surprising, given the humiliations he had to suffer in the course of the endeavor. Still, its hard not to wonder what might have been had his small step turned into Bollywood’s giant leap. After all, one can never have too many go-go dancing Martian girls in spangly spacesuits. Then again, India’s most recent stab at the sci-fi genre, Love Story 2050, was reportedly an unmitigated disaster. So perhaps it’s best that we leave the matter of making space operas to that nation which has already proven itself the most suited to the task. By which, of course, I mean Japan.