India’s first-ever cocktail of Bollywood and science fiction has just won three awards in India's version of the Oscars. Robot (Endhiran) has clearly whetted Indian movie buffs' appetite, and this October will see the release of a Bollywood sci-fi superhero film called Ra.One that reworks the story of the mythological Indian demon god Ravana. Sci-fi and Bollywood are surprisingly comfortable bedfellows - after all, both genres tend to be fantastical and larger than life, and both have outlandish costumes.
Both genres are also budget-guzzlers, and Robot is Indian cinema’s most expensive creation ever, costing about US$37 million to make. The film tells the story of Dr Vasi (Rajnikanth), a robotics scientist who creates an android called Chitti that looks just like him. Vasi is in love with Sana (Aishwarya Rai), who becomes fond of Chitti. And Chitti’s loyalty is bound to Vasi by an electronic umbilical cord. For a while, the film is a rosy montage of Chitti’s benign mix of supermom (cooking and cleaning to perfection) and superman (saving people from burning buildings). But when Chitti is tweaked to become more human, he exercises his "hormone simulation upgrade" by lusting after Sana, kicking off a jealous feud between Chitti and Vasi.
Bollywood films try to appeal to 8-yr-olds and 80-yr-olds equally. This means that in its depiction of science, Robot resorts to highly clichéd conventions – scientists who are either cold and clinical or downright evil and Machiavellian. The set and costume design too tick every box in the ‘futuristic movie look’ (think shiny metallic outfits).
Robot references every sci-fi/fantasy film you can think of – The Matrix, Terminator, Predator, and Bicentennial man - and throws in tropes of vampirism and cloning for good measure. All of this is spray-painted with song-and-dance sequences that are magnificently glittery even by Bollywood standards (in one gloriously bizarre sequence, the film jump-cuts from an Indian beach to the hero and heroine serenading each other in feathered costumes atop Machhu Picchu in Peru).
The whole screenplay is so tongue-in-cheek that it is hard to know whether the filmmakers wanted to send any serious message about science or technology amidst the feather boas and spandex. It is probably best not to search too deeply for scientific significance in Robot, but if the film comments on anything, it is the threat of the ego in science. Like Dr Frankenstein’s monster, Chitti the robot is driven to turning evil and threatens to destroy its egotistical maker.
As an emerging economy, India’s scientific spending and output rises every year. Some argue that spending millions on high-profile space programmes, or on advanced science such as nanotechnology or GM agriculture, is unethical when much of the population doesn’t benefit from the country’s scientific or medical advances. Perhaps the film is hinting that India’s insistence on pushing itself as a credible global scientific presence while ignoring the suffering of millions of its people could backfire if unchecked? If nothing else, watch this Bolly/Sci-fi romp for its surreal flights of fantasy. It may clock a bum-numbing 3-hours of screen time, but it’s never boring.