THE Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is the currently undisputed behemoth of global entertainment. The blockbuster movies apart, this universe is now expanding into the streaming business, with a slew of upcoming Disney+/Marvel TV shows in the months ahead, each headlined by characters from the Avengers franchise. Action, fantasy and science fiction—most Marvel products are populist fusions of these genres, spun around stories of familial loss and redemption. In recent years, the science fiction part of it has been emphasised, with three of the last four Marvel films featuring inter-galactic action and Star Wars/Star Trek-adjacent hijinks.
It’s nearly impossible to compete against Disney when it comes to production budgets, star power or PR machinery. But this does not mean that independent creators haven’t responded to the Marvel phenomenon. The 2020 Amazon Prime science fiction film The Vast of Night is a case in point: a stylishly shot, creatively edited low-budget film that eschews scale and grandstanding in favour of a more personal, intimate aesthetic. In a similar vein, two recent Indian science fiction releases endeavour to do more with less—Arati Kadav’s film Cargo (on Netflix) and Shailender Vyas’s mini-series JL 50 (on SonyLIV). And while science fiction is by no means a popular genre in Indian cinema, recent years have seen quite a few releases, big and small; the Malayalam science fiction films 9 and Android Kunjappan Version 5.25, the Marathi-language Unmatta and the Bangla film Professor Shanku O El Dorado (all 2019 releases).
In 2018, S. Shankar’s science fiction thriller 2.0 (starring Rajinikanth and Akshay Kumar) was the most expensive Indian film ever made, at a budget of Rs 570 crore ($80 million).
Of the two Hindi-language releases, Cargo (starring Vikrant Massey and Shweta Tripathi) is clearly superior: a well-written, gently unfurling parable on mortality and solitude, both borrowing from and subverting ideas taken from Hindu mythology and philosophy. JL 50 (starring Abhay Deol and Pankaj Kapur), however, is certainly the worthiest of failures—its narrative ingenuity only loses steam in the last act.
The story begins on a noir-ish note, as we meet Shantanu (Deol), a CBI officer in the currently-in-vogue ‘weary detective’ mould (think Kurt Wallander or John Luther): divorced, brooding, with smiles that never reach their eyes. Shantanu is tasked with investigating the disappearance of an airplane carrying multiple VIPs. Instead, he finds the crashed remains of an entirely different airplane—the titular JL 50, which had disappeared near Kolkata airspace 35 years ago, in 1984. Pieces of the puzzle present themselves to Shantanu almost immediately in the form of Bihu (Ritika Anand, also the producer of the show), JL 50’s surviving pilot who hasn’t aged a day, and Professor Subroto Das (Kapur), a physics teacher who claims to hold the answers to this time travel puzzle.
JL 50 is at its strongest when depicting the alienation that’s often glossed over in mainstream time travel stories—surely, it must be nauseating to feel marooned in a world that’s both familiar and not? Bihu’s mixture of horror and compelling attraction at seeing a cellphone is a case in point. Biswajit Mitra (Piyush Mishra), the only other survivor from JL 50 (who’s also suspected of having hijacked the plane), wakes up even more disoriented. He is physically violent and has to be restrained periodically at the hospital. These scenes, in conjunction with Shantanu’s own memories of feeling adrift during his childhood (he was raised in an orphanage), underline the mini-series’ two big themes—time travel nausea, and the role that ‘orderly’ passage of time plays in our overall well-being.
Arati Kadav’s film Cargo and Shailender Vyas’s mini-series JL 50 are stylishly shot, creatively edited and eschew scale and grandstanding in favour of a more intimate aesthetic
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The actors all do a fine job, Deol reminiscent of his supremely shrewd outing as an IAS officer in Shanghai (2012). Kapur is also masterful as ever as the Bengali physics professor whose scaredy-cat, I-can’t-believe-I’m-saying-this storytelling style is compelling and steers the plot assuredly for a while. Unfortunately, the show isn’t quite able to sustain the narrative momentum gained by its thrilling first half. And much of the problem boils down to the inadequate world-building.
We’re told that Mitra (himself a physics savant, as Prof. Das reveals), having pieced together the secret to time travel—a wormhole near Kolkata—was acting in conjunction with a homegrown communist organisation to hijack the plane. And yet, we’re given precious little information about these dastardly communists apart from the occasional expository voice-over, which begin to feel like afterthoughts. Basically, JL 50 feels an awful lot like it was shot as a film and then chopped up into four roughly equal parts; it could’ve benefited from some more time and breathing space for its subplots.
FOR CARGO, HOWEVER, world-building is not a liability; quite the contrary. From the first minute itself, Kadav is more than willing to stop and smell the roses, narratively speaking: the film begins with a (fictional) advertisement for an ‘international loneliness detective’ (he’ll come and live with you, while you get to the bottom of this loneliness) hamming it up for the camera like an adrenaline-fuelled TV anchor—the actor seen in this cameo, Biswapati Sarkar, is well-known for his viral parody skits where he plays ‘Ornub’ Goswami.
Cargo imagines a future where humans and rakshasas (demons) have arrived at a peace treaty. In a hilarious cutaway sequence, director Hansal Mehta cameos as a modern-day ‘homo rakshasa’ ruminating on the fact that contemporary rakshasas look just like human beings—no horns, tails or protruding teeth from popular depictions. Upon death, humans go neither to swarg (heaven) nor narak (hell), but to a rakshasa-operated afterlife—they arrive at purgatory spaceships, where demon agents wipe their memories clean, heal their physical scars for good measure and send them off to a clean slate afterlife. One such homo rakshasa astronaut, an operator of the afterlife, is Prahastha (Vikrant Massey), who has been alone on his vessel for over a 100 years now, a space age grim reaper tasked with processing the daily human ‘cargo’ of death—memories wiped clean, souls harvested into the afterlife, the detritus of their previous lives ejected into space, floating reminders of the transitory nature of all life.
A lot of Cargo’s tragicomic beauty comes from Prahastha’s delicately calibrated solitude. The way he fixes an issue with the exterior of his spaceship, the way he telepathically plays with a table tennis ball, the quiet orderliness with which he engages the recently deceased. This seemingly perfect equilibrium is disturbed by the arrival of his new assistant Yuvishka (Shweta Tripathi), who is much more empathetic to the plight of the in-betweeners, the humans who’re waiting for their memories to be gone forever. Her arrival gently nudges Prahastha into confronting his own loneliness, and the sense of regret he feels about his previous mistakes.
CARGO IS A BIT of a mentor-mentee story, but eventually, this relationship becomes a much gentler (this is zero gravity, after all) version of the Al Pacino/Chris O’Donnell equation in Scent of a Woman—the old grouch
being given a new lease of life by a young, idealistic ‘outsider’.
In Android Kunjappan Version 5.25 science fiction is a new frame to tell old stories. Loneliness in old age is after all a popular subgenre in Indian cinema
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It helps that Cargo is a marvel of production design—Mayur Sharma and director Kadav must be congratulated for creating a believable inter-stellar world on a shoestring budget. They have been inspired (like The Vast of Night is) by ‘analog tech’ aesthetics (that also help to create a typically Indian ‘sarkari office’ vibe) as well as marooned-in-space narratives as disparate as Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, Duncan Jones’s Moon (2009) and of course, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Clunky telephone sets, sparky ‘healing machines’, grainy screens with sleepless demon supervisors on the other side—all these little details are part of the film’s charm. I can think of very few Indian films in recent times where the production design was this distinctive or indeed, central to proceedings as it is here.
Both JL 50 and Cargo try, in their own ways, to find ways of merging science fiction with stories that Indians care about. Their connections to Hindu mythology and ‘secret’ forms of knowledge are both indicative of walking this same line of essentialism versus universalism in science fiction—creating products with distinctively Indian sensibilities, but with all the structural and visual bells and whistles of the Western science fiction canon.
Take Android Kunjappan Version 5.25, for instance. This sweet, enterprising Malayalam film is about an old man whose son builds him an android companion since he’s busy and cannot spend as much time with his father as he’d like to. Initially contemptuous, the old man soon begins to bond with the robot, dubbing him ‘Kunjappan’. In this particular case, science fiction is a new frame to tell old stories. Whether it’s Bollywood films like Baghban(2003) or, say, Tamil films like Power Pandi (2017), themes of loneliness in old age, grown-up children’s equations with their dissatisfied parents etcetera have been tackled previously— clearly, this is a popular subgenre in Indian cinema. But the sheer rush of watching a sleek robot following an old man around in a typical Kerala village is something else. Android Kunjappan trades a fair bit on this visual novelty value, as well as the tearjerker quotient of human versus machine sentience.
That’s the kind of approach that’s more likely to succeed with Indian audiences. Bollywood now has world-class technicians working onset, and it’s not implausible that one of these days, the special effects and overall technical wizardry of an Indian science fiction film will live up to international standards. Here’s the thing, though—even our biggest films in this space are not yet ready. 2.0’s gigantic avian robots, while impressive in parts, were ultimately more cartoonish than threatening. The Baahubali films, almost as expensive individually as 2.0, also contain some truly clunky visual effects in between its bravura moments.
Cargo and to a lesser extent JL 50, then, signal the way forward for Indian science fiction onscreen. Indian sensibilities, distinctive world-building and a dedication to minimalist craft that keeps the focus where it matters, and doing more with less.