From Steampunk Operas To Found Footage: A History Of Aliens In Indian Cinema

Archival images from Chand Par Chadhayee.
Archival images from Chand Par

Way back in the ‘60s, when the vapours from India’s contentious history of colonialism were still thick in the air, Satyajit Ray joined the new guard of science fiction writers in Bengali like Jagadananda Roy, Jagadish Chandra Bose and Premendra Mitra with his short story Bankubabur Bandhu, that would be adapted in 1967 for Travails With The Alien, a film that was never completed thanks to copyright infringement.

In the fallout of the political skirmishes that anointed the horizon with the holy terror of the ‘other’ — like the Sino-Indian War (1962) and the Indo-Pakistani War (1965) — our own films were beginning to acquire a palpable, existential angst. As a recently independent nation, it was understandable that we were riddled with the anxiety of having ‘aliens’ invade our sovereignty and enslave us all over again.

As the Cold War was getting colder and the world’s superpowers were playing poker with their nuclear missiles, outer space was shaping up to be a proxy battleground for some of the world’s best minds to hash out who would be the first to send man to the moon. There’s no denying the indelible impact the 'space race' had upon our artistic canvas.

However, aside from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, the 60's alien films usually steered in the campy, cult-classic direction. Same is true for the Indian sci-fi scene, which was surprisingly very ingenious, though not as prolific. Here’s a list of homegrown extraterrestrial thrillers across the ages that you may not have heard of.

A steampunk opera and the first Indian alien film
A steampunk opera and the first Indian alien

I. Kalai Arasi (1963)

Delightfully subverting the 'superior race' hypothesis, this Tamil language film shows the aliens who kidnap Vaani (played by the ephemeral P. Bhaanumathi) to be technologically more advanced but sorely lacking in culture, which is why they need a Kalaiarasi or ‘Queen of Arts’ to teach them how to sing. A daughter of a well-heeled landlord cannot fathom why she must waste her talents on a bunch of uncouth philistines, no matter how steampunk they may seem, but Vaani does not play the damsel in distress. Her poor farmer boy lover might be on his way to save her but Vaani is confident that her quick wits and natural charms will ultimately secure her redemption.

Visually reminiscent in its special effects of the 1902 short film A Trip to the Moon by Georges Méliès and featuring costumes faintly inspired from cabaret performers, Kalai Arasi is widely credited as being the first Indian film to tackle alien abduction. Steeped in the retro-futurist tradition of chrome breastplates, analog computers and art nouveau design, this film was a hybrid mirage of anachronistic technology that can be found in the pages of speculative fiction by H.G. Wells or Jules Verne.

A theatrical, playful film drawing from vaudeville performances
A theatrical, playful film drawing from vaudeville

II. Chand Par Chadayee (1967)

Laced with nationalistic zeal for the Indian space program, this Hindi language film is set on the pock marked surface of the moon, where Astronaut Anand (played by Dara Singh) and his side-kick Bhagu are taking a giant leap for mankind before anyone knew about Neil Armstrong. However they are not the only ones there, a race of Moonlings bedecked in bodysuits and helmets are upset about human encroachment on their soil, and what’s more — they are practically immune to gunfire.

Meanwhile, there's a conspiracy brewing. A moonling royal named Simi (Padma Khanna) is in cahoots with the king of Mars (Anwar Hussain), who desires the moon's princess Shimoga (G. Ratna) as his bride.

Here again, we see an operatic treatment of the alien characters with bizarre vaudeville dancing followed by courtroom scenes of intrigue and some brawny wrestling between Astronaut Anand and Simi’s henchmen.

A note to the audiences: the aliens remain anthropomorphic and inhabit a twilight zone between theatrical jesters and circus performers, as far as their antics are concerned.

A Bond-ian spy caper meets alien invasion thriller
A Bond-ian spy caper meets alien invasion

III. Wahan Ke Log

An Orwellian, “so bad it’s almost good” production that pays a stylistic tribute to Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space, this Hindi film was a profoundly pulpy, boisterous medley of flying saucers, femme fatale mercenaries and mad scientists.

Wahan Ke Log tells the story of Agent Rakesh (played by Pradeep Kumar) who stumbles upon an undercover operation masterminded by evil genius Anil to steal diamonds from India and smuggle them to a neighbouring superpower, which could mean another country or even another planet. Featuring a high-jinks aerial battle between UFOs and fighter jets, this was a vision far ahead of its time, even if occluded by Bollywood’s proclivity to having go-go dancers in tight-fitting shimmery space suits twirling around a mockup alien planet set. A derivative flair makes itself felt in the Bond-ian bravado of Agent Rakesh and the spy caper themed, Hollywood noir excitement in the car chases sequences.

Heralding the appearance of three fingered aliens in convincing Halloween special effects makeup, endearingly janky gadgetry like the laser guns and wall mounted transmitters and a comic book flippancy to its narrative; Wahan Ke Log is brimful of artistic influences of its time but manages to tailor it to the Indian sensibilities.

Loosely inspired from an unexplained event of 'blood rain' in Kerala
Loosely inspired from an unexplained event of 'blood rain' in

IV. Red Rain

Between July and September of 2001, a climatological anomaly spookily resembling a rain of blood occurred in several isolated incidents in Kerala. Turns out it was probably lichen spores in the sky but initially, the Centre for Earth Science Studies attributed it to a possible meteor shower carrying extraterrestrial organic matter.  

This Malayalam-language science fiction thriller, Red Rain picks up from where this urban legend left off and recounts the tale of a young scientist, who sets out to investigate a series of other aberrations like unexpected deaths of cattle and flickering UFO sightings in Kerala. The forest — which is the primary mise-en-scene for most of the action — becomes a psychological landscape where insecurities manifest themselves and the natural elements strike a primordial note of terror of the unknown.

A departure from the B-grade, self possessed, schlocky fare of the '60s, this film falls victim to its own failed seriousness. Playing with the ‘found footage’ format similar to 2008 Hollywood monster film Cloverfield, this fast paced thriller manages to maintain a high key sense of foreboding and weaves a believable connection between its characters.

A psychological thriller that integrates elements of fantasy and the sci-fi genre
A psychological thriller that integrates elements of fantasy and the sci-fi

V. 9 (2019)

The forest is again a subliminal space where anything paranormal or incredible like an alien encounter could happen without stretching the suspension of disbelief. Named after the 9 days of electromagnetic surge that would encapsulate the planet due to a passing comet, this Malayalam language film follows a troubled scientist, Dr. Albert Lewis who is studying the cosmic phenomenon in the foothills of the Himalayas. There, he meets Ava, who appears to be an extraterrestrial being unleashed by the comet. 

Shot on a Red Digital Gemini 5K camera and mostly at night, this marks an exciting era in the genre of alien films, where the cinematography and visual effects can complement the vision of the director and truly conjure up a convincing spectacle that the writing deserves. The film begins as sci-fi but intricately blends into a psychological thriller with shades of the supernatural that keep you guessing until the end, bolstered by the dynamic and stentorian background score. 

While 9 struggles to maintain authenticity in its dialogue and form an emotional bond with the audience, the tightrope it walks between what’s roiling in Albert’s mind and the phenomena he’s supposed to be investigating is commanding in its balance. Like with aliens and what lies beyond the frontiers of perceived reality, we are left grappling with our own inadequacies in the face of the great unknown, which can be terrifying but is also laden with unlimited potential.