Ye desh hai superheroes ka
Science-fiction in the sixties
Our journey begins with B Gupta, a hard to trace filmmaker (he describes himself as a producer-director-cameraman) tucked away in Mumbai's Santacruz area. Contrary to my skimpy notes on him, he's been around for decades, and has been quite a special effects pioneer.
"40 years ago," he waxes nostalgic, "I made Jadoo, based on The Arabian Nights. It was a black and white film with Ranjan, Suchitra, Helen and Randhir. It did quite well, actually. It had a hit qawwali. I spent Rs 25,000 on the music, and a song I recorded for Rs 600 made me Rs 1,25,000."
Years before his infamous Superman project, Mr Gupta had already attempted bizarre science fiction films - Dr X, a 1972 film starring Som Dutt, Farida Jalal and IS Johar, was possibly India's first stab at The Invisible Man; Dr Z, made in 1961, starred Hiralal, Mahipal and Shakira, and was about a man turning into a giant. And he was the man responsible for Sanjeev Kumar's neck turning 360 degrees in Raj Kohli's 1965 Jaani Dushman, an effect behind which there lies a long and fabulous story.
But they're all great stories. For the making of Dr X, Mr Gupta was about to cast Vinod Khanna. "Suddenly, Som Dutt [Sunil Dutt's brother] requested me to cast him. He asked for Rs 50,000, but I negotiated and agreed to pay him Rs 20,000, with Rs 1,000 as a starting amount, which was outstanding." But actors have always had outlandish demands, and Dutt was no different. "He demanded that I feed him kukkad (chicken) every day on the sets. I agreed and actually had a kukkad-lunch written into the contract! But I too had a condition: that he bring me four good suits - his brother must have had hundreds - for the duration of the shoot, saving more money on the wardrobe. You see," Mr Gupta explains, "It's a modern film, and a modern hero must wear a suit."
Special effects, Mr Gupta believes, are more about sensitivity than money. "Otherwise, Kohli's 1993 Jaani Dushman remake, on which he spent Rs 2 crore on the effects, wouldn't have flopped. The thing is, there is a major defect with digital work. When you generate an effect using computers, it doesn't look real. So, the audience subconsciously doesn't accept it. Effects have to be pleasing and tolerable. In Hollywood films, you may have noted that most effect shots are done at night. It's all about distraction. They have great music playing, a powerful theme, stereophonic sound - it all hides the trickery."
"A director called Cecil B DeMille once said, in an interview, that if any man could see my film - he's had flops too; The Greatest Show On Earth flopped -- and tell me correctly if it would be a hit or flop, I'd pay him even more than I'd pay the stars. Now this is not a silly man. He made big films. I could easily make seas part today, but the directors don't have the conception skills required to fit it in the right context on screen."
"Fantasy films aren't made in Bollywood because they are afraid of flops. People spend big money on effects, but that isn't enough. If you still concentrate on telling a good story, it will work. Today, if someone decides to make a great new version of Aladdin and the Lamp, it will be a super hit. But you have to concentrate on the story."