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Why is science fiction unpopular in India?

September 28, 2013

The Atlantic recently published this piece, entitled, “Why the West Loves Sci-Fi and Fantasy: A Cultural Explanation.”

The story examines why science fiction movies are huge moneymakers in the West, but not in India particularly. The author briefly touches on Japan and China’s embrace of fantasy. However, she seems confused about why India is seemingly averse to sci-fi and fantasy existence, when India does have a healthy interest in Hindu stories and glories from its past. The sci-fi the author writes about is movies like Lord of the Rings (LOTR), Harry Potter, etc., usually involving wizards and characters that do not exist in our reality.

Recently Sasmita and I watched the 2009 movie Star Trek: New Frontier. A few weeks ago we finished the aforementioned Harry Potter saga and earlier in 2013, we viewed the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Sasmita had seen bits and piece of LOTR and Harry Potter; however she was clueless about Star Trek as an entity.

When I was trying to explain Star Trek’s premise to her, she was skeptical. I tried to simplify it as much as I could. “It’s a movie about space and man’s exploration of planets, and the different peoples on those planets,” I said. She admitted she did not really know what I meant, but trusted me that she would enjoy it. Moreover, she did.

With that background in mind, let us unpack this article a bit.

The author seems to assert that, “Longing for mystery is universal, but the taste for science fiction and fantasy is cultural.” I somewhat agree with her. I think this is a circular argument in the Indian context to some extent. Bollywood does not produce many fantasy movies (fantasy in the earlier definition) that are mainstream hits, so the genre is relatively new. The genre is continually under-produced, because Indians are not unexposed to them consistently enough to create a nationwide affinity for them. When they hit Indian theatres, whether from overseas or domestically produced, they flop.

What ‘India’ is she referring to?” Half of India lives in her villages and my guess is that population is not watching science fiction or Western style fantasy. In fact, I think most have never even heard Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, etc.

By contrast, the educated and wealthy city folks make up the Indian audience who watch those types of movies. I am referring to those with access to satellite television, and who are watching HBO and other Western movies, along with their Bollywood staples. Judging from Indian box office figures, it seems clear; they are not watching such fantasy movies in large numbers either.

The idea of transporting oneself from the daily drudges of life is VERY much a part of the Indian movie-going experience. The type of fantasy is different. This is probably especially true for the poorer in India, who may go to movies to escape, but also still need to see their escape based in a reality they can understand. Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, etc., do not provide this.

Many typical Bollywood movies provide the following type of fantasy: marrying a beautiful or well-connected guy/girl, living a very posh lifestyle and enjoying the trappings of luxury, in India, Europe or the United States.

However, the movie is not completely outside the realm of possibility for the millions of Indians who watch it (statistically unlikely for sure) but all the dreams that they could have, while watching such a film, would be something physically and theoretically possible.

On the other hand, fighting dragons, talking wizards, moving objects merely by ‘willing them’ with one’s mind, etc., are not of this world, or any world and perhaps they cannot relate to such narratives in any way.

The other interesting point came to me at the end of the article. It is something I think about frequently after marrying Sasmita.

Often we think that the way we live is normal and not cultural; this is what anthropologists call ‘tacit ethnocentrism,’ when we are not trying to be prejudiced, but we have unquestioned assumptions that somehow we are the normal human baseline and others somehow deviate from that.

One of the things that I often ponder is Sasmita’s radically different upbringing from me. How she had no concept of “free time.” Side note: I am working on a full separate post on that concept and “choice.”

That “free time” allows you and me to learn about all types of things, explore the world around us, or imagine. We can spend hours reading a book, magazine, watching television, etc., all for pleasure, or do nothing. We are indulging in activities not considered “productive.” It is what we do, when we need to de-stress, or do not want to “do” anything.

It is hard for me to explain this in writing, as the notion is something we in the West tacitly understand. Nevertheless, I think a majority of my readers are tracking with this concept.

At least for me, what I have realized about “leisure time,” is that Sasmita and most of the developing world have no concept of it because their day is about survival; working, cleaning, eating, cooking among others. Getting through the day exhausts their energy. Having the luxury of doing anything for their own enjoyment, not just for their families, or their own survival is relatively unheard of.

Imagination is another component to understanding the appeal of fantasy to Euro-Americans that might be less familiar to non-Westerners. The New York Times recently published this article, written about C.S. Lewis, the Christian theologian and author of the fantasy series, The Chronicles of Narnia, bringing up the idea of “inventive pretend.

A child psychologist posits that non-Western and non-Industrialized countries are not interested in the fantasy genre (wizards, princesses, etc.) because when children pretend in those societies, they picture themselves acting in ways that adults have modeled for them. Western parents on the other hand, both indulge in and encourage their children to pretend with no basis in reality or the possible.

“No culture,” observes the child psychologist Suzanne Gaskins “comes close to the level of resources for play provided by middle-class Euro-American parents.” In many traditional societies, children play by imitating adults. They pretend to cook, marry, plant, fish, and hunt.”

“Inventive pretend,” in which children pretend the fantastic or impossible (enchanted princesses, dragon hunters) “is rarely — if ever — observed in non-industrialized or traditional cultures,” Gaskins says. Westerners, by contrast, not only tolerate fantasy play but actively encourage it, for adults as well as for children. We are novel readers, movie watchers and game players.”

Perhaps that is an even better explanation for why Indians do not generally flock to fantasy movies. Returning to the original questions, I do not think Indian movie-goers actively dislike science fiction, but rather, their reticence to engage with it arises for three different reasons beginning from childhood.

Indian children probably do not pretend the way Euro-American children do. As they grow older Indians escape with stories that are fantasy, but based in a reality they understand. Finally, the lack of Bollywood fantasy movies means the genre remains relatively unexplored, because from their childhood on Indian children were not using the “inventive pretend.”

What do you think? Are Indians not watching science fiction, because of those reasons? Alternatively, is it for wholly different reasons? Let me know your thoughts.

10 Comments
September 29, 2013 at 11:56 am

Interesting. Always wondered about that.

October 7, 2013 at 2:08 am

Very interesting thoughts here. As a huge fan of scifi, Narnia, Middle Earth, etc, I’ve never given this much thought. Probably because media reports here in the States aggregate “international sales” and they are usually quite respectable for this type of film. I’ve never thought much about how this might vary from country to country. Time now to check out the article you linked to… Thanks.

    October 7, 2013 at 8:02 pm

    Thanks for reading and the comment. I too used to look at the international sales and figure that if a movie had done well, it was big everywhere. That is clearly not the case in all countries though.

February 9, 2017 at 1:55 pm

This is probably the most viable explanation I’ve read so far for not only why SciFi is not popular, but why the culture does not exist altogether. Even amongst Indians living abroad, and Indians born abroad, the interest in SciFi is very minimal.

    A.J. Bryant
    March 27, 2017 at 10:22 pm

    Thanks for reading and the comment. I found that article I referenced beyond fascinating and have since had discussions with my wife about imaginative pretend when she was a girl growing up in rural India.

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