Decolonising
Sci-Fi in South Asia

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Sci-Fi in South Asia

Sci-Fi in South Asia

Written by Sneha Nair
Designed by Yash Saxena

South Asian Science Fiction has taken several imaginative forms of looking

at the world  - the most notable being that of a decolonized society

 

Pakistani sci-fi, fantasy, and horror writer Usman T Malik defines

Science Fiction as:

“The literature that explores the boundaries of knowledge ... that definition

is mostly applicable to speculative fiction’s subgenres, including magical

realism, fantasy, and horror; it’s just the class of knowledge that changes

within each.”

 

Mainstream English-language science fiction, as we know it today, has

been shaped by Anglo-American writers, editors, and markets. From

Margaret Cavendish and Daniel Defoe to the recent, mainstream

examples of the genre, such as Battlestar Galactica, or The

Terminator, one can always trace the modern history of sci-fi

through its entanglement with colonialism. Much of the pulp

Science Fiction of the early twentieth century in the United

States of America was aimed at an audience of male adolescents or

young, often technically trained, men.

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But works that utilize Speculative Science Fiction and Fantasy (SFF) conventions and tropes have existed long before in South Asia. The earliest works of SFF in the subcontinent were written in Bengali, Tamil, and Urdu in the mid-19th century, and published in Calcutta, Madras, and Lucknow respectively (although oral stories go back even further).


The Dastan-e-Amir Hamza, adapted from the oral dastan into written Urdu by Ghalib Lakhnavi in 1885, or its literary successor, the Tilism-e-Hoshruba, written by Muhammad Husain Jah in 1883 are works that are brimming with magic and the fantastical, jinns and paris, trickster ayyars and parallel magical universes called tilisms, centuries-old prophecies and classic good vs evil battle scenes.

“Science fiction” as a distinct, recognizable genre term came together only in the early twentieth century, and “fantasy” a few decades later.

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When it comes to the early 19th century South Asian impulse to decolonize -  imagining an alternate Asian sci-fi more specifically, one can observe a pervasive future and question existing hierarchies 

 

Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain’s Sultana’s Dream is a feminist utopian novel first published in 1905. It beautifully explores the concepts of gender and the notion of public and private space situated within 20th-century colonial Indian nationalist and gender politics using science fiction tropes. 

 

Jagdish Chandra Bose’s Nirrudeshar Kahini ("The Story of the Missing") in 1896 tells the story of the sudden dispersion of a cyclone that had been threatening Calcutta and turns the narrative tropes of Western science fiction on its head undermining Western science as just a tool of imperial control.

Fun Fact!

 

In 1835, an 18-year-old Bengali student, Kylas Chunder Dutt wrote a fantasy set in 1945 where the people of Indostan overthrew the British

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Now, non-white populations with violent histories of colonialism and slavery have used sci-fi to draw

upon their own heritages, displace the

West from the center of popular

imagination and reclaim

agency. 

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More recently, digital art, comics, and graphic novels have entered the space providing budding speculative fiction artists, and writers a platform to showcase their fantastical stories.

 

Omar Gilani, a Pakistani visual artist, takes a multimedia approach to a South Asian sci-fi world, with his Pakistan + series — replete with bionic beggars and hovering doodhwalas — that depicts a Pakistan both cybernetic and traditional, utopian and dystopian.

 

Bishakh Som’s new graphic novel Apsara Engine imagines an alternate geographical space — though not necessarily a utopia — where “nymphs” exist without being restricted by fetishistic attention.

 

And online editorial Tasavvurnama, a brand new fiction magazine dedicated to publishing the best and brightest of South Asian sci-fi and fantasy.

 

These graphic novels are deeply rooted in the subcontinent's culture and tackle the present socio-economic challenges through elements of magical realism. Like the genre of ‘Indo-futurism’ that involves delving into India’s rich ancient history to try and reimagine alternate futures through historical/mythical characters. 

While South Asian sci-fiction in literature has taken center stage with books like The Gollancz Books of South Asian Science Fiction Volume 2  that goes well beyond traditional SF to embrace horror, fantasy, and climate fiction. Only a few countries in the sub-continent have been able to adapt the genre into mainstream media successfully.

 

Coke Studio Pakistan broadcasts futuristic sonic fusions; Ismail Ka Urdu Sheher is a novel and musical project centered on cosmic-dwelling Pakistanis, and The Burka Avenger is a Pakistani burka-clad superhero.

 

Indonesian movie, Gundala blends a Batman-style origin story with head-spinning martial arts, with director Joko Anwar proving that superhero spectaculars can save the day outside Hollywood.

 

The Halt (2019) takes place in 2034, after a series of volcanic eruptions thrust Australasia into perpetual darkness, a deadly flu has eradicated much of the population of Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands. The movie depicts a certain skepticism of Western technology and surveillance.

 

Popular streaming sites like Netflix and Amazon provide India with a good dose of “sci-fi” and “fantasy” with shows like “Dark”“Fate: The Winx Saga:”, and “Stranger Things” being some of the most watched shows in the country. Parrot Analytics found that the audience demand for Stranger Things is 30.9 times the demand of the average TV series in India when it was released back in 2018.

 

But Bollywood has embraced sci-fi and CGI spectacles to embellish pro-Hindu-nationalist storylines. Blockbusters like the recent Brahmastra (2022) still focus on historical fiction, which restricts the futuristic imagination of the genre. 

 

Avatar (2009) set the high-water mark for India, where South Asian audiences purchased $24 million worth of tickets—about 10 percent of foreign ticket sales worldwide.  

But for most science fiction, countries with smaller GDPs than India (Australia, Mexico, South Korea) are higher consumers. 

Avengers' (2012) $888 million worldwide, $12 million came from India; The Hobbit (2012) made $714 million worldwide; it took home $1.8 million in India. (Atlantic). 

The popularity of Sci-fi serves to reiterate the importance of speculative fiction in reflecting upon possible and desirable futures, as diverse texts and voices are increasingly brought to the table. The best of the genre evokes in us a sense of awe, and also a sense of vulnerable humanity. The genre has opened up new spaces, and opportunities while reflecting our own reality - no matter how unpleasant.

 

In South Asia, literature and graphic novels exploring alternate realities and fantastical worlds have found a variety of creators and consumers, but mainstream media is slow to catch up in both production value as well as narrative scripts. The “post-colonial” era has brought a treasure trove of intellect and imagination to its people, the industry now just needs to tap into it.