A Little Sci Fi Gem: To Celebrate 200 Years of Frankenstein
2018 marks 200 years of the publication of the first science fiction novel, Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus. It is a fitting occasion to take a close look at the home grown sci fi gem, the six minutes long film The Bounty.
Sudipto Shankar Roy spent a large part of 2016 adding VFX to the shots he had taken way back in 2014 against a green screen set up in the living room of his rented apartment. He was eager to complete his sci fi film The Bounty, set in a barren, treeless, dystopic distant future. The Bounty is the outcome of Sudipto’s solo effort in scripting, direction, camera, editing and production. His work on The Bounty began after 9pm every night and continued till the crack of dawn. The day time hours were taken up in more mundane affairs. In the stillness of the night Sudipto’s computer traced the contours of the bounty hunter’s radioactivity meter foregrounded against the barren landscape of the futuristic earth.
Two hundred years ago, one evening in June 1816, sitting in a villa on the shores of Lake Geneva, Mary Shelly had conceived the story of Frankenstein. Challenged by Lord Byron to come up with a ghost story, she penned down her first thoughts on creation of artificial man. Outside there was a thunder storm. Incessant rain lashed against her window pane. An occasional lightning lit up the entire lake and triggered Mary Shelly’s thoughts on the stories of galvanism that she had earlier heard. In London there had been demonstrations of ‘galvanizing’ a corpse with electric shocks. In her mind, Shelly explored the possibility of component parts of a creature manufactured, brought together and endowed with ‘vital warmth’. “How would this manufactured creature be?” Shelly pondered.
Shelly’s protagonist Frankenstein secretly began to construct an animate creature, envisioning the creation of a wonderful race. He told himself, “Although I possess the capacity of galvanizing animation, I doubted at first whether I should attempt to create a being like myself.” He shut himself out from the world and worked in complete secrecy.
Sudipto’s protagonist, the bounty hunter from outer space too is on a secret mission. His spaceship lands on the ruins of human civilization – a barren wilderness of destroyed skyscapers. The door of the spaceship opens and the bounty hunter comes out in a hover bike flying through ruined cities, through desolate locales with dead trees and destroyed buildings, in search of something rare – a bounty. His detector detects a sign of life amidst the ruins.
Unlike the Bounty Hunter, Victor Frankenstein does not undertake a journey. He stays put in his shack to fulfill his mission of creating artificial life. When the “creature” eventually comes to life, Frankenstein is so repelled by his own creation that he runs away from it. In the course of the story, the “creature” not only goes on a murderous spree, but also takes complete control of Victor’s life, demanding that Victor create a female companion for the “creature”. Victor resists, having learnt the lesson from his first creation. The “creature” grows more demanding, taking greater and greater control of Victor’s life. Eventually, after devouring Victor’s near and dear ones, the “creature” is the cause of Victor’s death amidst the floating ice sheets in North Pole.
The book Frankenstein: Or The Modern Prometheus was eventually published on the 1st of January, 1818. Frankenstein was recognized as a gothic fiction. The term ‘science’ had not yet been coined. Today Frankenstein is acknowledged as the first science fiction because the central character, Victor Frankenstein, made a deliberate decision and turned to modern, systematic experiments in the laboratory.
In many ways, Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein is a warning against the destructive potential of cold reason and logic. The “creature”, also referred to as “monster” in the novel, becomes a symbol of Frankenstein’s folly in trying to emulate natural forces of creation.
Many a science fiction, written later, is a retelling of the Frankenstein story. Be it Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde or 2001: A Space Odyssey, it is a story of man’s creation taking control of man – the result of man’s folly in trying to play God.
Victor suffers from this God syndrome. He constantly alludes to his imminent doom. He calls his interest in natural philosophy (as science was then called), “the genius that has regulated my fate” and “the fatal impulse that led to my ruin”. Victor’s narrative is rife with nostalgia for a happier time. He dwells on the fuzzy memories of his blissful childhood. He seeks solace in the lap of pristine nature, reminding himself and the reader that man is a part of nature and not above nature.
Unfortunately on the earth that the bounty hunter descends, nature as we know it, is absent – apparently destroyed by human civilization. Modern science has taught us to understand the ways of nature and to turn it to our benefit, thus reasserting man’s mastery over nature. In her epochal literary work, Mary Shelly hints at the ultimate destiny of human civilization driven by this misplaced sense of mastery. In Sudipto Shankar Roy’s film The Bounty, we get a glimpse of this ultimate destiny.
Most science fictions paint a dystopic world. The Los Angeles of 2019 in Blade Runner, the London of AD 2540 in Huxley’s Brave New World spell doom brought about by technological development. H.G Wells, author of seminal science fictions like The Time Machine and War of the Worlds famously said, “Mankind which began in a cave and behind a windbreak will end in the disease-soaked ruins of a slum.”
Sudipto’s science fiction film The Bounty projects a barren, uninhabited landscape, perhaps after the diseases have destroyed the human race.
Mary Shelly had not lived to see the transformation of life brought about by electricity, but she had witnessed the transformation of the city brought about by the industrial revolution. Shelly’s searching intellect and imagination could perhaps sense the ultimate doom of this progress.
If we turn our attention to the Orient, Bengal in particular, we find that the science fiction stories have a different flavour. In Satyajit Ray’s Bonku Babur Bondhu, when the Alien spaceship lands on a pond in a God forsaken village in Bengal, the lotus buds blossom. The alien with a large head, sunken cheeks, a small mouth, nose and ears and three fingers radiates benevolence and has a positive effect on the entire village.
Perhaps an explanation for this difference in approach can be found in anthropomorphism. Writes Amitav Ghosh in his book The Great Derangement, “In the Indian epics – and this is a tradition that remains vibrantly alive to this day – there is a completely matter of fact acceptance of the agency of non human beings of many kinds. Non humans provide much of the momentum of the epics; they create the resolutions that allow the narrative to move forward.”
Ascribing intelligence and agency to non humans casts a different kind of glow to the man machine relationship. It is a relationship of camarederie, of mutual dependence. In Ritwik Ghatak’s film Ajantrik, Bimal’s deep attachment to his vehicle, his sensitivity to his taxi’s thirst and other physical needs, elevates the machine to the level of human in the spectator’s eyes. A civilization steeped in the values of “enlightenment”, that sees man as the sole agent of perception and creation, would not appreciate Bimal’s sentiments. But for a civilization that ascribes divinity to the elements and worships a lingam, Bimal’s attachment to an inanimate object seems perfectly natural. That is why on the day of Vishwakarma Puja, machines of all kind are worshipped with floral garlands and vermilion.
Amitav Ghosh writes, “In the Sunderbans, the people who live in and around the mangrove forest, have never doubted that tigers and other animals possess intelligence and agency. For the first peoples of the Yukon, even glaciers are endowed with moods and feelings, likes and dislikes.”
When Satyajit Ray took up his pen to write science fiction, he created the character of Professor Shanku, a friendly neighbourhood scientist residing in a small town named Giridi. Shanku, in his humble laboratory, had assembled a robot and given it a name Bidhushekhar. One day Shanku wrote in his diary, “Since the last two days, Bidhushekhar has been making a strange sound. Why should a mechanical man made of hinges and gears make such a sound? He is only supposed to perform the tasks that he is programmed to do. He is my creation. I know what he is supposed to do and what he is capable of. He cannot have a mind of his own and definitely he does not have an intelligence. …..I have noticed one thing. When I create something applying my scientific knowledge and reasoning, many a times these ‘creatures’ perform beyond my expectation. Sometimes I feel that an invisible power is guiding me on. Is that really so?”
Ray endows the robot Bidhushekhar with an agency, a sense of judgement and a clairvoyance too, that is not programmed into its architecture. Shanku’s relation with the robot Bidhushekhar is similar to Bimal’s relation with his car in Ajantrik.
In several other stories of Professor Shanku, Satyajit Ray gives an agency to non humans. Of particular interest is the story Professor Shanku O Golok Rohoshyo. In this story, a ball twice the size of a tennis ball, found on the bank of river Usri, turns out to be a mini planet where the cycle of seasons is completed in 24 hours. It is discovered later that the planet is inhabited by microscopic organisms that reside below its surface and that are capable of spreading deadly disease. These microbes have a voice and they appeal to Professor Shanku to set them free. Interestingly, the voices of these microbes are picked up by another creation of Prof. Shanku – the microsonograph. Using the mocrosonograph, Shanku had heard the song of the ants and the shriek of the blades of grass when they were being mowed by the gardener. So, the scientist Shanku is aware of the layered and complex vibes of life around him and he created an instrument to pick up these vibes.
The microsonograph may bring back memories of a real instrument created by a real scientist. Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose invented the crescograph to measure plant response to various stimuli. His instrument measured quivering of injured plants, which Bose interpreted as ‘power of feeling in plants’.
Amitav Ghosh writes, “Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose attributed elements of consciousness to vegetables and even metals. Japanese primatologist Imanishi Kinji insisted on the unity of all elements on the planet earth – living and non living.” Scientific imagination, manifest in science as well as science fiction, in civilizations beyond the orb of ‘age of enlightenment’, is devoid of the harsh arrogance of supremacy of man.
Sudipto’s bounty hunter is in search of something insignificant – not the skull of his adversary, not the map of eldorado, not a pot of gold, but a spot of greenery raising its head amidst the ruins. He vanquishes his competitor to take control of this green sapling. Against the dull grey monochrome of destruction, the spot of green glistens with hope. “For visual inspiration I turned to Robert Rodrigues’s Sin City, which is predominantly black and white, with colours added selectively only for emphasis,” recalls Sudipto.
It is revealed in the last scene of The Bounty that the bounty hunter is trying to recreate the lost Garden of Eden from the scratch – as if to bring back the lost innocence of mankind. He sets sail from the edge of the solar system in search of a single breathing, living green entity.
In the last shot of the film, the bounty hunter plants his treasure inside the greenhouse of his spaceship. The camera zooms out to reveal a huge chamber of living, breathing greenery. The shot is one minute long. The first time he started to render it took him a couple of weeks. “I was not satisfied,” says Sudipto. “I did the shot again. Not from scratch but modified the existing one. This time it again took a couple of weeks to render but results came out fine. Finally the film was over in July 2017.”
The bounty hunter is satisfied with his latest find – a living, breathing sapling that will flourish in his greenhouse. Perhaps by the end of his journey he will set foot on a suitable planet where he will plant them and let them multiply, thus spreading life. Science fiction will continue to make prophesies for the future. It is upto the present generation to heed or not to heed.
Pics courtesy: Sudipto Shankar Roy, Sketch by Satyajit Ray from his book Professor Shankur Diary and Google Image Search)
1. Satyajit Ray, Professor Shonkur Diary, New Script Publishers
2. Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, Penguin Books
3. Brain Pickings by Maria Popova: An illustrated celebration of Jane Jacobs, 200 years of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as a lens on science, society, and moral responsibility, and more
Interview with Sudipto Shankar Roy
5. Did Steven Spielberg steal Satyajit Ray’s story for ET?
6. How Satyajit Ray’s The Alien hovered above Hollywood before nosediving into oblivion
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