‘Sci-fi should not be regarded as a Western concept’
... says director Shailender Vyas, whose sci-fi film, JL 50, starring Abhay Deol and Pankaj Kapur, released on Sony LIV earlier this month.
A handful of filmmakers have dabbled with the sci-fi genre in Indian cinema, and even fewer have tasted victory. The latest addition to this list is JL 50 by writer-director Shailender Vyas. This four-episode web series was originally made as a film. "The decision to convert it into a web series was painful for the entire team. If not for the pandemic, we would have got a theatre release," says Shailender, who took time to come to terms with how the journey changed for his sci-fi thriller. “This is novel territory in content and so, we weren't sure if the film would have the kind of release we wanted it to have. So yes, we are happy that Sony LIV came on board to provide JL 50 with such a wide release."
JL 50, produced by Ritika Anand, Vision 20 and Vistas Media Capital’s Golden Ratio Films, mixes traditional sci-fi elements with ideas from Indian mythology to give us a film that is global and yet, firmly rooted in Indian sensibilities. This marriage was to ensure that the Indian audience would not feel like they were consuming a borrowed concept, says Shailesh. "When researching for JL 50, I realised that we don't consider science as an Indian concept at all. We have always seen it as a foreign entity despite most of our mythological stories having a deep connection with science. Our famed spirituality has a strong scientific base," explains Shailender, and adds that JL 50 is an attempt to familiarise today's youth with this connection.
Shailender shares his disappointment that constant comparisons are made with Western films every time such ideas are explored in our cinema. “I was depressed to read many reviews, but I can't afford to get distracted by such things. I saw comparisons made with the Netflix series, Dark, but I knew I had written this film in 2016. JL 50 is inspired by my research, some incidents in my life, and old Indian films I grew up on. I am more inspired by our films than those from the West," says Shailender, citing veteran director Shakti Samanta as an all-time favourite. “I am happy to note that JL 50 has created a conversation, and I hope it is the beginning of a new trend. With the advent of OTT, I hope that under-explored genres like sci-fi will find more takers."
Although JL 50 is out there now, it wouldn't have been easy to bring together a cast like this for a film so challenging. However, Shailender is quick to point out that all of his first choices were cast in the film. "More than convincing the actors to join the film, the tougher job was to locate Abhay ji," laughs Shailender as he thanks his actors — Abhay, Pankaj Kapur, Ritika Anand and Piyush Mishra — for supporting his vision for the films. "All the actors in my films are quite choosy with the kind of scripts they do, and the fact that they were interested to be part of my film was a sign in itself."
The film’s minimalistic approach has come in for appreciation and is a departure from the flashiness associated with the genre. A sci-fi film, JL 50 begins as an investigative thriller and has elements of family drama in it as well. Shailender is happy that such elements have been noticed. “The primary characters of JL 50 have well-conceptualised character arcs. They have a beginning, growth, and a well-rounded end. This happens gradually over the runtime, and you will find that the journey of these characters contributes to the overall journey of the film," explains Shailender, who adds that this isn't the last we will see of these characters. "The script for the sequel is ready in my head, and if enough people show interest, and the makers are ready to give me the go-ahead, then I am all for picking up where we left off.”