Given the perduring distance between Bollywood and Hollywood, two of the largest and most prolific film industries in the world, the recent release of the Bollywood film Koi Mil Gaya, loosely based on Steven Spielberg’s science fiction classic, E.T. the Extraterrestrial, provides an excellent opportunity to compare this most current of Bollywood products to the original, a classic of contemporary American cinema, re-edited and re-released on its 20th anniversary last year. What is striking about the comparison is how different the films manage to be, despite sharing all essential plot elements. Placing these two versions of one story side by side thus helps elucidate the different tropes through which Hollywood and Bollywood succeed in capturing popular desire (and making a buck off it) and in particular, the heroes they construct to do so. The bittersweet paths we see boys take to become men in both E.T. and Koi Mil Gaya express more than anything the anxieties which underlie the norms of adult manhood in both contexts. It is these anxieties which the films work to release, by resurrecting the ancient hope of the hero who can overcome the dreadful binds we all fear to be caught in.
It is indeed a testament to the imagination of Koi Mil Gaya’s film makers that they could take such highly atypical material – a science fiction tale of an abandoned alien and the lonely boy who helps him make contact with his home world – and Bollywoodize it. And Bollywoodize they did! Adding a romantic story line, six songs, an hour to the plot-line, and an ending that thankfully did not involve flying bicycles, motorbikes, or pedal scooters (as it easily might have), but did involve a certain volume of tears shed, a space ship landing and taking off, and the reassurance from our alien friend that “he would be there, watching over” our hero forever, Koi Mil Gaya is nonetheless a profoundly different film from the original. While both movies tell a story about childhood, families, and bridging these, about the struggle to be a man, they reveal very different children, families and men. Both are designed as family entertainment, which distinguishes them from other blockbusters of male adventure. Not only do they include women in major roles, but they show us heroism at its sweetest, i.e., when performed by boys, who we are supposed to love for their innocence and vulnerability as much as for their power. The sweetness of the boy is what excuses the violence of the man he becomes; it is what marks out our heroes as heroes in the first place. The emotional requirements of the central figures is what motivates their friendships with the aliens in both films, and it is this relationship which then forces them to act within a world which opposes and threatens it.
Both films are thus coming-of-age stories marked by a certain nostalgia for boyhood and its mysteries, even if in both films, growing up is marked by loss as well as gain. But this trajectory is presented as inescapable. The hero must save his alien – and willingly participate in his own separation from what he loves – or else his newfound friend will die. Adulthood thus makes irrefutable demands. One of these demands is the self-sacrifice of love, an interesting metaphor for manhood. The films thus conscript us into the grand adventure of becoming a man but they place, at its centre, a wound. Koi Mil Gaya nonetheless ameliorates that wound with an entire social realm and the possibilities of manhood – love and family and power – whereas E.T. concludes only with its young hero’s tear-streaked face, looking up at the stars. This makes one movie a triumph and the other a tragedy, even if neither entirely and without ambivalence.
The plots centre on a family which has lost its father and the boy who has to struggle with this absence. In E.T., the boy, Elliott, played by Henry Thomas, is a very ordinary kid: a prepubescent middle son, overshadowed by his older brother, solicitous towards his younger sister and distant from his mother in the absence of his dad. In Koi Mil Gaya, on the other hand, the hero, Rohit, played by Hrithik Roshan (the son of the director, Rakesh Roshan, who also plays his father), is instead a man-child, forever stunted mentally by the accident which saw his father’s death and which resulted directly from an earlier visit of the alien spaceship to Earth. He is a large man, if skinny, and for the first half of the film the contrast between his size and those of his classmates and compatriots is highlighted to great effect. If the pathos here is visually written in the contrast between Rohit’s largeness and his childish clothes, behaviour, possessions, the pathos of the original is Elliott’s smallness. Elliott is constantly being placed in adult situations and practices he is not quite ready for – getting drunk, kissing a girl, directing the van his brother Mike drives to get E.T. away from his captors, the state scientists. It is the charm of his size which makes these adventures so appealing, a common theme in American movies and one of the reasons child actors have such difficulty when they grow up. The cinema finds touching the figure of the child too wise for its years, signalling perhaps recognition on the part of Hollywood’s filmmakers of how immature and incapable even the largest can feel in industrial society. Whereas in Koi Mil Gaya, Rohit captures the spoils of victory with the tools of youth and with the help of his youthful compatriots but he is always, visually, a man doing so. While E.T. speaks of the necessity of growing up, fast, Koi Mil Gaya resurrects the possibility of the boy in the heart of the man, even, by the end of the movie, in the bulgingly muscled, tight-pants-wearing sex symbol, Hrithik Roshan.
The difference in our heroes is paralleled by a difference in their histories. In Koi Mil Gaya, we find ourselves set down in a world of return and recurrence and in a family which is the site of the extraordinary. Rohit is marked from before his birth with the legacy of a tragic past. His father, we learn in the opening scenes, was the space scientist who first discovered the means to communicate with the aliens and drew them to Earth. While driving home from a visit to the Space Agency (filled with foreign and comprador Indian scientists, who laugh and insult him for making up his discovery) he sees the spaceship that he has called to Earth, that vindicates his work. In his wonder – and perhaps victory? – he pays insufficient attention to his driving and crashes the car, killing himself and throwing Rohit’s mother on her stomach, which injures her foetus and leads to Rohit’s arrested mental development. Therefore the return of the aliens signals not only the redemption of the son, through their gift to him of special powers and intelligence, but also the redemption of the father, through the son, and of the family itself. It is in many ways divine payback that Rohit becomes a man who can outwit those very scientists who once ridiculed his father and who can return the alien safely to his spaceship, and hence deprive them of what they, too late, desire: the knowledge the father once freely offered.
Elliott in contrast is an entirely normal boy in an entirely normal family which, although shattered from within, is not fateful like Rohit’s. The reason the father has left is never made clear. Like the child, we are in the realm of the present, alone with the inconsolable fact of the given. More importantly, the family is not connected in any way to the coming of the alien spaceship: this is not a case of predestination, of divine interconnection, of the mysteries of hereditary and family repeating an unfulfilled past. Rohit, in Koi Mil Gaya, plays the song his mother taught him as a young boy – the song she learnt from her husband – to call the aliens back to Earth, in an unknowing but nonetheless overdetermined recital of his long-dead father. But, E.T. enters our small hero’s world by luck. Indeed, the point about Elliott is his lack of specialness, his anonymity in a suburbia in which each house looks, and we see shots several times to remind us, exactly alike. Elliott’s only mark of distinction is his possession of an alien. He himself understands this well. When it becomes clear that E.T. must go back to his planet, Elliott resists. “He came to ME! He came to ME!” More than the alien per se, that the alien found HIM, and not only that, loves him, saves him from his insignificance.
The families in the two films are very different as well. In Koi Mil Gaya, it provides the safety from the storm which lies outside, the larger social world Rohit must, but cannot quite, inhabit. Rohit’s mother, played marvellously by the experienced actress Rekha, is a wise and benevolent guide who wants only the best for her son and who accepts the alien once she understands the role he plays in her son’s transformation. But in Spielberg’s E.T., the storm lives within. Elliott’s father, during the movie, is vacationing in Mexico with his new girlfriend; a fact that, when Elliott brings it up, reduces his mom to tears. It is unclear here where Elliott’s sympathies lie. Mike, his older brother, takes it upon himself to protect his mother. Elliott, by far the youngest and smallest of all the boys, is more concerned with his place in the children’s pecking order. His mom (played by Dee-Wallace Stone), who the kids call Mary, in Spielberg’s comment on modern American family mores, is a distant figure. She is incapable of participating in the central adventure (Mary quite literally fails to see E.T. even when he is right before her eyes) and is not sufficiently powerful to protect her kids from either the intrusion of the alien or the also mysterious but far more threatening violation of the state and its scientists, who take over the family’s house towards the end of the film despite her threats and protestations.
In one movie therefore, heroism involves a certain alienation from the family, or at least the mother, who cannot understand the banality of the miraculous before her (much humour is made of E.T.’s domestication, his encounter and entanglement in the very ordinary stuff of family life). In the other, heroism serves in the name of and as the resurrection of the family. In the former, it requires the demarcation of the individual outside of the domestic world, but in the latter, the hero is reconnected to a lineage of descent and meaning in which he must find his place. And in both, this implicates larger society as well, insofar as it is the problem within the family in both films which forces Rohit and Elliott onto their own devices and out into the world. But these worlds are very different.
In E.T. the Extraterrestrial, the relationship between home and society is portrayed as one of synecdoche, the part standing in for the whole, whereas in Koi Mil Gaya, home and world are connected causally, interrelationally. The family in one mimics society; the family in the other stands within it, is made up and penetrated by it, dependent upon it and eventually redeemed by it. In Elliott’s story, the family is not connected to a social world in which inside and outside interpenetrate, but representative of a world in which the alienation at home signals only a larger social alienation. The secrecy Elliott is required to maintain before his mother he is also required to maintain before the state and scientists who hunt and eventually find his alien. Neither his mother nor the state understands themselves to be his adversary. But Elliott perceives them in their adulthood, to be profoundly dangerous to the mystery of E.T. The good intentions of adults are not enough to overcome their ultimate insufficiency and betrayal, because adults in this film are the repositories of loss. Indeed, the scientists who eventually track E.T. down, and watch him die think they are saviours (although failed ones). The nameless man who has been shadowing the boy and the alien throughout the movie congratulates Elliott on his care of E.T., and tells him he could not have done it better – that he too has been wishing for this since he was ten years old. But, “What more could we do that we are not doing already?” he asks. The scientists in fact arrive too late to manage to do much at all. E.T.’s sickness is not after all the fault of the state or its scientists but a condition of his estrangement from his true home. It is simply their cold, adult reason – the reason that says death is final, that there is no magic, that science is the only hope – that must be avoided. This classic Spielbergian theme is nonetheless dark, insofar as the magic he shows us cannot redeem the larger world; it can only make it bearable, and then fly away.
In the face of an authority which tries to do well but can only do harm, the child is left with nothing but his own determination. The failure of the mother to protect her home is only a larger indication of her failure, to understand what lives within it. Even as it resurrects the essential necessity of home (‘E.T. go home’ the central mantra of the movie), E.T. the Extraterrestrial destroys the sanctity of domestic and social authority. Elliott’s relationship with E.T., his truest source of intimacy and emotional connection, is doomed to lie in the stars, outside the realm of the known and the familiar. Home is that which one is bound to, but it cannot contain one’s true desires.
The family does what it can, coming together at the climax of the film, to bid E.T. goodbye. Mary, crying, looks from afar at her child watching his alien partner walk away and we are meant to celebrate how the adventure has brought everyone closer together. But this closeness is predicated on the essential independence of the child from the mother, his need of something which is not found at home, indeed, which cannot live on Earth itself. Manhood here is about breaking away from the smothering realm of the domestic to find one’s own true self, a theme repeated over and over in Hollywood, but not through external break but inner. It is as such about the development of a private life. In the face of an alienating society and the inevitable loss of that which he most truly connected with, Elliott has no option but to retreat into the private realm of meaning and memory, the deep inside of intimacy, and to protect this at all costs from the world of adult reason.
If one were to understand Elliott therefore to be left at the end of the film with the memory of his amazing adventure and with the comfort of E.T. looking down on him, nonetheless his life has not structurally changed. E.T. is not about external transformation but about inner. Elliott is forced inward by manhood; while Rohit is pushed outward. One would go so far as to say that the alien in the Spielberg film represents the essential ‘alienness’ of society, whereas the alien in Koi Mil Gaya represents exactly the opposite: the possibility of reconnection with it. Elliott’s relationship with E.T. is an essentially private story. The plot as it unfolds takes place within the protected, and then clearly violated, realm of the house. Meanwhile the connection between boy and alien is an interior one. What transfers from E.T. to Elliott is his experience and emotion, not his powers. But Jadoo functions in Rohit’s life to transform his position in the social order through the gift of very visible magic, strength and intelligence. Koi Mil Gaya takes place to a great deal outside, in the public spaces of the hill-station Rohit lives in, and among those he loves, competes with and overcomes.
Rohit’s problem is that of the reproduction of the family; this drives him out of the nest to prove himself. He is the only child; his retardation makes the continuation of the family impossible. Only after he meets the alien, who he names Jadoo, or magic, can he gain his adulthood and his virility and capture the hand of Nisha, the love interest, played well if rather blandly by Preity Zinta. The intelligence and magical strength Jadoo gives him allow Rohit to take his place socially, in the competition of manhood which is the struggle for respect and marriage as it is portrayed here. This is a profoundly public competition: Rohit shows off his stuff on the dance floor, in the classes and playground of the school, and most extensively during the true climax of the movie which takes place not in the escape of Jadoo from Earth, but on the basketball court. The goondas who combat and make fun of Rohit, and most essentially, their leader, Raj Saxena (played by Rajat Bedi), who competes for Nisha’s hand, face Rohit and his young friends in a basketball match whose prize is a kiss. That Nisha has not been consulted on this particular question is not an issue here; she participates willingly, sitting on the side of her hero in clear echo of an earlier occasion when she cheered his opponent to victory. With Jadoo’s help, good triumphs, the people applaud, the magic used to achieve this ignored or accepted for what it is and, Rohit kisses the girl – who he will, we understand, eventually take home. The climax at the end of the film, when Rohit almost single-handedly rescues Jadoo from the clutches of the state and returns him to his spaceship, signals the full maturation of his powers as a hero. But the film itself ends in a far different place than Spielberg’s: not with the departure of the alien but with a shot of Rohit and Nisha, walking away hand in hand. This is the true victory.
World and the home
The larger political world of the two films is thus very different as well. Both films are sceptical of authority, to a degree, and paint the state and its scientists in unflattering terms. Boyhood would not be boyhood without a moral quest and in both films, that moral quest is to protect the magic of what is unexplained and mysterious from a kind of authority that seeks to know, in order to control. Dramatic tension is built though the race is to evade the state and its blazing glare of light – a glare that will extinguish the very thing it seeks to find. The faceless scientist who tracks E.T. from the very beginning of the film is the one true enemy, and we, the audience, all know this well. This is also but to a lesser extent true in the Bollywood version, when Raj takes up a lot more screen time. The state is rather bumbling and late on the scene and anyway, in a very nice take on neo-liberal India, is already in the pocket of capital – the developers of the up-market hill station, who think the discovery of extraterrestrial life would be a boon for business. This scheme is cooked up, not coincidentally enough, by Raj’s father, one of the major investors in the hill station. State reason is thus not an inhuman force but plays into human and very familiar power struggles which have far more to do with money than with science.
It is for this reason that Koi Mil Gaya is far more violent than E.T. and also far more hopeful. In a more human and social world, confrontation is inevitable but victory is possible. Although both stories tell a child’s fantasy of the triumph of the small over the large via the sudden gift of extraordinary powers, these reach very different ends: Rohit gets to keep his magic, in the end, and the social achievements, most noticeably Nisha, that he has acquired. Elliott does not. If one were to sum up the Hollywood version, it would be to say that it is about how one becomes a man through individuation and repression – through the exquisite pain of loving enough to let go, and knowing enough to keep this inside. Whereas Koi Mil Gaya, suggests that the innocent too may be powerful, that good itself can also triumph. Like many Bollywood films, it is a paean to the beauty of this Earth – the song sequences showing doves and beautiful mountains and a beautiful girl – and a tale which still keeps possible the hope of social victory. Rohit, at the end, may be sad to see his alien friend leave him, but he is not bereft. He has proved his heroism, he has gotten his girl. His love is neither dangerous nor fragile. It must simply be defended, from the outside rather than within. Spielberg’s E.T. can be grouped with a plethora of children’s classic mourning the demystification of the world. But if Koi Mil Gaya presents us with a predicament and an adventure, it leaves us with the possibility of a healed world from which magic has not departed.
There is something very sad about how alienating the portrayal of home and the world is in E.T., one of the most famous and beloved of American childhood fantasies. All the advanced wonders of Hollywood are on display here and Spielberg leads the story to a firm and rousing conclusion. And yet its hero, the little boy Elliott, is an expression of wishes that do not get fulfilled outside the movie hall and of a suspicion of authority that places meaning always outside the realm of the social. The Spielbergian injunction to dream is also a suggestion of the fundamental disappointment of the world outside of dreams. American audiences have been presented with a tale in which they can mourn yet again the loss of magic from the world as they know it. Meanwhile Indian audiences are being sold – and are buying – a story in which they empathise with and redeem the tough guy, not because he is tough but because deep in his heart he is a little child, an innocent boy, someone worthy of love. It is not magic that we watch disappear but the innocence of the boy. And yet the audience is not supposed to mourn. The coming into adulthood presented here is an exciting and hopeful passage which leads to something beyond itself, which indeed makes the social itself possible.
One still confesses to loving E.T., and to a lesser extent – for it is less daring in its form – Koi Mil Gaya as well. The movies depict male love and men’s vulnerability in the face of love as a productive, generative force. They present hegemonic males, males who act, who connive, who win and save the day, but they reveal these hegemonic figures to be, in reality, young boys imagining themselves into men as we watch. The films offer us forgiveness for men – for the violence and stupidity of those they fight, mirror, become (it is of course a separate question whether or not we should give it). But they provide no alternatives. Manhood in both is a necessity, imposed from outside. It cannot be avoided, or else love itself will die. The sacrifice at the centre is what keeps both stories sweet, and perhaps also terrible. Both reveal a terrible truth: that it is hard to grow up as a man. Even if that occludes so many other terrible truths, it is still one that is important to remember.