Presenting papers

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Seventh Sense and Technological Nationalism: Watching Global SF Film Doing Postcolonial Theory

Kavita Philip / Geeta Patel / Ward Smith

This paper reads a recent Indian SF blockbuster, Seventh Sense [Ezhaam Arivu (Tamil; 2011)]. Produced by the Tamil film industry (part of the polycentric Indian film production circuit, which includes Mumbai’s Bollywood), it stars two young Tamil-film stars and a Vietnamese-Californian martial artist, with special effects produced by a US studio. The plot moves rapidly: temporally shifting from the 6th to the 21st century, skipping from martial arts to biowarfare, and stretching spatially from China to the biotechnology labs of Chennai, via streetdogs and a small-town circus.

Seventh Sense announces the place of the global in the local at the level of production and plot. Despite nods to changing gendered conventions in the casting of the female lead as a geneticist, however, the plot turns around conventional tropes of race, gender and nationalism. Unlike earlier Indian SF film, such as Krrish (Hindi; 2008), its nationalism is located in specific notions of Tamil identity, rather than in some universalized Hindu/Indian ethos. The plot entangles the local and the global, with science and technology characterizing both, but through different socialities. The street scenes re-craft classic SF film stagings such as Bladerunner’s chase scenes. The climactic battle between hero and villain is a spectacularly choreographed martial arts scene in which the hero’s escape entails a detailed knowledge of local bus routes, and a casual comfort with the busy streets of a postcolonial city that the globally-mobile villain lacks.

The plot, woven around a fantasy of genetic continuity and resurgence over the centuries, envisions the creation of a superman from small-town stock, which has preserved all that was good within the Tamil psyche, uncorrupted by modernity. Science and Technology, whose infrastructure shine in long shots of Chennai’s Adyar and OMR areas (home to numerous research institutes and scientific labs), are personified in the attractive-but-incomplete persona of the woman who, initially seduced by a love of science for its own sake, comes to see how it might be more appropriately used in a program of linguistic and racial re-assertion for the Tamil people.

What does it mean for a film so wide-ranging in technique and style to rework long-sedimented narratives of the Tamil nation, the re-masculinized, formerly-emasculated male, and a Chinese “threat” to Indian identity? Like Hollywood SF, Global SF film is shaped by historical legacies and their contemporary resonances. India’s war with China in 1962, and their growing economic rivalry in the 21st century, bracket the historical context in which audiences received this film in 2011.

Seventh Sense sets the stage for the deployment of futuristic technological narratives as a mode of nationalist re-imagining of postcolonial futurity. Comparison with Hollywood SF helps us understand the ways in which nationalist identities are co-produced with popular understandings of science. A comparison of Seventh Sense with emerging Indian science fiction writing highlights a different set of questions. Not a block-buster genre, SF writing, as compared with film, is still a space for critical, progressive imaginations. We close with speculations across genres and nations.