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That Time Dara Singh Went to the Moon Before Neil Armstrong Did…

That Time Dara Singh Went to the Moon Before Neil Armstrong Did…

Dara Singh went to the moon two years before Neil Armstrong. While Armstrong went of his own volition, Singh was… well, kidnapped. There was one more difference: Armstrong did this in real life, Singh on a 70-mm screen. In 1967, when NASA had tripped over the failures of Apollo 1 – the first crewed mission to the Moon never took off; three astronauts died during a test – the people doing the actual tripping were the cast and crew of Chand Par Chadayee, starring Singh, Anwar Hussain, G. Ratna and Padma Khanna.

On the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11’s Moon-landing, and Chandrayaan 2’s imminent liftoff, Chand Par Chadayee, with its numerous flights of fancy, merits different kinds of intrigue: cinematic, philosophical, sociological. What was going on in the mind of its director, T.P. Sundaram? Turns out, plenty. Right from the scene where Captain Anand (Singh) enters the movie wearing a spacesuit, you know you’re in for something special. But intent is one thing, extent quite another. In the next scene, Anand is wearing a hat and a suit, driving a luxury car. By the end of the next scene, he is semi-naked, fighting a bunch of goons. Most films rely on editing to convey the passage of time; Chand Par Chadayee is a delicious anomaly: all it needs is Singh’s sartorial transformation.

There is much here, however, that boggles the mind and delights the heart. Anand’s friend and sidekick, Bhagu (Bhagwan), is desperate to go to the moon. He tells Anand that it is known for “hoor, noor, aur angoor“. Anand is a gentleman; he shuts Bhagu up. Chand Par Chadayee is science fiction with a twist. It is a film that has extraterrestrial life – an entire kingdom on the Moon – but no aliens; they’re simply humans talking in an Urdu-heavy Hindustani. (Their head of state and the film’s villain is addressed as “Wazeer-e-Azam”.)

A poster for Dara Singh’s Chand Par Chadayee (‘Trip to Moon’), 1967. Photo: YouTube

The bizarreness escalates by the minute. The Moon’s inhabitants kidnap Anand and Bhagu. As they alight from the spaceship (shaped like a spinning top with an eating disorder), both of them do a moonwalk of sorts (Michael Jackson was nine years old then): Anand, wobbly and worried, lifts his left leg, suspends it in the air for a good 10 seconds and then puts it down. Same for the right leg. Ditto Bhagu, in the background, who is also skipping and hugging the air. They’re swaying, leaning into each other, and you’re rubbing your eyes in disbelief.

After they’re given new soles to wear, they’re trialled in a court on the Moon, which is nothing but another room in the studio, where the entire film seems to have been shot. Their crime? “Your race has made an atom bomb! You want to colonise us!” In no time, Anand is wrestling a gorilla in an arena, in front of people. (Gladiator would release 33 years later.) He wins and becomes a hit among the women of the Moon. Two of them dance in a competition to win him over. When the retro Nach Baliye is unable to adjudge a winner, the women fight with swords. Chand Par Chadayee also holds the distinction for the best pejorative in a Hindi movie: “Zameen-zaade”.

Hindi cinema isn’t known for a lot of science fiction. It took a Mr India (1987) for the genre to get some mainstream recognition. And space operas, in particular, have been nearly nonexistent, legitimised by – who would have thought – a Harman Baweja movie, Love Story 2050 (2008). But 1967 was a remarkable year. Besides Chand Par Chadayee, it had another science fiction movie, Wahan Ke Log. Centred on Hindi-speaking, diamond-stealing Martians, the movie features, among notable others, laser guns, three-fingered aliens, “flying saucers” and a “khoofiya” pen whose message can only be read by subjecting the paper to flame. But unlike Chand Par Chadayee, the film remains on Earth; it is the aliens who have come calling.

Chand Par Chadayee, however, is easily the most fascinating movie of the lot. Its list of bizarreness doesn’t stop. Scenes compete among themselves to stand out. At the end, you’re hard pressed for an answer. Was it the moonwalk or the song-and-dance face-off? Or that song where a bunch of women dance above clouds, with glowing parachutes affixed to their necks? Or that scene where sunglasses double up as a monitor? Or the one where Anand flies in the air with a rocket on his back? Or the one where a flabby rhinoceros makes a random guest appearance in the climax and fights with Singh? Or the one… in fact, you know what, why don’t you decide for yourself?

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