Astronaut Anand is all set to go to the Moon. In a thick Punjabi accent – for he is played by that most genial of beefcakes, Dara Singh – he tells his widowed mother, quietly weeping at her little puja-corner: “Dur kahaan hai, Ma? Main to aise samajh raha hoon jaise ghar se college jaa raha hoon.” (“The Moon isn’t far – it’s like I am traveling from home to college.”) Waving goodbye, he then makes the unscientific promise that if he finds some devi-devta up there in space, he will ask them to restore his mute sister’s voice.
Thus begins the hero’s journey in the 1967 movie Trip to Moon, a.k.a. Chaand Par Chadhaai. This very low-budget film (an intergalactic spaceship battle resembles a mushroom being chased around a dimly lit kitchen by a cucumber) features pseudoscience, slapstick comedy, fistfights, song-and-dance, and, two years before Neil Armstrong, some moonwalking too: Anand and his sidekick Bhagu float about until the Moon’s residents give them shoes that enable them to walk normally (and Bhagu drones, “Agar deviyan yeh nahin lagaatay, toh hum udte udte chandralok se suryalok tak pahunch jaate!”).
Chaand par Chadhaai may not be a “good” film according to our conservative definitions of such things, but it has a sense of wonder (and, pun intended, lunacy) that fits its subject. This may seem a giant leap, but I think the poet John Keats would have approved of it.
If, as Keats once remarked, scientists were diluting the poetry and magic of the rainbow by explaining it in rational terms and “reducing it to the prismatic colours”, an even more pronounced case can be made for the Moon – more visible, more central to human life. For thousands of years there was the dreamy moon of poets, lovers and fabulists; in more recent centuries there has been the moon of science, the cold, crater-ridden natural satellite. Can the twain meet?
Films have given us the answer: yes. Since cinema itself combines art and technology, it’s appropriate that this medium has supplied both these moon depictions, and others in between. In one of the first major films ever made – by a man who was artist, magician and technician at once – scientific endeavor is married to the whimsical, imaginative impulse. Georges Méliès’s 1902 Le Voyage dans la Lune has the unforgettable image of a rocket embedding itself in the eye of an animated Moon-Face (who looks none too pleased; would you be?). So what if the shot is in defiance of the basic laws of physics or space or dimension: the film, like early sci-fi literature, is driven by honest curiosity about the then-unknown.
If you believe, as I do, that different types of films talk to each other across space and time, one can imagine the alarmed Moon Man in the Méliès film looking 65 years into the future and seeing Dara Singh coming at it. But the rocket-in-eye scene (which Martin Scorsese affectionately paid tribute to in the 2011 Hugo) also had a more gruesome echo in Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali’s Un Chien Andalou – a surreal masterwork that begins with a shot of a cloud passing across the moon, juxtaposed with a razor slicing through an eyeball.
It’s more common to see the moon represented in gentle, soft terms. A famous shot in the classic silent film Sunrise shows the male lead walking through a marsh that is lit by the full moon. It’s a beautiful long take (and must have been even more so when seen in a dark hall by its first audiences), but here’s the rub: the whole setting – the marsh, the moon – was constructed. It’s fake. It turns out that films didn’t need the real moon to create a vivid impression of “moon-ness”. (Thinking about it, perhaps this realization was behind the many conspiracy theories which held that the 1969 Moon landing didn’t really happen; that the footage was created in a studio by canny filmmakers.)
Though there are more varieties of “moon films” than there are moon phases, these are the key genres: Science-fiction/Fantasy; Romance; Horror. The first of these is obvious, but even here there are subcategories: from stately, realistic sci-fi like 2001: A Space Odyssey to animated classics like the 1954 Boo Moon (Casper the Ghost goes into outer space) and the Tom and Jerry O-Solar Meow (Jerry the mouse finds heaps of delicious cheese on the Moon) to inventive B-movies such as Hercules Against the Moon Men (1964).
The Moon in romantic films is a cliché we know well in India, given the “chaudhvin ka chand” motif in our films: the comparison of the heroine’s beauty with the full moon, or even, on occasion, as something that eclipses the moon. “Chaand aahein bharega,” croons Raaj Kumar in the 1963 Phool Bane Angaaray – “even the moon will sigh at your beauty” – and Mala Sinha, made rapt by this compliment, sways about in self-love. But this seemingly hackneyed comparison can be made in subtler ways too – for every exuberant “Yeh chaand sa roshan chehra” (Kashmir ki Kali), there is something like the languid sequence in Jhoothi (1985) where Raj Babbar sings “Chanda dekhe chanda / toh chanda sharmaaye” to Rekha. This isn’t an intimate, two-person moment -- the lovers are part of a small group of people, which includes her protective elder brother, and the song isn’t so much an ode to individual beauty as to love and companionship in a general sense
Subversions of the romantic-moon trope include the “Dum bhar jo udhar munh phere” song from Raj Kapoor’s Awaara, where the moon is treated as a rude interloper, not giving the lovers privacy. Or look at the scene in the 1960 Anuradha where the heroine looks yearningly at the full moon while her doctor husband – always preoccupied with his work – studies a drop of liquid through his microscope; the scene visually links the two white spheres, representing two different sorts of passions. And it’s hers that has to make way.
Once heady romance is over and domesticity sets in, the moon serves another purpose in tradition-fetishizing films, via Karva Chauth scenes wherein the man and his long life become the focus of all attention. If such scenes can be viewed as a form of horror, the more conventional variety involves the association of the supernatural – mainly werewolves and zombies – with the full moon, in movies going back to at least the 1943 Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. But personally speaking, one of the scariest superhero-film scenes I know had a moon connect too: in Superman 2, when the sadistic General Zod and his associates kill a helpless astronaut, it’s a reminder of how bleak and lonesome the lunar setting can be, how far from home if you run into trouble.
Of the many broad observations one can make about the moon in cinema, an obvious one is the tonal difference between films that treat the moon as a faraway object – a symbol – and the ones that see it up close, even visit it. But, to return to Keats, it isn’t necessarily true that the latter type of film lacks in poetry. In the climax of Damien Chazelle’s First Man, Neil Armstrong (played by Ryan Gosling), having touched down on the lunar landscape, channels his grief – at the loss of his little daughter years earlier – in a way that he couldn’t back on earth. Alone, away from prying eyes, he bequeaths her bracelet to a crater. The place he is standing on – lifeless, greyscale – may be a far cry from the romantic moon of myth, but the emotions are just as real as those felt by two new lovers looking up at the full moon from the home planet.