Found in Translation

How Wahan Ke Log Smuggled Sci-Fi Into India

The trailblazing alien-invasion movie wrapped itself in the trappings of an even more popular genre.

Wahan Ke Log movie
Inverse/Bundelkhand Films
Found in Translation

“The aliens!” a skeptical character scoffs in the opening moments of Bollywood’s earliest sci-fi efforts. The object of his derision: a newspaper headline reporting rumors of UFOs in India. Minutes later, he’ll be dead. A mysterious assailant, pointedly left off-screen, will soon visit the doomed man as if in divine retribution – with only its scaly, three-fingered hand lingering in view, clutching a smoking “laser ray” weapon.

The 1967 Hindi-language film Wahan Ke Log stands apart precisely because it seems to understand this early victim’s cynicism.

As if fully aware that depictions of extraterrestrials were a risky bet, having only just begun to invade the furthest reaches of mainstream Indian cinema, director Nisar Ahmed Ansari took the rather prescient approach of grounding the plot in easily digestible trappings. The influences of genre classics like You Only Live Twice and season 2 of Star Trek: The Original Series, both of which debuted that same year, can be seen in how Wahan Ke Log takes full advantage of rampant James Bond-fever and Star Trek mania alike.

It’s no coincidence that the script mainly focuses on a suave secret agent pitted against a mustache-twirling supervillain with a hidden lair (all he’s missing is Dr. No’s distinctive black gloves), nor that the Martians’ main goals might as well be ripped right out of Gene Roddenberry’s quirky imagination. The villains’ downright street-level ambition manifests itself as a series of heists targeting the familiar Star Trek trope of natural resources (in this case, diamonds) instead of, say, attempting world domination. Even the movie’s title, which translates to “People From Out There” or “The Others,” hints at a far less fantastical climax than viewers may have anticipated.

Yet even as it carefully tosses audiences into the shallowest end of the sci-fi pool, Wahan Ke Log proves to be an integral stepping stone in South Asian genre filmmaking by paving the way for much grander concepts in the decades to come.

Poster art for Wahan Ke Log.

Bundelkhand Films

After a daring opening sequence, complete with low-budget effects of a flying saucer zipping around the city skyline, the script makes a tactical retreat from hard sci-fi to the more familiar world of secret agents and spycraft. We meet Central Intelligence agent Rakesh (popular heartthrob Pradeep Kumar), who wears his devil-may-care attitude just as well as his finely-tailored suit and various gadgets (like a fountain pen that writes in invisible ink and, as a last resort, even fires a single bullet).

Rakesh accepts his mission to meet up with a well-respected professor and Oppenheimer-like figure named Chakravorthy (portrayed by director Nisar Ahmed Ansari), who has devised a machine to spy on extraterrestrial visitors. But as bodies and UFO sightings keep piling up, suspicion falls on Chakravorthy’s insolent son Anil (also played by Ansari, sans beard and wig), who secretly leads an organization of pro-alien humans called the Syndicate and will stop at nothing to turn his father’s invention into a weapon of mass destruction.

It’s a fascinating exercise to watch Wahan Ke Log with the benefit of hindsight, as Ansari practically forges the mold in real-time that would eventually lead to more exuberant sci-fi hits such as Aditya 369 and Enthiran in the future. The film constantly attempts to balance its varying tones, fine-tuning exactly how much leeway a skeptical audience would afford this bold and pioneering trendsetter. Despite the filmmaker’s best efforts, however, it wasn’t always a winning battle. The box office performance upon release has been lost to time, but all indications point towards a B-movie cult classic whose reputation took decades to grow in appreciation.

One glance at the plot and its climactic twist explains why.

Wahan Ke Log borrows as much from James Bond as it does Star Trek.

Bundelkhand Films

Although the larger conflict involving the Martians gets sidetracked by musical numbers, a femme fatale named Anita (Tanuja Samarth), and plenty of James Bond hijinks, Wahan Ke Log’s final act refocuses on the mounting crisis and the political metaphor represented by the aliens. Intel reaches Rakesh of another impending diamond heist that, naturally, he intends to thwart by laying a trap. This goes horribly awry, leading to Anita’s abduction, the looming threat of Anil detonating his superweapon, and certain victory for our newfound extraterrestrial overlords.

Or does it? The ultimate rug-pulling moment is saved for last, when it’s revealed that the “alien invasion” is anything but. Anil orchestrated the entire conspiracy as a ruse, whipping the nation into a panic (thanks in no small part to his fleet of “UFOs,” which were really jet fighters in disguise) so that his real intentions – a mad plot aided by an unnamed foreign superpower, focused on population control and survival of the fittest – could be implemented in secrecy. Audiences at the time undoubtedly would’ve thought of recent conflicts between India’s nervous neighbors China and Pakistan throughout the mid-1960s, armed skirmishes that arose over disputed border territory and prompted mass fears of imminent invasion.

The alien invasion begins...

Bundelkhand Films

Although the film ends on a high note when an extended action sequence sees Rakesh and his ragtag team of do-gooders rescue Anita while the Indian military defeats Anil and his Syndicate forces, it’s easy to imagine audience members at the time divided over such a twist. From a contemporary point of view, one can’t help but admire the sheer subversiveness of rendering the film’s entire sci-fi billing a moot point in favor of blatant political commentary. Yet in terms of actually committing to its chosen genre, especially at a time when skeptical moviegoers likely needed to be won over by something much more straightforward, the last-minute shocker leaves a bit to be desired.

Overall, Wahan Ke Log is a fascinating genre curio that still manages to entertain to this day. Come for the unmistakably old-fashioned perspective on aliens. Stay for the audacious twist. And revel in the idiosyncratic blend of romance, spy thriller, and science fiction that has simply never been recreated since.

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