Astronaut Anand is 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, 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 travelling 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 Chand Par Chadayee (Trip to Moon). 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. It may not be “good cinema” by conservative definitions, 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, an even stronger case can be made for the moon. 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 most celebrated early films, the 1902 Le Voyage dans la Lune — by Georges Méliès, who was artist, magician and technician at once — scientific endeavour is married to the whimsical, imaginative impulse. The unforgettable image of a rocket embedding itself in the eye of an animated Moon-Face (who looks none too pleased; would you be?) defies the laws of physics or dimension — but the film, like early sci-fi literature, is driven by an honest curiosity about the then-unknown.
One can imagine this alarmed Moon Man looking 65 years into the future and seeing Dara Singh coming at it. But the rocket-in-eye scene (which Martin Scorsese paid tribute to in the 2011 Hugo) also has a more gruesome echo in Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali’s Un Chien Andalou (1929) — 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 distant moon represented in gentle, soft terms. A famous shot in the silent classic Sunrise (1927) has the male lead walking through a marsh lit by the full moon. It’s a beautiful long take, but here’s the rub: the whole setting was constructed. It’s fake. Films didn’t need the real moon to create a vivid impression of “moon-ness”. (Thinking about it, perhaps this realisation was behind the many conspiracy theories that claimed that the moon-landing 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 (1968) to animated classics like O-Solar Meow (1967) featuring Tom and Jerry (in which 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: the comparison of the heroine’s beauty with the full moon, or as something that eclipses the moon. “Chaand aahein bharega,” croons Raaj Kumar in Phool Bane Angaare (1963) — even the moon will sigh at your beauty — and Mala Sinha, made rapt by this compliment, sways in self-love. But this comparison can be made in subtler ways too — for every exuberant Yeh chaand sa roshan chehra (Kashmir Ki Kali, 1964), there is something like the languid sequence in Jhoothi (1985) where Raj Babbar sings Chanda dekhe chanda 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 (1951), where the moon is treated as a rude interloper, not giving the lovers privacy. Or look at the scene in Anuradha (1960), 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-fetishising 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, (2018), 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 hundreds of thousands of miles away.