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The convergent evolution of fiction

As incredulous as it seems, a curious set of coincidences tie Terminator, Doraemon and Umro Ayyar together

By Farrukh Kamrani |
PUBLISHED February 21, 2021

Picture this premise. You go about your life in routine fashion completely unaware of a catastrophe you are destined to suffer. That is until someone from the future whose fate is tied to yours sends back a robot to protect you. Safeguarding you from that impending disaster will change the life of your future benefactor for the better. But in choosing the right robot saviour, the latter must account for his or her own constraints. The only automaton he or she can send back is an outdated or defective one in the context of that point in time.

Now here is a question. In which piece of popular culture was this premise explored for the first time?

If you answer with James Cameron’s Terminator series – the 1991 blockbuster sequel Terminator 2: Judgement Day to be precise – then you would actually be very wrong. Before Cameron perhaps even conceived of the idea, it was already in serial publication far from American shores. Coincidentally, the same premise provides the back-story for the immensely popular Doraemon franchise, which first appeared as a manga series in 1970.

This leads to another question. Did Cameron lift or gain ‘inspiration’ for Terminator 2 from a Japanese series that has now captivated the imagination of children around the world? Or is it pure serendipity – two minds at different points in time hitting upon similar ideas?

We can obviously not rule out the first idea. It would not be the first time Hollywood has been ‘inspired’ by Japanese media. From the Lion King to the Matrix, there are countless curious coincidences in the history of American media.

On the other hand, here is another interesting detail about the character of Doraemon, the earless robotic cat that has come from the 22nd century to help Nobita Nobi, a lazy boy who scores poor grades and is frequently bullied by his classmates.

Doraemon has a four-dimensional pouch in which he stores a seemingly infinite number of unexpected gadgets, which he uses to help Nobita. This pouch, though of the size of a pocket, can contain things several times bigger and heavier than the robot.

The idea of such a pouch seemingly first appeared the two most famous Urdu romances, Dastan-e-Amir Hamza and Tilism-e-Hoshruba, as the ‘zanbeel’ of one of the comic protagonists of the story – Amr Ayyar, more popularly known as Umro Ayyar.

While Dastan-e-Amir Hamza is most likely based on older Persian and Arabic stories, the Tilism-e-Hoshruba is a uniquely Urdu narrative of epic proportions. Unlike other stories from the East, like Alf Laila, both these romances have been hidden from outside cultures for most of their history. It was only in the last decade that Musharraf Ali Farooqi translated Tilism-e-Hoshruba into English and published its initial parts.

Whether true or false, the idea that Cameron picked the premise for Terminator 2 from Doraemon is still plausible. But perhaps it would be a stretch to accuse Doraemon’s creator Fujiko Fujio of using Umro Ayyar’s miraculous zanbeel, which sometimes contains an army of people, as an inspiration for his eponymous robot’s four-dimensional pouch. With how limited exposure Tilism-e-Hoshruba has had outside of the Indo-Islamic world, that notion seems to border impossibility.

Let us turn our attention to another compelling yet commonly explored premise in popular media. An infiltrator, usually a soldier or spy, from an exploitative imperialistic power gains access to the ranks of any faction or force. As he or she works to win their trust, he or she has a change of heart. Developing sympathy and camaraderie with group he has infiltrated, the infiltrator comes to recognise the cruelty and injustice of his own people. He or she ultimately switches allegiances and becomes the hero of the oppressed he or she was sent to subvert. The infiltrator becomes a ‘reverse Trojan Horse’ in a manner of speaking.

Most audiences nowadays will recognise this trope as the plot of another of James Cameron’s blockbusters – 2009’s Avatar. With some variations, the idea has been central to 2003’s Tom Cruise starrer The Last Samurai and 1990’s western Dances with Wolves, which feature Kevin Costner. With a few more tweaks, the same idea also resembles the plots of the first Fast and the Furious film, as well as Point Blank.

Were Avatar and The Last Samurai rip-offs of Dances with Wolves? One might reply in affirmative in the case of the former at least, even though Cameron won against a lawsuit in 2013 that claimed he had plagiarised the idea for the movie.

One may hypothesise that both Avatar and The Last Samurai were inspired not by the 1990 film but by Michael Blake’s eponymous novel Dance with Wolves that was published two years before.

But what if the above idea had already been presented in an Indian movie years before the publication of Blake’s novel? If you doubt this claim, recall the basic story of Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s 1973 Namak Haram – a term used in Urdu for a traitor. The film, co-written by Gulzar, focuses on two friends, Somu and Vicky.

To avenge the fact that Vicky is insulted by the union leader of his factory, Somu infiltrates the factory as a worker and later the trade union as its leader. However, Somu is moved by the plight of the workers and is influenced by their ideals, which leads to a confrontation between the two friends.

There is no doubt that entertainment industries like to copy and regurgitate ideas to provide a steady stream of content. With the high stakes involved in terms of finances and logistics, it is simply an expedient way to guarantee success.

That said, the creative process could also lead two or more individuals with no knowledge of each other down the same path. Perhaps André Gide was right when he claimed, “everything that needs to be said has already been said. But since no one was listening, it must be said again.” Whatever cultural differences may exist, many facets of the human condition are common to all of us across regions and history.

It is said even nature itself seems to express the same as ‘convergent evolution’ – the independent evolution of similar features in species of different periods or geographically isolated regions. Perhaps all life is simply hardwired to repeat some set patterns?

It still fails to lift my doubts on James Cameron’s originality.