Since Bollywood doesn’t do an awful lot of films on rocket science, it’s obvious that the filmmaker who’s helming one of the first films on the subject would feel the need for oversimplification.
In the Vidya Balan-Akshay Kumar starrer Mission Mangal, a feel-good entertainer, director Jagan Shakti truncates complex scientific jargon into accessible, bite-sized dialogue to ensure the viewer doesn’t get lost in the complex trajectory of India’s mission to Mars which it successfully completed its maiden attempt, a first for any country.
Featuring an ensemble cast, Mission Mangal, like the Mars mission, understands the economy of time and clocks a little over two hours, delivering a compressed chronology of how a small team of scientists from the Indian Space and Research Organisation (ISRO) fought several hurdles, both financial and moral, to send a satellite to Mars, by doing what one can be conventionally understood as jugaad.
Set at the ISRO headquarters in Bengaluru, the film’s central idea of hustling and overcoming space-sized obstacles through tact and inventiveness is massively relatable and leaves you with a satisfying, feel-good vibe although the way one reaches there could’ve been more fulfilling had the story been told with more deftness.
Akshay Kumar plays Rakesh Dhawan, the mission director who works with Vidya Balan’s Tara Shinde. Though her senior, together they lead a motley bunch of scientists that include Eka Gandh (Sonakshi Sinha), Kritika Aggarwal (Taapsee Pannu), Varsha Pillai (Nithya Menen), Kirti Kulhari as Neha Siddiqui (Kriti Kulhari), Parmeshwar Naidu (Sharman Joshi) and Ananth Iyer (H. G. Dattatreya).
In what is genuinely a relief to watch, the women in the film don’t get mansplained by Kumar and are introduced with their independent social contexts outside of their ISRO jobs. In fact, the film’s universe is rather utopian - everybody here is nice to a fault. The obstacles are purely logistical, unlike in Hidden Figures, which the film has been compared to, where intersectional racism was a major force of oppression. Even the insults dropped by faux villain Dalip Tahil, who plays a NASA-returned, foreign-accented scientist cynical about Balan and Kumar’s ambitious plans of the PSLV’s capacity to orbit Mars, are so cheesy, he appears to be a parody of a bad guy instead of an actual bad guy.
Which, in an ironic way, contributes to the failings of an otherwise sincere film. The simplistic treatment robs a complex mission of the authenticity of portrayal. Do a bunch of space scientists just restart a massive machine at their station when they can’t track the satellite? Do seemingly complex problems such as working out the rocket in half the fuel required as easily resolved as depicted? Sure, the filmmakers need cinematic liberties to propel the narrative but dumbing down a sophisticated operation takes away from enjoying its intricacies.
Too often, the film also goes into subplots absolutely irrelevant to the plot, simply because the storyteller must tell the story in an ‘entertaining way.’ So you have Vidya Balan tracking down her daughter at a city bar and then doing shots with her. Why? Because cool Mom, yo. There’s also Balan’s Islamophobic husband, played by Sanjay Kapur, who’s quickly becoming the go-to actor for stay-at-home-Dad roles.
To be fair, he does look like someone who spends a lot of time at home.
In its consistent attempt to project itself as a woke entertainer, Kapur’s Islamophobia is called out, a character who’s pregnant gets a customised creche at work (“her choice, to work or to stay at home”), an injured army man asks his scientist wife to stop nursing him and go back to space, and Akshay Kumar is (thankfully) relegated into the background in a crucial scene where the women take centerstage.
Sharman Joshi plays what Sharman Joshi has played, a bumbling bachelor awkward with women while Sonkashi Sinha smokes and has casual sex which is weirdly justified by giving her a tragic backstory. Why can’t she just smoke and have casual sex and be a kickass scientist without carrying childhood trauma? Ugh. Also, in 2019, women-being-bad-at-driving is an obnoxious, sexist stereotype to employ reminiscent of unwatchable 90s fare. Challenging the status quo or reinforcing it with a thin veil of wokeness?
Most of the dialogue feels unrefined and lacks conviction. Some of it carries the philosophical depth of a WhatsApp forward on a family group. As far as performances go, Vidya Balan is reliably good while Pannu, Kulhari and Menen are confident and appropriately convincing in their parts. However, the film never gives a sense of each of them having a camaraderie.
Since it’s an Akshay Kumar movie, there’s a bunch of “Make-in-India” references and, well, spoiler alert, Prime Minister Narendra Modi (whose party wasn’t in power when Mangalayan was launched) actually pops in on the screen to rave about the cost-effective success of the Mars project.
Yep. Now why would Mission Mars suddenly turn into Mission Bhakt is anybody’s guess.