Off the bat, Mission Mangal is a tribute to ISRO, to Indian pride, and to nationalism. There is a constant undercurrent of patriotism throughout the movie, bursting out in small spurts. However, as India's first serious space movie, it comes out stronger than expected for its depiction of science and women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) in India.
A standout surprise in the movie is the scicomm or science communication. Without going into too much technicality, the movie manages to capture the primary challenges of going to Mars. The writers have done a good job of weaving in explanations of launch windows, orbital periods, and the earth-Mars orbital relationship. Orbital mechanics and orbit raising manoeuvres are explained simply and succinctly, with clever analogies that include everything from yo-yos to chai glasses and accelerating cars.
Akshay Kumar's character name deserves a touch of appreciation. Rakesh Dhawan is a well done tribute to India's first astronaut, Rakesh Sharma, and one of ISRO's earliest visionaries, Satish Dhawan.
The mission also seems to have been carried out entirely by a team of less than 10 people. Needless to day, nothing of the sort would actually happen within ISRO or any other space agency
The process of mission development in the movie also touches upon key points faithfully: the failed launch of the Chinese Yinghuo-1 Mars mission which gave India a much needed impetus to push for Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), the need to lower size and weight, the use of aluminium and composite fibre reinforced plastic (CFRP) body, the importance of crossing the Van Allen radiation belt that surrounds the earth and protects it, and the two ships that were sent to track the PSLV which don't normally find a foothold in the Mangalyaan pop-culture consciousness.
The film does deviate from the ISRO handbook a couple of times, such as referring to the nose cone of the rocket as 'fairing' instead of 'heat shield', the terminology that ISRO prefers, but that is hardly a worry. However, the film uses a liberal dose of dramatic license to depict how scientists and engineers come together to send a spacecraft to Mars. Engineers are shunned to a non-project after the disastrous developmental test flight (April 15, 2010) of the GSLV Mk-II. They are sent to work on 'Project Mars', which seems to just be a decrepit garage with a solitary cat. The characters who assemble are introduced as engineers but are constantly referred to as scientists throughout the movie. The mission also seems to have been carried out entirely by a team of less than 10 people. Needless to say, nothing of the sort would actually happen within ISRO or any other space agency.
The film also injects some drama into what happens in space. The orbiter is shown to be bombarded with space rocks and dust at one point, something that would nearly have destroyed the craft in real life. The movie also seems to imply that the orbiter gets into trouble but luckily comes out unscathed from behind Mars after a delay during insertion. But in real life, planetary science is all about numbers accurate to as many decimal points as possible, and we always know exactly what should be happening at any point in time.
There are also other subjects that have already instigated members of the scientific community and the internet. The common points of contention around scicomm as a field and ISRO as an entity also exist in the movie.
First of these is sexism. For the most part of the movie, the gender stereotyping could be overlooked albeit not condoned. Most depictions of gender dynamics and sexism tend to be on a spectrum of intent, and Mission Mangal definitely tends more towards an attempt to normalise rather than perpetrate. The women of the movie are realistic and normalise traditional "vices" like drinking, smoking, and sex. They are surprisingly not vilified for it or made to change; they achieve successes as they are.
Even the puri-making scene which drew much ire when the trailer came out, and which subtly requests viewers to mindfully conserve fuel, could actually be overlooked once the full scene is shown: Vidya Balan's character starts making puris to demonstrate her idea, but then breaks out of it to hand the puri responsibility to Kumar's character and launch into an explanation of a Hohmann transfer.
Akshay Kumar's character states that the NASA mission MAVEN costs exponentially larger than the paltry budget requested by ISRO and equates them with the end objective of reaching Mars. But this isn't accurate.
There are some humorous references to religion and Tirupati, portrayed rather tactfully with characters always prioritising science over what a random priest says.
The movie also falls victim to the media narrative of how inexpensive an ISRO mission is as compared to a NASA mission. Akshay Kumar's character states that the NASA mission MAVEN costs exponentially larger than the paltry budget requested by ISRO and equates them with the end objective of reaching Mars. But this isn't accurate. Enormous costs can be justified only by enormous benefits. Mangalyaan was a tech demonstrator. It was a craft that was sent as an expensive experiment to first figure out if we could do the basics of interplanetary travel and orbital insertion well, before stuffing it with very costly scientific instruments. But with a record of not just inserting into orbits but also landing on surfaces, NASA's MAVEN carried far more sophisticated payloads and weighed twice as more, and intended to do plenty of new work at Mars.
The beauty of a story that depicts engineers clamouring together to send a spacecraft to Mars is that there is no need for a traditional good-bad binary. There already was a villain everyone needed to beat: time
Among multiple storytelling devices that simply didn't fit were the traditional NASA worship, and the traditional human villain of the movie. The caricatured NASA-return senior scientist played by Dalip Tahil, doesn't really seem to be involved in the project directly but has a lot to say about it, with no impact to the story. The beauty of a story that depicts engineers clamouring together to send a spacecraft to Mars is that there is no need for a traditional good-bad binary. There already was a villain everyone needed to beat: time.
But the visual effects depicting ISRO's rockets and Mangalyaan's journey to the Mars are quite stunning to the point of being rousing. The movie culminates towards the launch, and compresses the next 10-month journey into the very end. One missed opportunity here was glaring.
Orbital mechanics and orbit raising manoeuvres are explained simply and succinctly, with clever analogies that include everything from yo-yos to chai glasses and accelerating cars
Mangalyaan is the only spacecraft in orbit around Mars today that can take full global views of the planet because of its uniquely elongated orbit. The images the spacecraft captured before insertion captivated the world when they were released, and deserved to be shown and used.
Overall, Mission Mangal does a reasonably good job mixing the rushed narrative and forced drama with communicating curious, new, interesting science to the public at a point when everything astronomy is raging hot.