Director: Jagan Shakti
Cast: Taapsee Pannu, Vidya Balan, Kirti Kulhari, Nithya Menen, Akshay Kumar, Sonakshi Sinha
Genius is intangible. So you have movies about clever people and their impossible missions resort to simplistic narrative techniques. Like numbers sparkling on a blackboard. Like eccentric characters – one scientist hums songs to himself under stress, another prays to God for the science to succeed. Or like the “lightbulb” moments: A character locates improbable solutions in everyday life. A scientist sees plastic waste on the street and conceptualizes a biodegradable, lighter satellite. Another notices boat-sails stitched into her cushions and decides to re-design the wings of the satellite. Another applies the home science of frying puris to extend the fuel plan of the rocket. It’s only a matter of time before we see a scientist on the toilet getting an idea about sending fresh manure to the moon to test its surface fertility.
We get it. It’s hard to make intelligence look entertaining. But it’s harder to make intelligence look stupid. And yet, this is exactly what Mission Mangal manages to do. It takes the core ISRO team behind India’s historical Mars Orbiter Mission and turns their incredible story into a tone-deaf cross between a fourth-grade Science lesson and a woke virtue-signalling exercise. I’m all for massy dramatization, but this film is more like intellectual demonetization.
The tragedy about such movies is that a story so rare can be told for the first time only once. Most makers waste this privilege. To put it mildly, the fault is in the stars of Mission Mangal
It begins with project head Tara Shinde (Vidya Balan) messing up an important launch in 2010. Her nutty boss, Rakesh Dhawan (Akshay Kumar), takes the fall for her and is banished to the ‘graveyard project’ of ISRO: The Mars Mission. Tara inspires Rakesh with her puri idea, and they begin to recruit a team and defy cynics to make India the first country to reach Mars on the first attempt. Before I go further, it’s worth noting that R. Balki is credited as the writer and creative director of Mission Mangal. This is useful information for what will follow.
A prominent ad-man, Balki has fashioned a Bollywood career out of merging his two passions: advertising and filmmaking. His early movies can be distilled down to one-line concepts (Cheeni Kum, Paa, Shamitabh, Ki & Ka). But his most recent work (Pad Man, Mission Mangal) is based on real-life visionaries. There is no scope for gimmicky ideas. And so it’s the characters in these stories that become glorified taglines. Almost every scene is played for a social gimmick. Tara is introduced as a poha-cooking house-maker (she uses a rolling pin to squeeze out the last drops of toothpaste) before she drives to work and heads a major space mission. Tagline: The Complete Indian Woman. Her husband Sunil (Sanjay Kapoor) resents her “double life” and yells at everyone. Tagline: Chauvinist Ripe For Humble Pie. A NASA bigshot named Rupert Desai (a most Shakespearean Dalip Tahil) is hired by ISRO solely to scoff at Rakesh’s homegrown theories and terrible cricket metaphors (Can we get over ‘83?) in a desi-American accent. Tagline: Snobbish Film Critic Who Mocks The Excesses Of Masala Movies.
Mission Mangal takes the core ISRO team behind India’s historical Mars Orbiter Mission and turns their incredible story into a tone-deaf cross between a fourth-grade Science lesson and a woke virtue-signalling exercise
The members of the mission are one-line ads too: Strong And Independent Muslim Divorcee (Kirti Kulhari), Clutzy Girl Who Can’t Drive Car But Can Design Spaceship (Taapsee Pannu), Independent And Unapologetic Girl Because She Smokes And Sleeps Around (Sonakshi Sinha), Meek South Indian Woman Aching For Motherhood (Nithya Menen), Virginal Loser (Sharman Joshi), Old Grumpy Man (H.G. Dattatreya). Even the Mars department can best be described as Ugly Brown Dilapidated Mansion In ISRO Backyard.
Sample some of the ‘unorthodox’ scenes. Tara wants to inspire her team to work 15 hours a day, so she brings in a cake and declares that “it’s the birthday of the scientist in all of us”. (Tagline: What An Idea, Sirjee!). Each of them is encouraged to think about the moment they decided to become a scientist – the old man flashes back to his childhood when he lit four rockets without using his hands, and naturally, the Muslim girl recalls a memory that features a mosque, a crescent moon and kheer being fed to her. The next thing you know, they are dancing with brooms to a song called “Dil mein Mars hai” to renovate the abandoned mansion into a swanky science-looking (read white) center. In another scene, to prove that she is a responsible mother, Tara drags a livid Sunil to the night-club in which their daughter is partying. The two parents do tequila shots and hit the dance-floor, where it becomes apparent that this entire sequence of misguided liberalism was engineered only to have Sanjay Kapoor shake a leg to his own ‘90s classic “Ankhiya Milau Kabhi” from Raja. This transforms him to a supportive husband, just like cake transforms the team. In yet another scene, the filmmakers subvert the macho Khiladi Kumar image by making him a drunken wuss who is rescued by his ‘army’ of women on a late-night metro. I’d appreciate the meta-ness, but there’s something horribly smug about the in-your-face posturing (“It’s good our mission is called MOM; the name DAD would have caused a crash”). At one point, Rakesh ghost-chats with the late Abdul Kalam so that he can deliver a pep talk about percentages and miracles. Even the quirks are pretentious: Tara’s teenage son is an aspiring Muslim because his idol A.R. Rahman converted to Islam.
Instead of surrounding the scientists with commoners so that they have an excuse to dumb down the technicalities, the scientists here speak to each other in downright-dumb terms
Another problem with films about smart people is the grammar of exposition. Instead of surrounding the scientists with commoners so that they have an excuse to dumb down the technicalities, the scientists here speak to each other in downright-dumb terms. You have the chairman of ISRO asking Rakesh if the weather is bad only so that we know the consequences of rain on take-off. You have them discussing the budget in front of everyone. You have them explaining gravity and space to each other like teachers to children. Even the actual mission is clumsily designed, and borrows heavily from the suspense of Apollo 13.
The tragedy about such movies is that a story so rare can be told for the first time only once. Most makers waste this privilege. To put it mildly, the fault is in the stars of Mission Mangal. My only takeaway is a bit personal. My childhood neighbour was listed in the end credits as one of the mission’s chief architects. Tagline: Writer Taking Credit For Unknowingly Inspiring ISRO Scientist With Pointless Anecdote.