Director: Arati Kadav
Writer: Arati Kadav
Cast: Vikrant Massey, Shweta Tripathi, Nandu Madhav
DOP: Kaushal Shah
Editor: Paramita Ghosh
Streaming On: Netflix
An astronaut has been working on a spaceship for 75 years. His service is of utmost importance to the human race. He is robotic, resilient – and lonely. Soon, another astronaut joins him. Space is a peek into the future, but his space is history. The synopsis of Arati Kadav's Cargo may not sound earth-shatteringly original. The solitude of space travel has long been the emotional core of Western science fiction stories: Solaris, Moon, Gravity, Passengers, Ad Astra, Lucy in the Sky, The Martian. (The astronaut prized possession is a miniature gorilla toy, an ode to the killer apes of 2001: A Space Odyssey). But the conflicts in these movies – existentialism, danger, horror, insanity, love, longing – are bereft of cultural specificity. The heroes might rather feature on a "Humans of Sci-fi" page than an "Americans of Sci-fi" section. The universal grammar is both boon and bane.
With meat on bone, here's how Cargo actually reads: It's 2027, and Homo-rakshasas – the modern descendents of mythical demons – are in the Space Age. As part of the Rakshasa-manushya peace treaty, six spaceships were launched with the sole aim of recycling recently deceased humans ("Cargo") for rebirth. The six astronauts, who work for a company called Post Death Transition Services (PDTS), are ageless heroes. Their service is of utmost importance to the human race. One of them is a veteran, Prahastha (Vikrant Massey), who works tirelessly on the spaceship Pushpak 634A. This demon's solitary stint is interrupted by the arrival of an eager assistant, Yuvishka (Shweta Tripathi). Writer-director's Arati Kadav's wide-eyed world-building – audacious, imaginative, idiosyncratic, subversive – is crucial to the viewer experience.
The premise of Cargo is entirely defined by its cultural identity, which in turn is a clever swipe at the self-seriousness of the Indian genre template. The history of Hindu mythology is often fetishized to sell the supernatural and the fantastical: how many times have we seen horror/fantasy films break into kooky flashbacks of black magic and angry spirits to justify its contrivances? But Cargo, with its toothy grin, suggests that the future of Hindu mythology is science fiction. In doing so, it softens the lofty overtones and projects the divine – otherwise the pillars of religion – as flesh-and-blood beings who aren't above the spell of Science.
There's a wry revisionist context to most details. The names: Prahastha was the demon commander of Ravana's army. Pushpak (Vimana) was the flying chariot that Ravana stole from the King of Lanka, Kubera. The tone: We see the CEO of PDTS in a promotional video, chuckling at how humans imagined demons to be fanged soul-snatchers. The demons of Cargo are regular humans with strange superpowers: powers that, as is evident from a recurring 'reality show,' they aren't sure what to do with. Take Prahastha's sarkari supervisors: One has a third eye, another can achieve 86.4 percent invisibility, yet another never sleeps ("everyone said I'd become a watchman"). From radio snippets, we gather that the demons' world suffers from familiar issues – unemployment, strikes, academic pressure (Yuvishka is a topper of the 'transition tech' institute) and political apathy.
Consequently, the titles that come to mind aren't Moon, Gravity and the likes. It's closer to home. Think Masaan: the spaceships are the cremation ghats of Varanasi, and the astronauts a futuristic version of Vicky Kaushal's corpse-burning character. The job – of turning the aftermath of death into dry procedure – desensitizes the people who do it. (It helps that Shweta Tripathi is again the one who inspires the astronaut/cremator to change). Think Mukti Bhawan: Pushpak is literally Hotel Salvation, a place where humans wait in a transitional state between life and death. Except we aren't seeing the story of those who wait, but of those who facilitate the wait (or weight, or cargo). Or think The Lunchbox in space. The secluded Saajan Fernandes is mentor Prahastha, the chatty Shaikh is mentee Yuvishka. One is jaded and reluctant to leave, the other is inquisitive and keen to start. Yuvishka's spirit even encourages Prahastha to seek out the lady he writes letters to – a thread central to the veteran's impending retirement.
But Cargo isn't as moving as these films. The metaphor of the premise is restrained: Prahastha is the cargo in need of reincarnation, Yuvishka is the spaceship capable of transitioning him. But the film's setting – which distinguishes Cargo as a genre vehicle – is also what limits its psychological bandwidth. The world-building never stops, and the thrill of creation overwhelms the personality of the characters. They behave and speak in an expository language, and as a result the actors barely get to express the depth of change. The final minutes aren't moments: they have style (the soundtrack), but lack the fluidity to be profound as the Hollywood space epics. Storytelling – not scale – allows those movies to magnify the resolution, but Cargo's ingenuity prevents it from filming the conflict. The makers tend to forget that genres are derived from life, not vice versa.
However, the real language of Cargo is in its dualities. The title, the genres it fuses, the disparate characters it unites, the deadpan humour of the dead. I like the broader touches. For example, Yuvishka is a "healer-demon" and, like doctors trembling to treat their family members, loses her touch when she starts getting attached to the cargoes. Or the styling of Yuvishka in warm colours (a yellow avatar of Inside Out's Sadness) to contrast the blues of the ship. The images of worldly possessions – clothes, wallets – being offloaded into space. A cameo by a failed time traveller: an ode to Kadav's charming short, The Time Machine. Two men instructing statue workers superimpose in a manner that alludes to the two-armed Kali, the Hindu Goddess of death.
The production design (by Mayur Sharma) is a key component of duality. It features retro TV sets and ATM machines as computer screens, customized vacuum cleaners as healing machines, card-swiping machines as fax feeders. It's easy to attribute this look to the film's budgetary constraints. But the makeshift-DIY style – reminiscent of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind's memory-wiping apparatus – fits hand-in-glove with the childlike reframing of both mythology and space adventure. Kadav wants us to remember what we, as old-school kids, imagined when we read the Panchatantra or heard of Neil Armstrong from our parents.
The cold, complex metallic design of modern sci-fi flicks tends to erode the wonder of intergalactic exploration. But Cargo's design is to the space opera what Tim Burton was once to superhero movies. It's both real and unreal at once, and the visual dissonance adds to the way Cargo – and its playful marriage of the past and future – hopes to be perceived.
The cold, complex metallic design of modern sci-fi flicks tends to erode the wonder of intergalactic exploration. But Cargo's design is to the space opera what Tim Burton was once to superhero movies. It's both real and unreal at once, and the visual dissonance adds to the way Cargo – and its playful marriage of the past and future – hopes to be perceived. In fact, when the first cargo of the film – an ancient 73-year-old magician ("K.C. Sorcar") – arrives at the extraction bay, he fits right in. It's a lovely scene. The bearded old man produces ribbons, pigeons and coins from his sleeve, in a way reflecting the nostalgia of Prahastha's outdated methods while taunting his dispassionate gait. As if to say: You're a demon blessed with powers, I'm a human who fakes it, and yet it's me who makes people believe in magic? Even the background score manages to be both evocative and eccentric: a testament to the vision of a maker striving to invent a local genre rather than reinvent a global one.
Maybe it's fitting that Cargo opens with the advert of an "international loneliness detective". The man promises to eat, sleep, drink in his clients' spaces to cure isolation. Isolation is the kryptonite of conscience. The silent craving to be seen is a distinctly human instinct. Most humans forsake this instinct, and look for answers in mythology when they near the end. But Cargo reaches an end when mythology looks for answers in human feelings. After all, if she becomes his loneliness detective, love is nothing but the adaptation of space.