Director: Vinay Waikul
Cast: Mona Singh, Sakshi Tanwar, Nidhi Singh, Palomi Ghosh, Ashish Vidyarthi
Streaming On: ALTBalaji, Zee5
M.O.M.- Mission Over Mars, eight episodes long and light years away from earthly intelligence, is the second Hindi-language dramatization of ISRO’s Mars Orbiter Mission in less than a month. Which means it is the second time in less than a month – after the Vidya Balan and Akshay Kumar starrer Mission Mangal – that a mainstream story inadvertently ends up condescending on the concept of Indian womanhood by parading it as the sole highlight of a team narrative. Like its feature-length counterpart, M.O.M., too, fails to understand that the “Look! Career woman!” vibe only reiterates the stereotypical male gaze.
It saddens me to criticize the same story – a phenomenal one – for being wasted by the commercials of moviemaking.
You can almost imagine the writers labeling each of the four ladies with colour-coded stickers: The sturdy one (Sakshi Tanwar), the emotional one (Mona Singh), the religious one (Nidhi Singh), the quirky one (Palomi Ghosh). The first controls her son, the second is a divorcee out to redeem her career, the third is always shown making out with her husband in home scenes (the word “pregnant” is mentioned four times in their first two lines, in case we don’t get it), and the fourth uses a dating app to find a socially awkward loser. If you can pretty much sum up the ‘character’ of your protagonists in two lines, spending eight episodes to depict how these amazing female-types juggle their personal lives with professional challenges may not be the most invigorating option. In that sense, M.O.M. is Mission Mangal in slow-motion…very, very slow motion.
It isn’t just the simplistic tone of the two narratives that are identical, it’s also the dramatic beats: The failed first moon mission, the redemption arc of one woman, the ideas-in-everyday-life template, the scaling-down-budget miracle, the rainfall delaying launch. Even the money-shot moment of the orbiter reappearing to applause after a communications blackout looks like a lazy copy+paste job. Both sets of writers claim to have done extensive research from original reports/documents – it’s a miracle, then, that two completely different creative teams interpreted such a complex achievement in such identically unoriginal fashion. A third one might be a lego recreation of the event. I wonder if ISRO just handed them both the same fan-fiction press-release-style docket. The only difference is that this show actually acknowledges the political dimension of these missions – the government using the Lok Sabha elections as a carrot to fund the scientists, the insidious corporates-Delhi tie-up, a jealous bunch of babus. Mission Mangal, owing perhaps to the presence of its lead actor, instead cast a comical NASA-return hotshot as the cynical villain. Here, it’s the system.
Speaking of villains, another unfortunate cultural trait that M.O.M. reiterates is our penchant for celebrating success at the cost of other’s failures. Translation: Women are great, but only if men are terrible. All the males here except the chief (a dignified Ashish Vidyarthi) are caricatures of caricatures – old/evil, hot/evil, bearded/evil, lazy/evil, evil/evil. “These women will ruin the whole mission,” they murmur to each other in different ways. The husbands/partners are sweet but meek, almost as if the makers are visibly avenging decades of Bollywood doing the same to wife/girlfriend characters. An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind…and mediocre as hell. Similarly, India is great but only if China – the Asian opponent – is terrible. So you hear ‘sasta Chinese maal’ puns and emphatic “India ne China ko space ke race ke pachchad diya hai” headlines. By resorting to such childish tactics, the show only undermines – by not trusting – the sheer doggedness and historical significance of ISRO’s Mangalyaan mission.
“[A]nother unfortunate cultural trait that M.O.M. reiterates is our penchant for celebrating success at the cost of other’s failures. Translation: Women are great, but only if men are terrible…Similarly, India is great but only if China – the Asian opponent – is terrible.”
For a series that cries itself hoarse about how our space agency executed this at 1/10th the cost of NASA by being innovative and channeling a do-it-yourself attitude, it’s fairly ironic that when the shabby technicalities (VFX: Every “failure” is a cartoonish explosion with a Boom!, even in space) are criticized, Indian filmmakers are the first to cite the huge Hollywood budgets and resources in comparison. The actors, too, are tailored to fit these amateur production values: Sakshi Tanwar and Nidhi Singh are decent, but there’s something about Mona Singh here that feels gratingly performative. For much of the series, she sounds like an out-of-control child who is constantly berated for being too idealistic. She needs a director who understands how emotive her face is, so that her character isn’t designed to compensate for the script’s lack of kinetic energy.
It saddens me to criticize the same story – a phenomenal one – for being wasted by the commercials of moviemaking. M.O.M. is a tragedy, irrespective of its second-mover status. Mission Mangal may have been a superhit, but it remains more of an easy “look what we did!” stage-show than a cinematic ode to its subject. Both are opportunities lost, and barely worthy of India’s intellectual legacy.
Space travel, in many ways, is the most mortal manifestation of dreaming. Outer Space is reality suspended by gravity – it literally involves flying, floating, soaring above everyone else in a private bubble somewhere between the limited and unlimited. Which is why cinema and space often form the perfect union of second-hand dreams – very rarely do movies get the ‘feeling’ of intergalactic language wrong. It is, after all, hard not to be romantic about the space of the big screen. Yet, Bollywood and ISRO are no match made in heaven. One is operatic, the other is full of working-class dreamers – all that’s needed, perhaps, is a swap of identities. Until then, the only stars we see won’t be celestial bodies, and the moon will remain a figure of speech.