Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 23 September 2019

Review: 'Mission Mangal' captures the imagination but loses thrust with tired cliches

Sonali Kokra reviews the big independence day release, a patriotic but starry account of India’s Mars mission

‘Mission Mangal’, which is inspired by Isro’s Mars Orbiter Mission, boasts a powerhouse female cast. Courtesy Fox Star Hindi
‘Mission Mangal’, which is inspired by Isro’s Mars Orbiter Mission, boasts a powerhouse female cast. Courtesy Fox Star Hindi

It doesn’t take a degree in rocket science to understand why Mission Mangal, a film about India’s bold mission to Mars, was timed to release on the country’s 73rd independence day. It requires a heart brimming with national pride to be able to overlook its glaringly problematic parts. As it turns out, Jagan Shakti’s directorial debut is less of an ode to the 17,000 scientists at the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) that made India’s maiden Mars attempt successful, and more a vanity project to further cement Akshay Kumar’s image as the poster boy for patriotism in Bollywood.

Mission Mangal opens with a failed rocket launch and the subsequent exile of Rakesh Dhawan (Kumar), the scientist responsible for India’s efforts to reach Mars. No one expects these efforts to amount to anything, and yet, somehow, thanks to his colleague and second-in-command Tara Shinde’s (Vidya Balan) genius, they come up with a solution that might actually give India a shot at winning the international Mars race.

No country has reached Mars’s orbit in its maiden attempt, but India might.

What follows next is roughly 60 minutes of getting everyone excited and on-board with the plan; and securing the budgets to make it a reality. This is achieved, mostly, through homilies about dreams, success and failure, delivered by Rakesh. We see Tara come up with practically all the solutions, armed with to-do lists and a brain that is constantly whirring, while the spry Rakesh leapfrogs across tables to make her point. And yet, it is his solution that gets praised. It’s tempting to think the scene was a clever comment on the epidemic of “hepeating” and credit snatching that women everywhere in the world have to contend with, but laid out next to all the other casual sexist jokes – and there are many – in the film, it is impossible to hold on to that hope.

Mission Mangal boasts a veritable powerhouse of acting talent by way of its female cast, but you realise quickly that they exist only so the makers could squeeze every last trope about womanhood into the story for the sake of cheap laughs. One crucial member of the team, Kritika (Taapsee Pannu), can send a rocket into space, but is stumped by the accelerator-brake-clutch trifecta of a car. Another member, Eka (Sonakshi Sinha), must establish her modern ways by smoking, promiscuity and a desperate desire to leave the country. And the only things we are told about Varsha (Nithya Menen) and Neha (Kirti Kulhari) is that while the former is regularly taunted by her mother-in-law for not producing a grandchild, the latter is homeless because she left a cheating husband and cannot find a house to rent because no one wants a single Muslim as a tenant.

Mission Mangal stills.  Fox Star Hindi
The film's take on Isro’s Mars Orbiter Missions. Courtesy Fox Star Hindi

The women are joined by two men; the heartwarmingly hilarious Ananth Iyer (HG Dattatreya), an ageing scientist who is counting down the days to his retirement, and the unintentionally creepy Parmeshwar (Sharman Joshi), a scientist who habitually harasses his colleague. But we are not meant to be alarmed by his obsession with Eka because it is just a joke. Other jokes include marvelling at Tara’s talent for economising and waste-management by calling it a skill that “ladies” learn while recycling stale food, and Rakesh patting himself on the back for yelling at his colleague, which helped “kick-start” her brain. Because it is so inconceivable that women might simply be good at their jobs.

The second half of Mission Mangal is dedicated to the launch and eventual success of the Mars mission. There is an attempt at simplifying the science behind the probe with the help of cricket metaphors, but most of them don’t land. What the movie does succeed at is capturing the magnitude of the achievement, and filling the viewer with a sense of wonderment. Isro did, after all, launch the Mangalyaan on a shoestring budget – only 11 per cent of what Nasa spent on its Maven orbiter.

Despite the disproportionate importance given to Kumar, he is the weakest link of Mission Mangal. Some of the best scenes in the film unfold in his absence – particularly one in which Tara encourages the team to remember the exact moment they knew they decided to be space scientists. Balan essays the role of the dreamy Tara with practised perfection, her optimism never seeming contrived. The rest of the cast do their best with the limited material at their disposal.

It is impossible not to enjoy a movie like Mission Mangal, given the subject matter it deals with, combined with Ravi Verman’s softly lit cinematography and elevated by Amit Trivedi’s upbeat music. One only wishes the makers had dialled down the theatrics and allowed the audience to quietly revel in the moment. Space, after all, hardly needs Kumar’s attention-seeking quips to drive home the point of its vastness.

Mission Mangal is in cinemas across the UAE

Updated: August 18, 2019 07:01 PM

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