'Cargo': A Brave Debut With a Sci-Fi Film That Explores Lives and After Lives

The story leaves several threads hanging but has a few original ideas.

Arati Kadav’s debut, Cargo, evokes curiosity by its very nature: it’s a science fiction drama. Hindi films are typically not interested in that genre, even the low-budget and experimental ones. So, a home-brewed sci-fi assumes more significance than, say, a traditional debut. Because a genuine trailblazer can become greater than itself — a small step for a debutante can become a giant leap for a league of filmmakers.

Cargo, now streaming on Netflix, was conceptualised and shot much before the pandemic – it screened at the Mumbai Film Festival last year – and yet, on closer inspection, feels uncomfortably current. It’s centred on a man who has stayed indoors for decades with no conventional contact with the real world.

That man, Prahastha (Vikrant Massey), is a demon, a “rakshas”. The year is 2027, and “Homo Rakshasas – the descendants of mythical demons – have entered the space age and signed the ‘Rakshas Manushya Peace Treaty,’” the film informs us at the start. “Their Inter Planetary Space Organisation (IPSO) has launched a series of spaceships” for reincarnating recently deceased humans. Pushpak 634-A, manned by Prahastha, is one of them. A new entrant to the spaceship, called Cargo, is first “healed” and then “extracted”. Prahastha has done this machine-like work like a machine – silently and efficiently – for such a long time that time itself has become meaningless.

His daily routine is simple and straightforward: heal, extract, eat, sleep. The people he’s treating are dead, but the real question is: How ‘alive’ is Prahastha? The film’s initial segment, like his life, goes through the motions. He is reticent and aloof, not interested in banter or small talk. The business of death in space resembles the business of life on Earth – a bleak worldview whose bleakness isn’t belaboured.

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Kadav, here, shows all the signs of a confident filmmaker: she unfolds the story at a relaxed pace, gives room to her characters, and trusts the audience to do their writing. The production design (by Mayur Sharma), even under budgetary constraints, is impressive. It sticks to the basics – the spaceship’s design is minimalist yet futuristic, comprising a few rooms and devices – and doesn’t try hard to impress, thereby not interrupting the story.

The film breaks its inertia when an astronaut, Yuvishka (Shweta Tripathi) – a cheerful valedictorian with a new healing power – enters the spaceship. She takes to her job like a bird takes to the sky. She uses her power to heal new cargoes, updates her supervisor, posts daily vlogs for her fans. Prahastha, used to loneliness and routine, isn’t thrilled by the new change. Yuvishka’s inclusion benefits the film, elevating it from the morass of sameness and presenting different dimensions of the story. Massey and Tripathi make a good contrasting pair –Prahastha’s irritable and jaded, Yuvishka hopeful and lively.

Their story is skilfully intercut with the lives of cargoes on Earth, underscoring the random, absurd nature of life and death – a bus accident, a malfunctioning lift, a man dropping dead in an office canteen. Some lives, throbbing with ambition and plans, are laced with inherent sorrow: a scientist developing a time machine; a worn-out stunt double who couldn’t be an actor; a young man, tired of office life, starting a quirky YouTube channel (featuring him as an “international loneliness detective”). There’s an unmistakable pointlessness to this entire enterprise: whether people have been good or evil, creative or conformist, Pushpak 634-A treats them the same.

The scientist (Anjum Rajabali), on reaching the spaceship, thinks he’s time travelled. On finding that he’s dead, he reacts with a tinge of regret and desperation. He needs to finish the device, he insists, as he devoted his entire life to it. “Do you want to go back and do the same thing?” Yuvishka asks, slightly perplexed. “Of course,” he replies, “of course.”

Yet ironically, Cargo mimics its characters’ arcs. Like their lives, the film, too, feels incomplete. Prahastha is pretty much enigmatic throughout; some crucial aspects of his personality are evident, but we crave more hints – such as why he is the way he is – that will complete his story. Similarly, we don’t know anything about the cargoes’ afterlives, either. At the start of the film, a key architect of the Post-Death Transition Services (Hansal Mehta) says that, over the last many years, there’s been a “positive change in the image” of demons. Yet the link between the demons and humans isn’t too clear, leaving another (potential) subplot hanging.

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All these strands look interconnected to form a big picture but, in the absence of a cohesive relationship among them, Cargo undermines its power. Kadav’s arrow-like approach then eventually becomes a boomerang, hurting the film quite a few times. Her refusal to interrogate and explore her story makes the movie occasionally tedious; a closed spaceship and limited characters, after all, can’t sustain intrigue all on their own.

At the centre of the film, though, lie fascinating questions about permanence, mortality and memory. Yuvishka is presumably fighting a war that Prahastha gave up: the fight to stay alive, to remain relevant, to be remembered. At one point, she says, “Nothing gets lost forever.” The vastness of the universe is both comforting and deflating. If the Earth is indeed just a “pale blue dot”, then how does anything matter? But if iotas-within-a-dot decide to rebel, then that’s justified, too. Cargo knows that this isn’t about “or” but “and”: We simultaneously matter and yet we do not.