Someone in the Mission Mangal team – possibly one (or all) of its three writers, Jagan Shakti, Nidhi Singh Dharma and Saketh Kondiparthi – took the “home” in “home science” a little too seriously. An early scene in the movie, centred on Tara Shinde (Vidya Balan), a project director at the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), shows her leaving for work. She’s first shown praying, then introduced as a mother, then as a wife – checking with her kids, deflecting the demands of her husband (Sanjay Kapoor) – and finally, as the house’s daughter-in-law. The implication, as you can see, is quite clear: that Tara juggles multiple identities at home (as a woman) but is also a space scientist.
Maybe the writers got their cues from a picture that went viral after the successful completion of India’s Mars Orbiter Mission: a few elderly women in sarees, locked in half-embrace, beaming. It was a fascinating sight, and sarees, typically associated with Indian homemakers, may have contributed to it, producing an unlikely combination: a confluence of tradition and modern, (elderly Indian) women as stellar scientists – all adding up to an international, unprecedented achievement. This is, no doubt, an intriguing hook to a story.
But in Mission Mangal, this hook gets an inordinate amount of attention, which makes you suspect whether it’s a formula. Consider how some of the other (female) protagonists, Tara’s colleagues, are introduced: Kritika Agarwal (Taapse Paannu) is learning to drive and fumbling – you’re supposed to laugh. Varsha Pillai (Nithya Menen) is taunted by her mother-in-law for not becoming a mother. Now compare that to how Akshay Kumar’s Rakesh Dhawan is introduced: standing nonchalant, humming a song, looking at a rocket about to launch – a “bachelor” of science.
There’s more. Tara gets an idea for the Mars mission from her kitchen (“home science”, you see). Balan, with her endearing sincerity and vulnerability, makes the scene work, but it is another (slightly sophisticated) version of the film’s gender segregation – and something that doesn’t really reveal character but regurgitates a tired trope.
The casting here – ranging from mainstream Bollywood (Balan and Sinha) to relatively new impressive performers (Paannu, Kirti Kulhari) to a Bollywood outsider (Menen) – definitely merits intrigue. Barring Balan though, none of them are memorable, because the film saddles them with sketchily-written roles. It’s also so because Mission Mangal wants its ‘hero’, Kumar, to shine.
Rakesh, for instance, frequently interrupts Tara, makes fun of her (which is supposed to be funny); the film, in one scene, even (literally) mutes her expertise. (When Tara is explaining her idea to Rakesh, all you can hear is not her but a loud background score.) Our satellite may have gone to Mars, but we still need status quo on Earth. Then there’s scientist Eka Gandhi (Sonakshi Sinha) who is harassed at work by her creepy colleague, Parmeshwar Naidu (Sharman Joshi). The film considers it cute and funny – even romantic.
Which is weird, for this is a movie trying to sell its feminism hard. And if feminism comes – in a Kumar movie – can nationalism be far behind? We’re told quite early that “some of the best scientists are Indians, but they work for NASA”, that “NASA is 50 years ahead of ISRO”, that “we should borrow from NASA’s knowledge and build on it”. It’s the oldest trick in the book: prop up a false binary, then deflate it. The film’s obsession with NASA is a bit extreme. There are several references to its “Rs 6,000 crore rocket — Maven” (the Indian Mars mission cost Rs 400 crore). Quiet pride is one thing, but Bollywood wants India to win in a nose-thumbing competition. Initially it was annoying; now it’s just plain embarrassing.
The film, though, is by no means a train-wreck. It is at its finest when it’s just having fun (as opposed to wrestling with the Big Questions, which it is largely clueless about). The scene involving Kapoor, for instance, where he’s dancing to the song ‘Akhiyaan Milaoon Kabhi’ in a club (from his own 1995 film Raja) and then reminiscing about “those days” is both masterly tongue-in-cheek and, unexpectedly, moving. Or another poignant segment where the core team members recall their first brush with science – a scene that breaks a long-standing Bollywood tradition, which has almost always treated its protagonists’ love for science as a MacGuffin. Ravi Varman’s cinematography – especially in scenes involving natural light – is striking.
But just when you think that the movie’s finding a semblance of rhythm, it segues into a painful song – a contrived depiction of the team’s work – called ‘Mission Mangal’. Then, just like Pad Man, there are several painfully paternalistic dialogues. Kritika’s husband (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub) likens her work to an “army mission”. There’s a scuffle in a metro that makes zero sense. And finally, the film’s ultimate failure: its excessive (and unintelligent) dramatisation of the real-life scientists’ complex work, making it look like a fancy science exhibition project. The film ends with an uplifting, crowd-pleasing message, underscored by a Modi speech.
Outside the Connaught Place multiplex, though, the movie still seemed to be on. Right outside the theatre stood a biggish model of a PSLV rocket. People were standing near it, getting their pictures clicked – it was an understandable sentiment. Then a young man, presumably too excited, dislodged one of the strap-ons, held it and smiled for the camera. That, I thought, perfectly encapsulated the current Indian nationalism – aggression and machismo replacing self-contained joy.