Director: Jagan Shakthi
Cast: Vidya Balan, Akshay Kumar, Nithya Menen, Taapsee Pannu, Kirti Kulhari, Sonakshi Sinha
August 15. Independence Day. Thank the heavens it isn’t a Tuesday today, or the nation may have had a collective orgasm over Mangalwar and Mangalyaan and Shubamangalam and what not. Still, a holiday for most PLU, however the large mall I walked into (and where my film was to begin in 12 minutes) was just waking up to another full day. It was work as usual for the security guards, the cleaners and sweepers, the loaders and unloaders, the front office and the back end of all the shops and restaurants and cinema halls in the mall. I counted about 40 persons – heads bent to the task at hand to get the mall up and running. No loud proclamations of Jai Hind here. No glib – it’s freedom day. No loose mentions of nation and country and patriotism.
As opposed to the group of about 60 people waiting for the doors to the screen to open – popcorn and Pepsi in hand – so they can claim how much they love India with the simple act of turning up to see a film about the country’s space mission. The tri-colour pinned to their shirts, a surge of pride as they stood up when the theatre played the pre-roll national anthem (I was expecting that but was hoping it wouldn’t happen). As if to reward this, the film – Mission Mangal – dutifully plays on the middle class tropes of national pride, cricket, gods, country, and Modi – to much applause.
But for all that, Mission Mangal feels like an un-Bollywood Bollywood film. There is Akshay Kumar, but it’s not an Akshay Kumar you expect. He laughs at himself in the first half of the film, and becomes close to irrelevant in the second half. There’s Vidya Balan – and she’s finally sacrificed those ridiculous long-sleeved blouses of hers and is able to bend and flex her arms freely. There are other Bollywood touches, including a domestic staff called Kantabai (in Bangalore, of all places. In all my time in Bangalore, I’ve never heard a single reference to a Kantabai), and an entire city of South Indians speaking to and listening to Hindi EVERYWHERE. Yes, the odd character says “Banni” or “Ayyo” but that’s 2019 Bollywood’s “enna rascala”.
Mission Mangal is co-written and directed by Jagan Shakthi, and produced by Cape Of Good Films, Hope Productions, Fox Star Studios and others. It is loosely based on the ISRO Mars Orbiter Mission, and stars Vidya Balan, Nithya Menen, Akshay Kumar, Taapsee Pannu, Kirti Kulhari, Sonakshi Sinha, Zeeshan Ayub, Purab Kohli, Dalip Tahil, and others. Mission Mangal was shot by S Ravi Varman, edited by Chandan Arora, and features music by Amit Trivedi.
Vidya Balan is Tara Shinde, and we see her, one regular morning of the week, as she is busy managing her household. Breakfast is being prepared, there’s a toothpaste crisis, a shortage of tea and failing appliances. The husband is being the man of the house by refusing to do anything to assist the bai-less wife. One by one, Tara solves every crisis and jumps into her car. We are all to believe she is just another working mother – maybe a bank executive or a senior IT Vice President. But no, Tara is a rocket scientist on the day of a big rocket launch.
Akshay Kumar is Rakesh Dhawan. The name is to cue Sathish Dhawan, the former director of ISRO, and after whom the launch pad and centre in Shriharikota is named. So we are to believe Rakesh is the natural rocket man, he really is the rocket scientist. We see him directing the first Indian moon mission on a GSLV rocket, which ends badly. The fault lies with Tara Shinde – one of the scientists whose job it is to watch for any errors and call for mission to be paused in case of grave difficulties. A misjudged call leads to disaster – rocket starts overheating and mission has to be aborted. At the ensuing press meet, Rakesh channels the original Dhawan (who it seems took blame for India’s first rocket failure) and laughs it off.
And so, a punishment posting. Rakesh is taken off the moon mission and sent to a water-less forest. He is asked to develop the Indian Mars Mission – with no staff, no team, and an office that seems to be about as dusty and red as the planet. And oh, did we mention no budget, no support and in fact no hope even that this will happen? Tara feels bad because it was her mistake that cost him his Moon mission role but Rakesh brushes it off. However next day, Tara has a bright idea (thanks in part because Kanta bai is back at home) and figures out a way to land on Mars using less than the prescribed minimum fuel quantity. But like pretty much every woman who has discovered a solution to a pressing scientific problem, she faces skepticism and condescension from the men – including Rakesh and his alpha-male-competitor, NASA trained Rupert Desai (Dalip Tahil) who has replaced Rakesh as the moon mission director.
From here what ensues is your average Bollywood sports-adventure-overcoming-the-odds film. A ragtag team of scientists who may not have the experience or the inclination to make the mission work: Taapsee Pannu is Krithika Aggarwal, a young woman who wants to learn to drive as a protection against groping hands on public transport. Nithya Menen is Varsha Pillai, who wants a child badly (thus very cleverly fitting in an in-film promotion for an IVF brand), and whose house sports an Ambedkar picture, a caring husband and unpleasant mother-in-law. Kirti Kulhari as Neha S (Siddiqui) is a young woman in search of a house and some distance from a cheating ex-husband. Sonakshi Sinha is Eka Gandhi, who smokes, has different boyfriends for different days of the week and would rather fly to the USA than to Mars. H G Dattatreya is Anant Iyengar, an old man who is more intent on his pension than his passion, and Sharman Joshi is Parameswar Naidu, a man who is obsessed with Mars, the one in his birth chart and astrology readings.
Together, these eight people must solve problems and meet a self-imposed short deadline to get India ahead of rival China and other countries to successfully reach the Red Planet on its first try, while also handling domestic crises. They do. And just when a storm in the Bay of Bengal which causes rain in, um, Bengaluru, threatens to derail everything, a literal window opens in the sky – and lift-off! A bit more tension and suspense drag into a second climax, and then the victorious team walks down the aisle to much applause.
Given that about 90 per cent of the employees of the ISRO – and much of the team that worked on the MOM – were south Indians (Tamils, Mallus), why couldn’t we have had that shown in the film? Why must we need Aggarwals, Shindes, Dhawans and Jawans? There are other holes – including a point where the set construction is transparent on screen: we see the sterling board/plywood of what is supposed to be a 100-year-old stone building. Do we really need an army man to drive home the point of national pride? (Indian Navy? They’ll get there!) Do we really need two men strutting around for territorial control? All right, let’s suspend our skepticism and disbelief. After all, this is a Bollywood film.
But for all that, the film still manages to move one. And that hilarious metro-fight scene which I was afraid would be the excuse for Akshay Kumar to be Akshay Kumar and beat up a couple of men, was not Akshay Kumar’s at all. It was a lovely “Kya Re Settinga” moment, more action heroes must do this. Given these new age Bollywood national pride films make it a point to sneak in the national anthem at any and all opportunities, it was surprising Mission Mangal did not have even a bar of the song. And given they also carry completely unnecessary injection of Modi-cine (I’m looking at you Total Dhammal), this film had just one instance of Modi, and that too at the end, as a news clip. So the question is, is this a Bollywood film or a Tamil film made for an Indian audience?
The Mission Mangal review is a Silverscreen original article. It was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the film. Silverscreen.in and its writers do not have any commercial relationship with movies that are reviewed on the site.