Mission Mangal movie review: Vidya-Akshay-starrer plays to the gallery to entertain while patronising women and Muslims
Mission Mangal is fun and educational at one level, but its veneer of progressiveness masks a highly conservative, prejudiced core.
castVidya Balan, Akshay Kumar, Sonakshi Sinha, Taapsee Pannu, Kirti Kulhari Sehgal, Nithya Menen, Hg Dattatreya, Dalip Tahhil, Sharman Joshi, Sanjay Kapoor, Zeeshan Ayyub, Purab Kohli
There is a how-to book hidden in the folds of this film: How To Keep An Audience Engaged While Patronising Women And Muslims Yet Seeming To Be Progressive, While Playing To The Gallery Yet Seeming To Rebel.
Director Jagan Shakti’s Mission Mangal is a fictionalised account of the Indian Space Research Organisation’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MoM) aka Mangalyaan launched in 2013 that got a space probe orbiting Mars by 2014 and catapulted ISRO into an elite club of space agencies worldwide. It is a saga of Indian enterprise, jugaad and hope.
The film is clearly inspired by a widely circulated photograph of exultant women in bright saris with flowers in their hair celebrating after Mangalyaan entered the Martian orbit, a visual that caught the imagination of the public back in 2014. According to BBC, ISRO later clarified that those pictured were administrative staff and not scientists, but the image unwittingly drew global and national attention to the number of women who do indeed defy social norms and stereotypes to work as space scientists at ISRO.
Drawing on the positivity of that famous photo, Mission Mangal’s story is told through a fictional mission director named Rakesh Dhawan (Akshay Kumar) and his largely female team headed by project director Tara Shinde (Vidya Balan). Experts will tell us whether Jagan Shakti & Co are anywhere near accurate in their detailed description of the processes that went into making Mangalyaan successful. If it turns out that they are even somewhat so, then the first area where the film scores is the manner in which it breaks scientific complexities down into simple language for the layperson and recounts it like a mystery story for teenagers. To keep a narrative light while peppering dialogues with words like “perigee” is an achievement, and a hat tip to Shakti for that.
The other achievement is less laudable. Mission Mangal is designed for easy laughs by unabashedly playing to the gallery. This point is exemplified by a scene in which Rakesh clashes with Rupert Desai (played by Dalip Tahhil), an old hand from NASA. Rupert is, of course, a pain in Rakesh’s desi neck, an Indian chappie with a trace of an American accent who adores a non-desi space organisation while our desi boy is trying so hard to do something for swades with swadeshi means. Can there be a more readymade villain in this era of chest-thumping deshbhakti? In that juvenile scene at a meeting with ISRO's top echelons, Rakesh makes a mock phone call to a revered figure from recent Indian history and dismisses Rupert as “imported man” at this end of the imaginary line. Later in the scene, our hero also pretends that it was a slip of the tongue when he addresses his bete noir as “popat” instead of Rupert. Giggle giggle. Taaliyaaaaan!
The third ‘achievement’ should not ideally be called that, except that it is undoubtedly a goal the filmmaker set for himself: to make an appearance of questioning the social status quo while in fact reassuring conservatives that change can happen without inconveniencing them, without disrupting deeply problematic Indian traditions and without upsetting the apple cart of prevailing prejudice.
So, Balan’s Tara may admonish her husband for trying to guilt her about her professional versus personal commitments (bravo!), but she never cries off doing her traditionally designated wifely duties, never demands that he share that workload and asks only that he do the comparatively ‘masculine’ job of paying the electricity bill. (Possible spoiler ahead) So, her junior Varsha Pillai (played by pan-south-India star Nithya Menen) is encouraged by Rakesh to continue working through a pregnancy, but the pregnancy itself is Varsha’s submission to her mom-in-law’s crudely articulated demand that she get a baby in her belly, in the film’s most heartbreaking scene. (Spoiler alert ends)
It may be argued that Mission Mangal portrays the reality of ISRO’s women scientists, but since it is not claiming to be an accurate documentary, since their story has evidently been highly reworked here for entertainment purposes, since real names have not been used and a suspension of disbelief is demanded from the audience in many areas anyway, it is worth asking why the film avoids showing another sort of woman who too exists in our world. Taras who put their foot down with their husbands over home management, Varshas who put their foot down with their in-laws are perhaps too much to digest. The message is clear: women in saris with gajras and bindis will do cool things like exploring outer space, but don’t worry, they will also continue to do all the housework with the housemaid, make you hot puris and have your babies whether they want to or not.
The only woman who wears Western clothing among the Mangalyaan lot – Sonakshi Sinha’s Eka Gandhi – has pre-marital sex, smokes and wants to quit India for NASA. Because Bollywood cannot conceive anything but this stereotypical mix? Eye roll.
And do not get me started on the cringe-worthy, condescending dialogues about women and Home Science etc from purportedly progressive men.
More troubling is the messaging about Islam in a seemingly gentle film. (Spoiler alert for this paragraph) Tara’s son is an A.R. Rahman fan who is drawn to the great artiste’s conversion to Islam, which leads to some genuinely comical scenes. There is more going on here though. This is a clever element in Mission Mangal because on the face of it, Tara’s words to the boy are above reproach. But they become questionable when her words don’t necessarily match her actions regarding her own faith, especially considering the socio-political context in which this film has been released, in an India where Muslims are now openly treated as objects of suspicion. (Spoiler alert ends)
(Spoiler alert for this paragraph) Meanwhile, Tara’s colleague Neha Siddiqui (Kirti Kulhari Sehgal) cannot find a house because she is Muslim. Her sweet elderly deeply religious Hindu colleague (H.G. Dattatreya) offers her a room in his home with the up-front caveat that she will not get non-vegetarian food. In another time this may perhaps have been brushed aside as a by-the-way, but in India 2019 the subliminal messaging is troubling: Muslims are welcome, as long as you play by ‘our’ rules. (Spoiler alert ends)
Mission Mangal’s mission to bat for women scientists is diluted by these factors and of course by its insistence on placing a man at the head of the table. This is not to claim that no Rakesh Dhawans exist out there, this is a comment about whose stories Bollywood is willing to tell. It is revealing that the writing team – Jagan Shakti, Nidhi Singh Dharma, Saketh Kondiparthi and R. Balki (who is credited as writer and creative director) – could not fathom a project focused entirely on these potentially fascinating women.
Although the screenplay gives Tara as much room as Rakesh, it leaves us in no doubt about his primacy in the film’s scheme of things. The result is that while Mission Mangal mines Kumar’s trademark goofiness and charisma, while it provides an ample canvas for Balan’s dignity, warm screen presence, earnestness and all-round fabulousness, it offers little to the gifted Menen, Kulhari and Taapsee Pannu.
In the writing of the supporting women, Sinha gets the best deal and lends mischievous verve to her character.
Appropriating a space occupied in real life by others and, in a sense, appropriating the achievements of others is becoming an unfortunate habit with Akshay Kumar. His Rakesh Dhawan not just shares the thunder with women in a film that would have been truly different if the women alone had been its fulcrum, the character also continues a Kumar tradition that began with Airlift in 2016. In that film, the heroic tale of Kerala’s Mathunny Matthews and others when Iraq invaded Kuwait was turned into the story of the fictional Punjabi businessman Ranjit Katiyal just so that Kumar could play him. In Padman (2018), the real-life and widely acclaimed Arunachalam Muruganantham of Tamil Nadu became Lakshmikant Chauhan from Madhya Pradesh, again so that Kumar could play him. Rakesh Dhawan is fiction, but notably, the ISRO chairman when Mangalyaan was launched was K Radhakrishnan and MoM’s programme director was M Annadurai. A member of Team Padman defended the film in an off-the-record chat after reading my review: “Casting a superstar like Akshay in the film gets it more eyeballs and box-office collections, he looks too north Indian to play a south Indian, and since this is a Hindi film no south Indian star would have brought the same attention to it that a Hindi film star would.” Sure. Logical. I asked her what I ask you to consider: how patient would India have been if Richard Attenborough had rewritten Mahatma Gandhi as some white chap called Morgan Gaiman who led India’s freedom movement and cast Clintwood Eastwood in the role of Gandhi? On the grounds that it would have got the film more eyeballs and box-office collections across continents? Logical?
While on the subject of appropriation, the most predictable one I suppose is the erasure of former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in Mission Mangal. Singh was PM when Mangalyaan was announced and when the satellite was launched into space. India’s present PM was in his chair for just a few months when the satellite entered Mars’ orbit. Yet, Singh gets zero mention in Mission Mangal while Narendra Modi gets a generous amount of beautifully mounted footage – a grand, larger-than-life solitary speaker on a striking all-black background.
That said, the closing days before Mangalyaan enters Mars’ orbit are handled well in Mission Mangal. Jagan Shakti is firmly in control of that portion, aided by Chandan Arora’s polished editing and a cast that sounds very much at home while tossing scientific jargon around. Together they manage to create an air of suspense that turns the last 15 minutes at least into a howdunnit, and despite my many reservations about the film I found myself on edge on behalf of Team Tara in the finale.
The women of ISRO are rich material for cinema. So are all women professionals from conservative societies who juggle a daily domestic grind with busy, unconventional careers. Mission Mangal can be lauded for bringing some of them to the big screen, and Vidya Balan for her flawless portrayal of one such woman. But the film is held back by its determination to ensure that traditionalist viewers do not feel threatened. Mission Mangal is fun and educational at one level, and Tara Shinde is inspiring in many ways, but make no mistake about this: the film’s elements of progressiveness mask a conservative, carefully status quoist core. This is a good study in how to be entertaining, exhilarating, exasperating, prejudiced and patronising all at once.
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