(Arati Kadav's Cargo was screened at the Jio MAMI 21st Mumbai Film Festival 2019. This review was published at the time, and has been republished in view of its Netflix release on 9 September, 2020)
If there’s one thing that can be said off the top about Arati Kadav’s debut feature Cargo, which screened at the Jio MAMI 21st Mumbai Film Festival, it is that the film is a thoroughly original one, particularly for Indian science fiction. A philosophical tale, a dark comedy, and a tight budget space film all rolled into one, Cargo is one of those oddball movies that will undoubtedly go on to develop a bit of a cult following over time.
In an undefined future where Earth and Mumbai don’t look significantly different from how they do right now, humankind and demon-kind have made peace, and this means that the process of dying has changed. A ‘post death transition system’ or PDTS, manned by a ‘rakshas’ (demon) on a spaceship, helps humans transition to the after-life peacefully. This demon, Prahasta, played by Vikrant Massey, lives a peaceful, solitary life on board his spaceship, dutifully following due procedure while helping the newly dead transition beyond. His life takes a turn when he is assigned a new assistant Yuvishka, played by a too-earnest Shweta Tripathi. If that sounds bizarre, that doesn’t even scratch the surface.
Many people die in the film; too many, some might say. Death isn’t the easiest subject to handle in the comedy genre, but in Cargo, there’s a lightness to the way Prahasta meets people who’ve just died and are in transit, his spaceship but a comfortable rest stop in the journey to the after-life. The goings-on may seem outlandish, but confined to the interiors of a basic spaceship, Prahasta’s relationship with his own loneliness and others’ deaths unfold gently. This is a world where other demons like him control other spaceships like his, with these demons posting about their exploits online and becoming social media stars back on Earth. Prahasta, unusually it seems, prefers solitude.
The references to the Hindu religion and mythology are shaken and stirred with absurd pop-culture nods and throwbacks, to give us something that, as I mentioned right at the start, simply comes across as refreshing and charming; even though it’s obvious that this would be dependent on how much one has been exposed to said mythology. (Prahasta, for the instance, is the name of the brother of one of the most famous Rakshasas in Hindu mythology, Ravana.) The very concept of the after-life is another trope of Hinduism the film borrows, by extension ensuring that death isn’t seen as such a big deal.
I won’t deny, the film confounded me at times. I often wasn’t quite sure what the larger point of the film was, or even if there was one to begin with. But this is a minor concern in the overall experience of watching something so distinct. This extends to the technical aspects of the film as well. No matter what you do, a low budget film will inevitably end up looking like one, particularly in a genre like science fiction, where atmosphere, look and feel are so important.
Yet, Cargo largely manages to make you gloss over that as well, simply because it’s fascinating to see the curious ways in which people die and turn up, mid-activity, in a spaceship - some of them unaware that they are dead until they’re told so. Now, make no mistake, calling it a science fiction film itself is a bit of an oversimplification, because there’s not much real ‘science’ that’s explored here, with most of the technology either dumbed down for everyone’s benefit or too preposterous to be considered even vaguely a representation of where our own real civilisation is heading. The whole vision of the future seems like what advanced technology would have looked like to people in the 1980s, with knobs and buttons reminiscent of Shakaal’s lair in Ramesh Sippy’s Shaan.
In that regard, Cargo is very much an allegorical take on the meaning of life and death, told through the gaze of someone with a distinctly whimsical way of looking at things, often from an existential perspective.
It walks the thin line between eccentric and ridiculous, but mostly stays in control because of writer-director Arati Kadav’s sheer conviction in this kooky story, the gravitas that Vikrant Massey brings to the screen by his sheer presence, and his relationship with his handler of sorts, Nitigya ‘sir’, played by Nandu Madhav. Yes, the whole PDTS system runs almost like an Indian government office. The mythology in the film may be Hindu, but the attitude is distinctly Indian. That alone makes Cargo a fun watch and its director Arati Kadav someone who must immediately be encouraged to tell more stories in her own original voice.
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