Mission Mangal director Jagan Shakti, co-writer R Balki on why Akshay Kumar's superstardom catapulted their film

\Creative director R Balki, and Jagan Shakti, who helmed Mission Mangal, talk about making their film within a budget constraint, just like Mangalyaan.

Seema Sinha August 20, 2019 08:21:22 IST
Mission Mangal director Jagan Shakti, co-writer R Balki on why Akshay Kumar's superstardom catapulted their film

Close on the heels of successful launch of India’s moon mission Chandrayaan – 2, the latest release of Mission Mangal,  a science fiction and an ensemble cast film led by Akshay Kumar, Vidya Balan, Taapsee Pannu, Sonakshi Sinha, Kirti Kulhari, and Nithya Menen, tells the story of scientists at ISRO (Indian Space Research Organisation) who contributed to the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM)India’s first inter-planetary expedition. The much awaited movie, which is Akshay’s fifth consecutive Independence Day release, is the directorial debut of Jagan Shakti, who has assisted R Balki and A Murugadoss in multiple films.

In an exclusive chat with Firstpost, Balki (writer-creative director) and Shakti, among other things, talk about how it is an attempt to showcase Mangalyaan as accurately as possible, despite the film being a commercial entertainer, and a “full-on” Akshay film albeit minus his 'herogiri'.

Mission Mangal director Jagan Shakti cowriter R Balki on why Akshay Kumars superstardom catapulted their film

Akshay Kumar in a still from Mission Mangal

How did Mission Mangal happen? How did Akshay get involved in the project?

BalkiJagan has worked with me from Cheeni Kum to Padman, and he was supposed to remake Murugadoss’s (2014 release) Kaththi a few years ago. It didn’t happen, and I told him to think of a new and original idea. He read the Mangalyaan mission, and tried to develop it but it didn’t work out. I was wondering whether I should get involved but realised that it needs to be mounted really big. I spoke to Akshay and at that time, we were doing Padman promotions. Jagan had many rounds of discussion with Akshay and subsequently, I got involved as a writer. And while I was writing, I decided that it should not be that typical women empowerment film. I think by calling it empowerment, it is telling women that they were weak. We wanted to talk about scientists, people who looked very ordinary and commonplace doing extraordinary things. That is the story.

Jagan: Akshay sat on the script with me for many months. I traveled with him to Jaisalmer and Pune, where he was shooting for Housefull 4 and Kesari respectively to discuss the story. He wanted to understand the subject deeply, and he also gave his own inputs. He wanted to be really confident about it.

How much of Mission Mangal is fiction, and how much of it is a true story?

Jagan: Most of the film is about the main mission, which is a true event. It was a huge success, and all of that is there on the public domain. My elder sister, Sujatha Krishna, is a scientist at ISRO, and thus, I got the chance to meet the team behind Mangalyaan. I portrayed real incidents inside ISRO but the characters have been fictionalised for entertainment purposes because I always look at it from a commercial bent of mind. I believe that people should throng to theatres to watch it, and because it is such a widely acclaimed event in the history of India so the primary target was how to entertain. Mission Mangal is a fictional account of a true story.

Initially, there were some speculations about Akshay doing a cameo. Then there was this controversy of Akshay featuring on poster more prominently than the leading ladies. How would you react to those discussions?

Balki: Once Akshay became a part of the project, I rewrote the whole thing with Akshay as the lead, and the film turned out in such a way that Akshay is the hero of the film, and he is leading this whole team. Akshay’s role is five minutes more than what he is there in Kesari (laughs out loud). What I mean is that it can’t get longer because he is there in every frame of Kesari, right?  It is a full-on Akshay Kumar film but not the typical Akshay Kumar film. It is very non-macho. He is not doing any herogiri. He is a normal person doing normal things, cracking normal jokes, and leading a team of very sincere people to do extraordinary things. He is the man who is doing the mission, and Vidya and Akshay are driving the mission. Akshay and Vidya are the lead in the film. When I was writing, Akshay and I felt that let’s get all known actors on board, and we got Nithya, Kirti, Sonakshi, Taapsee. All of them agreed on the basis of the script, and felt that the story needed to be told. It is an Akshay Kumar film, and it has Vidya but everybody has substantial roles. It is not a one-person dominated film. It is an ensemble film. So yes, Akshay is the hero of this film, and so are the five women, who play characters that are as strong and as important as his.

Jagan, how was it working on such a huge ensemble cast film? What was the actors' approach, and how was your experience directing them?

Getting Vidya, Taapsee, even Sonakshi, Kriti in her own right, and Nithya, who is a huge star in South, was a big deal. If you have all these people coming on board, you need to ensure that they have enough meat for them to perform. Once they have done that, one has to see to it that they are positioned right, and we get the right amount of acting juice from them. I have worked with Vidya and Sonakshi in Paa and Holiday (respectively). Sonakshi had promised me that she will do my first film, and that is how she came on board. Each one of them has a different style. If one is intuitive, the other is impromptu. Kirti is proper and scientific in her approach, and Vidya has gone and spoken for hours with scientists. Vidya also spoke to my sister on how she balances home and work, and watched many movies to prep up. Taapsee likes to own the lines so that she is spontaneous. Sonakshi will give you the exact pitch for dialogues. Nithya’s acting is like breeze. Akshay may look very casual and effortless but he marinated himself in that character. And once they agreed on the script level, after that, there was no confusion on floors about who is doing what. They were like a house on fire.

Mission Mangal director Jagan Shakti cowriter R Balki on why Akshay Kumars superstardom catapulted their film

A still from Mission Mangal

Jagan, so far you were an associate director. How was it being the captain of the ship?

I used to head as an associate director in many films with Balki sir and Murugadoss sir. I would lead like a military ruler but when you become a director, you have to take everybody together, so I mellowed down (laughs). It is a team effort. Now, as a director, I have to keep actors happy so that they give best performances. It is pampering everybody to motivate and ensure that they give their best. I wanted each department to own the film, and once they do that, they give their best, and that was my motto.

Akshay is known to start work at the crack of dawn. How did you manage that?

Jagan: He always wants to start the shoot at 6 am. But he doesn’t trouble others, and I like his method of work because you tend to finish lot of work by 12 noon if you start that early. He usually shoots till 6 pm and after that, he prepares for his next project, and he is back to work at 6 am the next day.

Jagan, is it true that when you started writing the script, you wanted Sridevi and Mohanlal?

Yes, when I started writing the script a few years ago, I'd imagined Mohanlal and Sridevi in the lead roles. Actually I had Sridevi in mind for the role of a senior scientist but that was a different story. And once Akshay entered the project, we restructured the story with a big superstar in it. We added a few things complementing his personality.

Balki, how challenging was the project in terms of VFX and special effects?

We don’t have VFX just to show off but the special effects is used to show rocket launch and satellites flying in space in a very authentic and realistic manner. We are very familiar today, watching so many Hollywood films that we can’t cheat on that. We can’t call our film ambitious because our budget was small, whereas the budget for the actual mission was so huge. It is not a cheap film but it is not astronomically expensive either. We have spent where we had to but it is a tight film. My only goal, and why I drove it besides writing was that I wanted it to be exactly like Mangalyaan, and I wanted to replicate the ISRO model in the filmmaking. It is a very complex post-production film where we had to split forces.

All images from YouTube.

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