Mission Mangal undermines hard work of ISRO's women scientists by oversimplifying science, focusing on personal lives

Gita Aravamudan

Sep 04, 2019 10:13:03 IST

Mission Mangal is a happy, feel-good movie. It’s like a well-made ad film which successfully uses every possible trope and well-tested stereotype in order to reach a larger audience. It's rocket science made easy. And so, the R&D, engineering and the detailed technical work that goes into the making of every single minor and major component used in a techno-intensive project like the Mars Mission is covered in a layer of fluff.

But who cares, really? Judging by the crores that the film has earned, it would seem as though fluff is what audiences want and look for. Documentaries, which attract much smaller audiences, do not have the appeal of a "fictionalised account". Its success can be credited to the fact that the film has no jargon or complex science.

There is also no necessity to stick closely to the hard truth, because it is fiction, after all.

The small group of people on whom the movie focuses are mostly women with domestic issues, which everyone in the audience can relate to. They bond together and solve complicated technical challenges using some sort of naive “scientific” jugaad, inspired by their everyday experiences.

 Mission Mangal undermines hard work of ISROs women scientists by oversimplifying science, focusing on personal lives

Vidya Balan and Akshay Kumar in a still from Mission Mangal. Youtube screenshot

A real-life picture of the women at ISRO celebrating the successful Mars Mission went viral on social media. It showed half-a-dozen women wearing silk saris and jasmines in their hair, hugging and congratulating each other. Thereon, 'malli poo' worn in the hair became a trope for the women scientists of ISRO.

Minnie Vaid, the author of Those Magnificent Women and their Flying Machines, gives a detailed and empathetic view of the women who do technical work at ISRO. She said it was this picture, which had started conversations about “woman power in science” and “redefining mission control” is what inspired her to research her book. However, when she spoke to one of ISRO’s senior-most women scientists about it, she heard a different viewpoint. TK Anuradha told her the motivation should come from the Mars Mission itself, and not the photograph. “We are only names,” Anuradha told her, “Today I could be the Programme Director. Tomorrow, it could be somebody else. The programmes will continue to run.”

This is how the space programme works. Visionaries have come and gone, so have Prime Ministers. The pioneering scientists and engineers who created the early building blocks for the space programme are no longer active participants. Others have come and filled in the gaps every time. The missions have never suffered, because everyone in ISRO owns them and feels responsible for them. The transitions are smooth and there is always a next set of young people ready to move in.

The Mars Mission was certainly not put together from scratch within a couple of months inside a disused building, cleaned up in the film by the same women scientists, wielding brooms. Neither was it created by flashes of inspiration. It was the culmination of an ongoing process which involved several decades of input. The PSLV, which launched the rocket, was perfected over several years and went through a couple of failures before it became the most reliable “work horse” of ISRO. Every mission involved heartbreak and success, which had nothing to do with the personal lives of those who worked on them.

I became a member of the ISRO family 49 years ago by virtue of marrying one of its pioneers. Kerala, where the first space station came up in 1962, was already far ahead when it came to having educationally empowered career women. By 1970, a couple of women engineers and scientists were already working on projects. Today, many of those pioneering women engineers have retired. The contribution of those pioneers to the space programme is immeasurable.

Mission Mangal is definitely not a science movie, nor is it well-researched narrative science non-fiction. Youtube screenshot

Mission Mangal is definitely not a science movie, nor is it well-researched narrative science non-fiction. Youtube screenshot

In the nascent days of the space programme, the atmosphere at work was not particularly gender sensitive or accommodating. There were very few women, and most of them were young and just starting their families (as were the men). But “problems” like pregnancies, child rearing and family concerns were cited as excuses for not bringing them on board some important projects. This, in turn, meant that they couldn’t rise up in the hierarchy at the same pace as men and explains why women have not yet reached the top-most positions in ISRO even though they have made their presence felt in all areas during the last 50-odd years. However, this is fast changing.

Mission Mangal is definitely not a science movie, nor is it well-researched narrative science non-fiction. In fact, at times, it almost looks like light-hearted comedy. Take for example the scene where Vidya Balan rolls a gas stove into a room where a serious technical meeting is taking place and starts frying puris to demonstrate how fuel can be conserved. Or when Akshay Kumar talks to Kalam on a pretend-phone. Unimaginable in the real world!

The pretend-phone bit came immediately after the photo of two young men, Kalam and his best friend Aravamudan wearing a bunian, was flashed on the screen for a couple of minutes. They were working on a rocket payload in front of the altar of a church in Thumba over 50 years ago. A friend who knew both of them well joked, “I wouldn’t be surprised if this iconic photo taken by Henri Cartier Bresson becomes the inspiration for Akshay’s next bunian ad!”

Updated Date: Sep 04, 2019 14:53:12 IST