Mission Mangal: Over the Top but Worth a Watch
On 5 November, 2013, Mangalyaan was launched from Sriharikota by ISRO (Indian Space Research Organisation). India managed to send its orbiter to Mars successfully, thus becoming the first Asian country and also the first nation in the world to do so in the first attempt.
Designed and developed by Indian scientists, there are many fascinating details about this incredible feat. The Mars Orbiter Mission, or MOM, is one of the cheapest interplanetary missions ever undertaken, budgeted at Rs 450 crores. In fact PM Narendra Modi had even joked saying that the real-life Martian adventure costs less than the Hollywood film Gravity.
So, Mission Mangal itself has enough patriotic fervour, inspiration, drama and by Bollywood standards all it needed was Akshay Kumar to make it into a film, keeping in mind the kind of nationalistic subjects the actor has very consciously been a part of lately.
So there you have it – ISRO scientist Rakesh Dhawan (Akshay Kumar), who after a failed mission, is burdened with the task of heading the Mars Mission, something everyone in the department, including Dhawan, knows is almost impossible and is just a punishment posting. Things, however, suddenly look up when one of his Project Directors Tara Shinde (Vidya Balan) has a Eureka moment while frying ‘pooris’. Soon, a team of scientists is hustled up – there is Eka Gandhi (Sonakshi Sinha), Kritika Aggarwal (Taapsee Pannu), Neha Siddiqui (Kirti Kulhari), Varsha Pillai (Nithya Menen), Parmeshwar Naidu (Sharman Joshi) and Ananth Iyer (H.G.Dattatreya).
Directed by Jagan Shakti, who has also written it along with R. Balki, Nidhi Singh Dharma and Saketh Kondiparthi, the tone of Mission Mangal’s script is decidedly light and frothy. Jargon has been kept to the minimum. This isn’t the dark steely world of sci-fi but a more relatable, emotional story of a group of bright but relatively inexperienced scientists fighting all kinds of odds to achieve something no one thought was even possible - to send our orbiter to Mars. Notably, this mission was led by women scientists and in the film it’s when we focus on their individual stories that the narrative truly becomes engaging.
Vidya Balan is superb in the role of Tara, who effortlessly juggles between her home and family and is always ready with instant out-of-the-box solutions. Hers is one of the better written tracks where a chauvinistic husband (Sanjay Kapoor) and moody teenage kids are as much a challenge as ISRO’s ambitious Mars project. So compelling is the character of Tara that she deserves a spin-off movie of her own. In fact, the whole ensemble cast including Taapsee, Sonakshi, Kirti and Vidya’s on screen teenage son all come up with brilliant performances.
But, the handling of this truly inspiring subject remains stubbornly “Bollywood-ish”. Sometimes, it works in favour of the film. For example, in one scene when Vidya asks her colleagues to remember the time when they first decided to become scientists, or the last 10 minutes where the background score gives its complete assistance to heighten the tension and keep us glued to the screens even when the trajectory of the story is well-known.
But, there are also times when this same drama robs the narrative of the gravitas that a subject of this nature deserves. The Mars Mission team dancing and singing while sprucing up their department floor, or Akshay Kumar’s eccentric scientist avatar where he mumbles Hindi film songs to not let one of his detractors, NASA returned scientist Rupert Desai (Dalip Tahil), get under his skin are some of the low points in the movie.
Still, for everything that Mission Mangal gets right, particularly the performances and the emotional quotient as the pictures of the real scientists who have helped make India a power to reckon with in space technology flash on the screen, the film deserves to be seen.