The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) came into existence on Independence Day half a century ago, though the launching of sounding rockets from Thumba on the Kerala coast had begun a few years prior to this. Since then, India has emerged as a key space faring nation having achieved several milestones. These achievements include a mission to the red planet in 2014 that made India the first one to reach the Martian orbit in its maiden attempt. Was this mission a result of jugaad? Was it carried out under adverse circumstances within ISRO and without ready support and funding from the government? The answer to these questions, unfortunately, would be yes, if you go by the depiction of the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) in Mission Mangal.
The MOM Was a Technological Innovation, Not Jugaad
Granted that filmmakers have creative license to dramatise complex subjects for mass appeal, but stretching real events like a recent space mission and diluting them to the level of absurdity does no service to viewers.
While watching the film I was reminded of a pre-WhatsApp era joke about an Indian (joke was about member of a particular community) at NASA. It seems scientists during the launch of a mission were perplexed as the rocket was not taking off from the launch pad even after all checks. It was making some odd noise but refused to ignite. The Indian on the scene offers to help, and tells engineers to tilt the rocket a bit, keep in that position for a few minutes and then bring it back to the original vertical position. Once this advice is followed, the engine ignites and rocket takes off.
When asked about the secret of this engineering advice, the Indian lets out the secret: ‘this is what we do in India when our scooters don’t start’.
Scientists and engineers in Akshay Kumar’s ISRO seem to follow this logic all the time. When communication link to the satellite is lost, the communications in-charge Kritika Aggarwal (Tapsee Pannu) simply shuts off the power of the mission control room, just as her husband rebooted her home computer when it had got hung.
Another engineer uses her knowledge of convertible and folding furniture (she lives in a one-bedroom flat) to design foldable solar panels for the Mars orbiter, while the material scientist decides to use plastic for making cheap and light weight material after seeing a street protest about plastic pollution in oceans.
The best case of jugaad is mission head Tara Shinde (Vidya Balan) frying puris in boiling oil with the gas turned off, to show how this home science technique could be used to make the mission fuel-efficient.
Another genius (Sonakshi Sinha) gets inspired by drawing of a sailing ship on a pillow cover to configure the satellite’s trajectory to the Mars orbit without use of extra fuel.
Another technique for reducing cost of the mission is to use ‘raat ka bacha hua khaana’ in the morning (or using human and material resources from another mission which has been postponed!).
Not just all this, it seems the mission was named MOM because one of the team members is expecting a baby. (There is a product placement for an IVF clinic here).
It is well documented that India’s space programme has grown under technology denial by the developed world and Indians had to constantly innovate and try new ideas for technology development.
Reducing such frugal technological innovation to jugaad, which is a temporary (and harmful) solution to a problem, is doing grave injustice to ISRO.
Shameful Depiction of a Dedicated Workforce
Jugaad engineering apart, the space agency in the film has unprofessional approach towards engineers and scientists. When one mission (GSLV) fails, the team leader (Akshay Kumar) is unceremoniously shunted out to the so-called ‘Mars Department’. It is ‘punishment posting’ because the Department has no infrastructure, people and funds. While the main ISRO is housed in a swanky glass tower, the Mars Department is located in a cobwebbed, dungeon-like, dilapidated shed.
The hero sets up the Mars department from the scratch, literally, begs for budget and is allotted junior workers (and one scientist who is due for retirement) who are all disinterested in the mission and generally in work. Scientists are seen calculating trajectories and other complex calculations on black board as if no computers existed in 2012 (this particular scene is a copy from Hidden Figures – a film about women in NASA of the 1960s).
All this is utterly shameful depiction of a government agency which in reality stands out for professionalism, innovation, team work and dedicated workforce.
Akshay Kumar’s repeated comparison of difficult circumstances of his mission with that of the Indian cricket team that won the world cup in 1983, also seem misplaced.
Mission leaders and members are portrayed to be god-fearing and superstitious in their personal lives. In reality, ISRO chiefs are known to routinely visit Tirupati before every major mission and offer replicas of rockets and satellites to the deities there. But only ISRO can confirm if a priest is present in the control room (and launch pad) to perform puja and break a coconut before every launch, as shown in the movie.
Overall, Mission Mangal is an entertaining work of fiction with a hero and a villain, and the hero, as usual, overcomes all odds in the end. It would be too much to expect from it other outcomes like inspiring young people (particularly women) to take up engineering and science or spreading scientific temper or promoting frugal technological innovation.
(Dinesh C Sharma is Managing Editor, India Science Wire (ISW), New Delhi, India. He can be reached at dineshcsharma.wordpress.com and @dineshcsharma on Twitter. His latest book is The Outsourcer: The Story of India's IT Revolution, MIT Press. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)