Jagan Shakti’s Mission Mangal is strictly basic as a space exploration movie. It’s also cute and occasionally involving as a workplace dramedy. The question is: which film have you come to watch? For audiences mistakenly hoping to see Akshay Kumar shoot into space, the fun is scant. Even more doomed are those expecting a detailed historical document (a NASA-aspiring scientist in this film is surnamed Gandhi, only to round off a joke on ‘Quit India’). However, if you are down with the familiarity of the setup, and are willing to engage with these characters — despite the tokenisms and halted arcs — there might just be a surprise or two.
I found my clincher midway through the second half, and it came as far removed from rocket science as Earth from Mars. “Those were the days,” says Sanjay Kapoor, cameoing as the peevish husband of scientist Tara Shinde (Vidya Balan). In the previous scene, Sanjay, while attempting to out-cool his disco-hopping daughter, has just danced to ‘Akhiyaan Milaoon Kabhi’ — the hit song from his 1995 film, Raja. It’s a wistful self-nod in a seemingly stray scene, but it struck me as the most poignant moment of a film supposedly about greater things.
When a crucial mission fails, Rakesh (Akshay Kumar), senior scientist at ISRO, takes the fall. As punishment, he is handed over the insurmountable ‘Mars Mission’ — bureaucratic humiliation to have Rakesh quit by himself. Tara, cut up about a past mistake, joins Rakesh; together, they assemble a team and crack the idea of sending the most budget-efficient satellite to Mars. The significance of this mission is established early on, when a New York Times cartoon mocks India with a racist caricature. Rakesh, sketchpad in hand, proudly declares his allegiance. “Can’t depend on NASA for everything,” he says, “It’s time to make in India”.
Unsubtle government plug aside, Mission Mangal makes honest efforts to personalize its story. This happens partly through comic character introductions: the navigation expert can’t drive, the structural engineer is old, and the payload designer is a virgin. The heftier backstories belong to Kirti Kulhari, as a Muslim scientist unable to find a house, and Nithya Menen, as a married woman being pressured toward childbirth. These themes help crystallize the main narrative, but, for the most part, are treated like sub-plots. There’s no need to pursue individual ‘social’ battles when a larger ‘scientific’ battle is at hand; the success of the mission, the film assumes, will expunge everything.
In resistance to Einstein, Jagan makes things as simple as possible, then simpler. Complex mechanisms are explained via culinary tricks. The home science sophistry amuses for a while, until the wit fades out. Even a 100-minutes in, we are still talking about masala dosa and curd rice. A fight scene in the Bangalore metro has the ladies do the thrashing, while Akshay gets his bum pricked. Dalip Tahil obliges as a cartoon villain, pulling a weird Bill Maher impression and remaining graceful at it.
The run-up to the launch is gradual and indulgent. As such, when the D-Day arrives, Jagan speeds things up. Almost a year’s journey is squeezed into a last-lap dart. I was largely unimpressed by the visual effects, which composites partial models onto CGI wholes. Composer Amit Trivedi sticks to Indian beats in the finale, instead of spacing-out. The real spectacle is kept earthbound, with Rakesh and his team shouting out orders and clicking into consoles. The suspense is non-existent, but the actors keep up.
There’s a duteous montage in the film saluting the stalwarts of Indian science: Vikram Sarabhai, Satish Dhawan, Abdul Kalam. Then a familiar voice cuts in and tells us how Hollywood lost out to ISRO. Mission Mangal is respectful and clear of heart, but struggles at times to pick out its heroes. If the answer is no one in particular, that signal is lost in space.
Film: Mission Mangal
Cast: Akshay Kumar, Vidya Balan, Taapsee Pannu, Sonakshi Sinha, Kirti Kulhari
Director: Jagan Shakti
Rating: 5 stars
(This review originally appeared on cinemaexpress.com)