Statutory warning: looking for science, logic or facts here would be like searching for the proverbial needle in the haystack. That makes it easy for viewers like yours truly who have anyhow always been challenged when it comes to matters of physics, chemistry, mathematics and statistics. Also, for a more detailed and factual account — as opposed to this highly fictionalised one — of the ordinary lives of the extraordinary women scientists behind India’s mission to Mars it would, perhaps, be advisable to turn to Minnie Vaid’s book Those Magnificent Women and Their Flying Machines: ISRO's Mission to Mars.
- Director: Jagan Shakti
- Starring: Akshay Kumar, Vidya Balan, Taapsee Pannu, Nithya Menen, Kirti Kulhari, Sonakshi Sinha, Sharman Joshi, H. G. Dattatreya, Vikram Gokhale, Dalip Tahil, Sanjay Kapoor
- Run time: 133 minutes
With the nation’s conscience keeper Akshay Kumar at the helm and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech featured in a special appearance, the idea behind Mission Mangal quite clearly is to ignite our supposedly latent nationalism. India becoming the first Asian nation to reach the Mars orbit and the first in the world to do so, that too in its very first attempt and at a fraction of the requisite cost — it the kind of stuff that fires new India’s patriotic feelings. The film goes all out to celebrate the uniquely ‘Indian’ frugal engineering and innovative ways of fixing issues, of harnessing science for the pride of the nation. Just a small factual point to note in these times of WhatsApp forwards is that the mission was launched when Manmohan Singh was Prime Minister in 2013 even though the space probe started orbiting Mars in 2014.
However, the interest does not lie in such intricacies of the mission as it does with the oddball bunch of scientists behind it, with the eccentric Rakesh Dhawan (Akshay Kumar) and the jugaadu (an expert at hacks) Tara Shinde (Vidya Balan) at the helm. It’s a construct that is instantly reminiscent of a Lagaan and Chak De! India. A lot of these characters
and their lives remain half baked at the cost of the others. One would, for instance, have liked to see much more of a Varsha Pillai (Nithya Menen) and a Neha Siddiqui (Kirti Kulhari).
The CGI is basic to say the least, the writing swings between good, bad and indifferent. Some lines work, like “Naam mein Gandhi, kaam mein Quit India” (Gandhi by name, but Quit India by virtue), directed at a Ms. Gandhi who wants to leave the country and ISRO to work at NASA. But wordplay like NASA and SatyaNASA (destructive) is eminently infantile. The rocket science as opposed to home science — pooris and cushion covers firing up ideas — used in the ‘Mahila (ladies) Mangal Mission’ and a man trying to influence and convince a pregnant woman to join the mission, can get highly condescending. Being ‘just’ a mom is as good as being a mom on MOM (Mars Orbiter Mission), you feel like telling the male saviour. Let it be her choice, for a change.
On the flip side, the film showcases believable dynamics and negotiations of everyday chauvinism within Tara Shinde’s family that provides an instant, often amusing connect. A flustered, paranoid husband (Sanjay Kapoor), a rebellious but essentially good daughter and a son intent on converting to Islam just because he is called Dileep, after his idol A.R. Rahman’s former name. There is a kookiness to the elderly member of the mission, Ananth Iyer (H.G. Dattatraya), which is equally charming. It’s the instances of a certain self-aware goofiness and giddy light-headedness which reach out. Add to that, the over the top, adversarial NASA scientist Rupert Desai (Dalip Tahil) and you could find yourself smiling, albeit unintentionally. Ultimately it’s a consummate Vidya Balan who rises above everything else and, thankfully, makes Mission Mangal all about a good-hearted matriarch instead of a patronising patriarch.