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Starring: Akshay Kumar, Vidya Balan, Sonakshi Sinha
Director: Jagan Shakti
Genre: Drama, History
RUNTIME: 130 Mins
One of my favourite trope hybrids of the 21st century is the science-sports dream team triumph – the journey of a ragtag group of often socially awkward geniuses defeating personal and interpersonal challenges with a side of insurmountable odds to accomplish a feat, giving us a behind-the-scenes look at some of the most historic headlines in human history.
Even though I don’t consider myself to be a patriot by any definition, I decided to celebrate India’s Independence Day by watching Bollywood’s first foray into the science dream team genre, Mission Mangal.
This film is directed by first time director Jagan Shakti, who has previously been an associate director on the tampon heart-warmer Padman and assistant director for the Bachchan father-son dramedy Paa. The semi-biopic is Bollywood’s treatment of Mangalyaan, India’s unmanned mission to Mars, which succeeded on its maiden attempt, a first in global missions to reach the red planet.
The ensemble cast, including Taapsee Pannu (Pink), Sonakshi Sinha (Dabangg), Nithya Menen (Mersal), Kirti Kulhari (Pink), Dalip Tahil (Gandhi), H G Dattatreya (Bharath Stores) and Sharman Joshi (3 idiots) was led by industry stalwarts Vidya Balan and Akshay Kumar.
Filming for the film was announced on November 5, 2018, the fourth anniversary of the launch of the Mars Orbiter and the film was released on August 15, 2019, the 50th birth anniversary of the founding of the India Space Research Organisation (ISRO).
Right from the beginning of the movie, I knew it was something special. It opens with Tara Shinde (Vidya Balan) getting her family ready for the day, dealing with her man-child husband Sunil (Sanjay Kapoor) and expertly parenting her teenage kids Dilip and Anya in a subtle scene that every Indian family can relate to.
After all the morning drama, she drives to work at the ISRO where she is part of the launch team, led by Rakesh Dhawan (Akshay Kumar) for the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV), which turns out to be a failure because of a bad call made by Tara.
Instead of blaming his team, Rakesh takes the fall, while celebrating the failure with a ladoo as he addresses the press. He finds himself reassigned to the Mars mission, which is, ironically, where scientists are shuffled off to, when they have to be taken off the “serious” missions.
The dilapidated and deserted building where the Mars department is located is symbolic of then-India’s hopes to make it out of the Earth’s orbit. With Tara’s encouragement and home-inspired ingenuity where she figures out how to improve engine efficiency while cooking breakfast and employing a heat momentum employed daily by Indian housewives, he puts together a team that launches Asia’s first successful and the world’s most economical mission to Mars, costing less than $75 million.
The rag tag geniuses include light satellite designer Varsha Pillai (Nithya Menen), communications specialist Kritika Agarwal (Taapsee Pannu), satellite autonomy engineer Neha Siddiqui (Kirti Kulhari), propulsion scientist Eka Gandhi (Sonakshi Sinha), payload specialist Parmeshwar Naidu (Sharman Joshi) and structural engineer Ananth Iyer (H.G. Dattatreya).
When they first introduce all these, I shook my head in disbelief, concerned about how the director would balance out eight personal stories but my fears were happily proven unfounded. Each character had unique struggles and each actor made the role their own. Each represented a different slice of Indian society and every audience member could relate to at least one of the character’s troubles and tribulations. What I particularly enjoyed was the set design. Each character’s personal space reflected his or her personality as a scientist and human; from the poster of Kalpana Chawla, the first woman of Indian origin to go into space, found in Eka’s room to the minimalist and multi-functional living space of satellite designer Varsha.
The cast was also primarily women, with each of their personal lives reflecting an all-too common clash between Indian traditional and progressive values, without getting too in-your-face about it.
Varsha had to balance maternity with career goals, Tara had to parent her man-child of a husband and Neha had to deal with a sadly common prejudice against Muslims when finding a place to stay.
And while telling all these personal stories, a larger interpersonal story was told of the team coming together. Yes, it was cliché and oversimplified with Tara inspiring the team to remember why they became scientists in the first place, playing the role of the coach who spurs the team on with a convenient story… but I still loved it.
All through, of course the scientific story was the star and where there was no villain, one was created. NASA import Rupert Desai (Dalip Tahil) was the classic way-too-practical guy, always saying, “it can’t be done” and trying to vandalise the team in barely noticeable ways.
The movie had it all – head, heart, humour and heavy duty. Yes, there were some unnecessary gratuitous scenes like a dancing scene that seemed to just be there so Sanjay Kapoor could relive his younger Bollywood days and some details were fictionalised like the launch window of 10 days.
Despite its very minor flaws, everything in the movie just worked. Even the end which we all knew because of the headlines a few years ago, was exciting and kept me at the edge of my seat. For an excellent and exhilarating ride, uncommon subtlety and most of all, for treating the audience like adults while appealing to all ages, this movie has easily earned a fantastic four stars.
Naman’s verdict: 4/5