By Poulomi Das Aug. 15, 2019
Akshay Kumar's Mission Mangal joins the ranks of Bollywood space films that have no idea how to be one. The mission’s female scientists contribute nothing save for pressing a few buttons or looking worried, and if the film is to be believed, space travel is as easy as catching a Pokemon.
With every Independence Day, it’s becoming more and more apparent that an Akshay Kumar film proclaiming its loyalty towards the country is a genre unto itself. At this point, Kumar feels less like an actor and more like an extension of the ruling government’s promotional pamphlet, both onscreen and off it. Exactly a year ago, Kumar starred in Gold, a biopic that chronicled the journey of the Indian hockey team winning its first Olympic gold back in 1948. In between, he did a worryingly “non-political” interview with Narendra Modi where the actor was all too happy to only prod the Prime Minister about his sleep cycle and his affection for mangoes, weeks before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
Today, he stars in Mission Mangal, another unimaginative film that aims to document how a team of ISRO scientists successfully launched a Mars-bound satellite in their maiden attempt in 2013. But since it is also an Akshay Kumar film, it is entirely unsurprising that Mission Mangal – loosely inspired by real events – forgets the titular “mission” that marked India’s first interplanetary expedition, in order to become an excuse to exalt hyper-nationalism. It’s telling that Mission Mangal chooses to end with a speech by Narendra Modi where he brags about the success of the Mangalyaan mission, even though it was launched when his government was not in power.
Directed by Jagan Shakti (R Balki is credited as a co-writer and creative director), Mission Mangal is set in 2010 and opens at the ISRO headquarters in Bengaluru. After a botched rocket launch is carried out under the leadership of Rakesh Dhawan (Kumar), he is asked to lead a vague Mars Mission, which involves equipping India with a satellite that can travel all the way to the planet by 2022, as a symbolic demotion.
It’s a feat that Dhawan, considers a flight of fancy, until Tara Shinde (Vidya Balan), a project director at ISRO convinces him otherwise. The rest of Mission Mangal follows them bringing together a team of scientists, which include Ekaa Gandhi (Sonakshi Sinha), Varsha Pillai (Nithya Menon), Neha Siddiqui (Kirti Kulhari), Kritika Agarwal (Tapsee Pannu), Parmeshwar Joshi (Sharman Joshi), and Ananth Iyer (HG Dattareya), to execute the mission.
Directed by Jagan Shakti, Mission Mangal is set in 2010 and opens at the ISRO headquarters in Bengaluru.
As is tradition with Bollywood space films, Mission Mangal oversimplifies the intricacies of space travel with laughably awful cricket, cooking, and patriotic metaphors. To counter the widely-held assumption that India doesn’t have a rocket powerful enough to travel the distance, Shinde offers a solution inspired from her kitchen: Just like she turns off the gas in the kitchen while frying puris in hot oil, she suggests that they turn off the fuel of the existing PSLV rocket at regular intervals to aid its flight. When the seniors at ISRO are unconvinced about the feasibility of the mission, Dhawan offers a rousing speech that implores that ISRO should take a leap – it’s accompanied by Kumar literally leaping across the table. And, in one of the film’s most ridiculous scenes, when the team loses contact with the satellite, a scientist decides to switch the controls on and off – like her husband did to her laptop – to re-establish contact successfully.
The trouble with Mission Mangal is that it genuinely – and arrogantly – believes that it can get away by selling these theatrics as an explanation of the science behind the mission. According to Shakti’s interpretation, a team of scientists just happened to make a satellite reach Mars through sheer force of trademark Indian innovation (more popularly, jugaad). In doing so, Mission Mangal joins the ranks of Bollywood space films that have no idea how to be one. It reiterates the worst clichés: All important discussions and specific planning for the mission naturally happen offscreen and the team conveniently triumphs over every obstacle, including the laws of physics. Over 70 percent of Mission Mangal’s two-hour runtime is dedicated to everything – think unnecessary subplots, forced romance, a song and dance routine, a severe dose of Islamophobia, and even a Make in India plug – but in deconstructing the mission. It’s a mark of impossibly dishonest filmmaking that doesn’t even try to engage with its story and make it believable, choosing to only rely on the saleability of its premise and patriotism.
Yet even more infuriating is how Mission Mangal shortchanges its women under the guise of progressiveness. For starters, Mission Mangal sexualises the female scientists who were the driving force behind the original Mangalyaan mission by casting younger, attractive actors to play them. Apart from Balan, who plays a caricaturish mother of two, none of the four women are accorded a proper role or screen-time; instead they appear in what can be best described as extended cameos armed with hackneyed backstories. Their presence in Mission Mangal fulfills no specific purpose for the mission either, save for pressing a few buttons or looking worried and the only way they’re distinguishable from each other is through the relationship they share with the men in their lives.
Mission Mangal joins the ranks of Bollywood space films that have no idea how to be one.
In fact, Mission Mangal’s faux progressiveness is at its brazen display during the introduction montage of its five female scientists: Pannu’s Krittika is the bumbling scientist whose terrible driving skills are paraded as the film’s comic relief. There’s even a distasteful sequence where she is inexplicably made to grab the crotch of her driving instructor when he asks her to switch to fourth gear. Sinha’s Ekaa is the film’s token sexually promiscuous woman who smokes, swears, and sleeps around. Yet when she catches the fancy of Parmeshwar, a superstitious virgin, the film promptly treats her as his property and romanticises his stalking.
Kulhari’s Neha fills in the film’s Muslim quota (which is ironic, given that Mission Mangal mines Muslim-ness for cheap laughs as well) and Menon’s Varsha is saddled with arguably the worst non-role: She is made to go through a pregnancy without a maternity leave, and obviously, there’s a joke about her weight that Mission Mangal proudly boasts as humour. This bizarre introduction montage is rounded off by Dhawan complaining to Shinde that their team is resembling a “Mangal mahila mandal” and that he needs a man for company.
Mission Mangal’s offensive gaze, which is proof that Bollywood is yet to understand how to write female characters, isn’t new or even an exception. But the film’s casual sidelining of its actresses stands out, given how it deceives the audience into believing in its feminism while simultaneously making jokes at the expense of its women. Yet for all its surface-level attempts at equality, the cluelessness of Shakti’s gaze is further exacerbated by the fact that it strips off all agency from its five women. It’s Kumar’s Dhawan – the film’s proverbial hero – who calls the shots, routinely talks over the five women, and ultimately takes the credit for the success of the mission. It doesn’t help that the film’s climax, which sees the team guide the satellite to Mars, feels more like a parody than fact. If Mission Mangal is to be believed, interplanetary space travel is as easy as catching a Pokemon. It’s a memo any Independence Day could do without.
When not obsessing over TV shows, planning unaffordable vacations, or stuffing her face with french fries, Poulomi likes believing that some day her sense of humour will be darker than her under-eye circles.