With its overarching tone of naiveté, “Mission Mangal” hopes to convince its viewers that rocket science isn’t, well, rocket science.
Director Jagan Shakti and creative director R Balki would like you to believe that India’s historic Mars mission was built on the back of last-minute improvisation and borrowing a few tricks from the kitchen, helped along by the idea of “jugaad” (a Hindi word that refers to the ability to innovate with limited resources).
With the Mangalyaan satellite, built at one-tenth the cost of NASA’s Mars mission and launched by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) in 2013, India became the first country to send a satellite to the red planet in its first attempt.
Inspired by a photograph of saree-clad women scientists of India’s space agency cheering and hugging, that went viral after the launch of the mission, the film places its women at the front and center of its story, much like Theodore Melfi’s 2016 Hollywood film, “Hidden Figures”.
The 133-minute film starts off in the kitchen, with Tara Shinde (Vidya Balan) rushing through her morning chores while her family lazes around. She reminds her son to eat his meals and tells her husband about errands that need to be run before rushing to work.
At first glance, Shinde is your average working mother. Her career, however, is anything but ordinary – she is a project head at ISRO, where she regularly oversees critical spacemissions. A misjudgment on her part leads to the aborting of an important mission and her boss, Rakesh Dhawan (Akshay Kumar), takes the brunt of the blame.
He is shunted to the dormant Mars project – India’s space agency is notoriously short of funds, and none of the top scientists wants to be a part of the stillborn mission. But Tara has other ideas. Struck by inspiration after she watches flatbread being fried, Tara pitches her low-cost Mars mission idea to Rakesh, who in turn takes it to the bosses.
They put together a rag-tag team of scientists – unlikely picks but effective in their roles, much like the cast of the film. A cushion, a poster, an umbrella – just about everything seems to spark a new idea with this team, which also makes good use of the “turn it off and on again” trick as they rush to build their ambitious satellite.
While the film tries to make the complex science that goes into a space mission accessible, it turns gimmicky in its attempts to simplify the process. The dialogue is trite in places and the writers try too hard to stuff the script with tongue-in-cheek references (including a weak pun about NASA and “sarvanasa”, the Sansrkit word for disaster). Fortunately for the film, most of its shortcomings are overshadowed by the camaraderie shared by the cast.
As the childlike scientist who deals with her cranky husband, her rebellious son, and a million-dollar satellite launch with the same equanimity, Vidya Balan is a joy to watch on screen. The performances of Sonakshi Sinha, as an ambitious scientist who reluctantly finds her feet in the program, and Kriti Kulhari, as the quiet divorcee struggling to heal, stand out. Kumar, accustomed to the limelight in most of his films, only pretends to give it up to the women in this film, quickly taking center-stage again when there is a rousing line or two than needs to be delivered.
For all its flaws, “Mission Mangal” is an uplifting film. The film’s enthusiasm about its subject and its ability to make you care about its characters help even out the bumps in its path.