When Vidya Balan sets up a stove and starts frying puris in Mission Mangal, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Not because she’s talking astrophysics while doing it, or because the onlookers are top Indian Space Research Organisation scientists who’d probably understand the point she’s making without the demonstration. No, I was distracted because I thought I saw, for a second, orange and green flames under the stove. Must be the Independence Day sensory overload, I told myself. But then I saw it again.
After that I started seeing shades of orange and green juxtaposed in scene after scene. A dark orange pipe watering a green hedge. The pleats of Balan’s sari. Mood lighting reflected in the mirror of Sonakshi Sinha’s room. Nithya Menen’s bindi-and-lipstick combo. On a desk, peach roses with green stems. Orange flames issuing from a rocket, green lens flare. The Mars Orbiter Mission spacecraft as a green infographic on a giant screen, inching towards the red (or dark saffron?) planet.
R Balki, Mission Mangal’s co-writer and creative director, is an advertising man. He knows very well the sly persuasions of subliminal messaging. My question is this: why bother with subtle colour hints when you’re shouting the same message through a megaphone? This is, after all, an I-Day release. It stars Akshay Kumar, India’s cheerleader. On more than one occasion, working for the space program is equated to serving the nation. The 1983 World Cup win is brought up. A wounded soldier tells his scientist wife, “What you’re doing here is nothing less than an army mission." A little saffron here, a little green there – it’s like bringing a subliminal knife to a gunfight you’re already winning.
After the 2010 GSLV launch develops complications and is aborted at the last minute, its director, Rakesh Dhawan (Akshay Kumar), is placed in charge of ISRO’s Mars mission, a dead-end post. But his second-in-command, Tara Shinde (Balan), whose error of judgment might have cost the earlier launch, has her puri-inspired brainwave, figuring a way to save the orbiter’s fuel and use strategic jolts of power to set it on a trajectory to Mars. The plan is nearly rejected, until Rakesh vaults across a table and tells the ISRO head that they must make a chhalang (leap). Again, either action would have sufficed.
Their mission now approved, Tara and Rakesh set about assembling a team. Like Ridley Scott’s The Martian – a definite influence on Mission Mangal – director Jagan Shakti casts these parts with a mix of stars (Sinha, Menen, Taapsee Pannu) and character actors (Kirti Kulhari, HG Dattatreya, Sharman Joshi). It might have worked had Shakti’s film the same rat-a-tat humour as Scott’s, but it doesn’t, and can offer little in its place but trite screenwriter tropes – such as Kulhari’s Neha Siddiqui encountering religious prejudice while house-hunting.
Mission Mangal consistently champions scientists and science. Yet, by linking the team’s breakthroughs to puris and pillowcases and stray comments by family members, and by explaining everything in layman’s terms, it diminishes the complexity of their achievements. When Tara brings a cake to office and asks her dispirited team to recall the day they became interested in science, it’s supposed to “humanise" these people, yet it’s a cloying device that adds nothing to our understanding of them. There’s one potentially intriguing divide: Tara is devout, Rakesh seems to be an atheist. But instead of any back-and-forth between the two about the role of faith in science, it’s wasted on a pat exchange between Tara and her teenage son.
The film itself is decidedly devout. Tara is shown praying in a couple of scenes. Joshi’s Parmeshwar is intensely religious, to the extent that he initially refuses the job because he’s been warned to stay away from Mangal (Mars) or he’ll remain a virgin. A priest conducts prayers during the launch. There’s a painted ‘Om’. There’s an aborted trip to Tirupati. It’s a little surprising to see this much religiosity in a film about scientific achievement. But it’s not at all unusual nowadays to see religion plastered all over a film about national pride.
Bengaluru, a rare setting for a Hindi film, is entirely wasted – this could have been taking place on a campus in Mumbai or Delhi. Apart from one scene where Rakesh unexpectedly breaks into Tamil, everyone speaks in Hindi, at work and in their homes. Mission Mangal might have used the ISRO offices – or canteen – to show how these people who hail from different states and speak different languages coexist and communicate. Instead, the diversity is flattened: one language, one religion (apart from a solitary mosque), one India. This isn’t a film interested in people and places so much as nation and achievement.