Mission Mangal movie cast: Vidya Balan, Akshay Kumar, Sonakshi Sinha, Taapsee Pannu, Nithya Menen, Kirti Kulhari, Sharman Joshi, H G Dattatreya, Vikram Gokhale, Dalip Tahil, Sanjay Kapoor, Mohammad Zeeshan Ayyub
Mission Mangal movie director: Jagan Shakti
Mission Mangal movie ratings: Two and a half stars
In November 2013, the much-awaited Mangalyaan was launched. Less than a year later, the light-weight satellite carrying five crucial instruments, successfully entered the orbit of Mars, the red planet. And history was made.
India became the first country to do this on its first try, at a fraction of the cost of what space pioneers— US, Russia and China– had spent. It was a national triumph, coasting on the amazing innovative spirit of the scientists at ISRO (Indian Space Research Organisation), Bangalore.
One of the big difficulties of making a Bollywood film on such a subject is evident right from the start in Mission Mangal: how do you prevent the film from drowning in jargon? The facts of how the operation was conceived (the first public announcement was made in 2008, under PM Manmohan Singh’s government), how it was carried through under tremendous odds, and how it came to a conclusion (at the start of PM Narendra Modi’s first reign), are in public domain.
How do you jazz up dry, complicated science to make it easy for the viewer who wants, primarily, to be entertained? The answer is twin-pronged: one, dumb down the science and keep it simple, stupid, and two, get a big male A-lister to front the project.
Enter Akshay Kumar as Rakesh Dhawan who presides over the mission, headed by Tara Shinde (Balan). As a toffee-nosed ex-NASA returnee (Tahil) scoffs on the sidelines, a revolutionary satellite is created by the team: Eka Gandhi (Sinha), Kritika Agarwal (Pannu), Neha Siddiqui (Kulhari), Varsha Pillai (Menen), Parmeshwar Naidu (Joshi) and Ananth Iyer (Dattatreya).
With Akshay as the brightest moon (that’s what you get when you are the biggest cheese and a co-producer to boot) around which these satellites revolve, the film sets about giving each of the team a backstory. Here’s where Mission Mangal scores. We see that Shinde is a get-the-job-done wife-and-mum, who is burdened by a sulking husband (Kapoor, enjoying a fruitful second coming in Bollywood, post Lust Stories), but who gets support from a pa-in-law and kids. Balan is excellent, and is the real fulcrum of the film, and in places, she manages to fly the flag all by herself.
The rest of the team is a bit rag-tag, assembled on the go, and the non-starry ones fare best. Pillai (Menen, natural) has a loving spouse (Kohli) and carping ma-in-law, and is a clear asset, to the team and to the film. Good to see Joshi in a solid supporting role. As a Muslim young woman who gets shafted by potential landlords, Kulhari leaves an impression. Pannu’s Kritika is a bad driver and has an army man (Ayyub, in a walk-on part) for husband; Sinha is a free-spirited young woman. They come and go. And Akshay duly delivers himself of rah-rah Indiaaayah speeches, which is his one job, though you wish his character hadn’t been made to be fond of Hindi film music: he faithfully murders every single tune he hums.
The human interactions are the best part of the film. The downer comes from the science bits, clearly crafted for dummies. And it doesn’t help that the computer-graphics look tacky: after years of watching stunning space visuals in Hollywood films, the scenes here are clearly sub-par. But the clunkiness sort of fits too: our early space agers, Vikram Sarabhai and Abdul Kalam carried their instruments on the back of bullock-carts. Too much polish may have been out of place, especially when you have a top-flight scientist conjure up the winning idea of using less fuel for the Mangal yaan by watching ‘pooris’ fluffing up even when the gas is switched off.
The poori-frying tactic does leave a smile on the face. And you do feel a swell of pride as the ‘yaan’ comes into view and settles successfully in orbit. Despite the over-arching presence of the latter-day Mr India, ‘sab mangal hai’.