Mission Mangal review: Vidya Balan adds the mom’s touch to this MOM story

While Balan is head and shoulders above Akshay Kumar and co, too much emphasiss on the many personal stories mars the over simplified docudrama on India’s Mars Orbiter Mission

Rating: 3/5

By Mayur Lookhar

Mission Mangal (2019)

India, a country that is known to export talent in the field of science, technology, engineering. While for decades Indians have derived pride in NASA [National Aeronautical Space Administration] and other top space programs lapping the best talent in India, they really couldn’t call their achievements as their own. That one moment of pride came in 2014, when Indian prime minister Narendra Modi announced the successful space probe MOM [Mars Orbiter Mission].

Most layman would still be clueless about the nature of the space exploration achievement, but just to read stories like ‘India is the first country to strike success in its first space mission to Mars’, ‘MOM cost India just $74 million as opposed to NASA’s  $672 million’, ‘MOM costing Rs 7 per kilometre that’s cheaper than the basic auto fare’, filled their hearts with pride.  

Five years on, first time director Jagan Shakti tapped into this pride giving us Mission Mangal.   Scientific, technological discussion take place in space agencies, but cinematically such stories are often told through a docudrama.  When told through a commercial film, you don’t expect the characters to be talking too much physics, astronomy.  In the Indian context, it’s the human behind the genius mind that needs to come to the fore.

So, we have Rakesh Dhawan, a seasoned ISRO [Indian Space Research Organisation] scientist who is headlining the Mangalyaan mission. Dhawan accepts the blame for the failed  GSLV [Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle mission] and is then handed the Mars mission, which his bosses and bureaucrats believe is an impossible dream.   To make matters worse, Dhawan and Tara Shinde [Vidya Balan]  are given a team of no-hopers comprising of Eka Gandhi [Sonakshi Sinha], Parmeshwar Naidu [Sharman Joshi], Kritika Aggarwal [Taapsee Pannu], Neha Siddiqui [Kirti Kulhari], Varsha Pillai [Nithya Menen], Ananth Iyenger [H.G Dattareya].

 Each of them is bogged by their own personal issues and have little motivation.  Tara Shinde, too, is juggling between home and work, which is taking a toll on her marriage.  Five women among the core team of eight. No wonder even Rakesh Dhawan jokes in the beginning, “Is this a Mahila Mangal Mandal? [Women Mars Group]. 

Raised in an orphanage, Eka Gandhi aspires NASA dreams. Varsha Pillai has a loving husband but is mocked by her mother-in-law for still being childless. Kritika Aggarwal is looking after her injured  army man husband .  Neha Siddiqui is still struggling to get an accommodation on account of religious bias.  Leave alone Mars but one wouldn’t wage on this team to even overcome their personal battles.

The leading names behind the real mission are largely men but as revealed in the end credits, there were some bright ladies too. The large female presence in the film would warm the feminists and truth be told, women are excelling in all walks of life.  The ladies from Mission Mangal inspire more women to follow their dreams and rise above the clutches of patriarchy, social, religious biases.   Their back stories, background is also reflective of India’s cultural diversity.

Parmeshwar Naidu is more bogged by astrology which has seen him remain a bachelor. Ananth Iyenger is a 59-year-old veteran who is dreaming of retirement but is stunned as to why out of the bloom he was pulled in to this mission.  Their story though reminds that opportunities and success is not restricted to merit holders.  It’s always better late than never.

While these characters are inspiring, the trouble for Mission Mangal is that their  personal issues and the oversimplified screenplay mar this Mars Mission. There is very little team work. For a country that’s taken pride in carrying such a mission at a pittance vis-à-vis other international space programs, there is very little thought given on how this was really achieved? You don’t expect the director to get down to every nut and bolt, but there’s not enough scientific, technological conversation.

There’s use of home science with the idea of a low fuel mission originating from a frying puri, as put forth by Tara Shinde. Save for the final launch, Kritika Aggarwal [Pannu] spends more time catering to her ailing husband.  It’s difficult to explain high profile technical, scientific jobs in a film, but you do wonder what really is their expertise?

Kritika Aggarwal underlines the value of the ‘shut off and restart’ strategy .  Eka Gandhi conjures the science of functioning by conserving fuel,  Ananth Iyenger explains the virtue of using non-biodegradable waste.  Its only towards the end that you feel that Mangalyaan is being carried out, when you are exposed to terms like perigee, solar wave, asteroids.  The sense of Mangalyaan pride only comes through the business end.

The film errs in focusing too much on the sob stories. In fact much of the first half is spent on showcasing their personal lives. Tara’s husband Sunil Shinde [Sanjay Kapoor] is often upset that his wife is perhaps neglecting her family.  Her son Dilip idolizes AR.Rahman and like the music maestro, he too is fascinated by Islam. Then one eve, we have the parents worried over the whereabouts of their daughter.  Sanjay Kapoor though wouldn’t complain as he got to relive a past glory dancing to one of his 90’s track.  All these tales underline the challenges faced by a working woman, but they digress from the key plot.

Although he’s the lead, Akshay Kumar doesn’t have an overbearing presence in the film.  It’s largely the women that drive this tale. More than a scientist, Rakesh Dhawan comes as a motivational speaker. There’s little intellect but Dhawan’s uses humour and various analogies to explain his point.  However, he has to make do with some ordinary lines such as “if we don’t experiment, we will never become scientists”

Akshay Kumar is known to wind up most films quickly but perhaps, this role required more research, time. Is Akshay Kumar convincing as Rakesh Dhawan? May be not. The character may be Rakesh Dhawan, but it turns out into a typical jolly good Akshay Kumar show.

If not an antagonist, then every story needs an opposing view. Dalip Tahil does the dirty job here as the NASA returned veteran scientist Rupert Desai.  The American accent though has stayed with him.  Desai though doesn’t have a statutory presence. The character reflects the cynicism that many, including Indians, have towards Indians.

Despite her extended personal story, it’s Vidya Balan who is the heart and soul of this film.  More than Dhawan, it’s Shinde who helps motivate the team.  Be it work or home, Shende excels in all her responsibilities.  [Same goes for Kritika Aggarwal, Varsha Pillai] The never say die attitude, confidence that Balan brings to the character is exemplary. In short, Vidya Balan adds the mom’s touch to this MOM [Mars Orbiter Mission] story.

Overall the cast does an amiable job but it’s the flaky screenplay that prevents Mission Mangal from reaching infinite heights.  Mangalyaan though holds great pride and so Mission Mangal needs to be celebrated.

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