Men are from Mars and women are from Venus, the popular adage goes. But Mission Mangal upends that idea with the story of a space mission to Mars propelled predominantly by female energy. The film is a fictionalised account of Mangalyaan, the ISRO Mars program that was launched in 2013 and which features headlining roles for the scientists – most of them women – behind that ambitious endeavour.
The mission was a moment of pride in more ways than one. India was the first country to crack a Mars mission in its first attempt, and at a budget of roughly Rs 454 crores, a fraction of the cost of other international space missions. Mangalyaan’s story, then, is ripe for the big screen. It is the blockbuster cliché – the underdogs who beat insurmountable odds. Helmed by first-time director Jagan Shakti, Mission Mangal is helped along by the star power of Akshay Kumar, but it is elevated by smart filmmaking, and a clutch of winning performances led by the excellent Vidya Balan.
This is a movie about space, scientists, facts and physics, but there is no dearth of emotion. Some of it is trite and there is manipulative pop patriotism – the sort you expect from an Akshay Kumar film. Yet Mission Mangal is more restrained in tone than the star’s recent outings like Kesari, PadMan, and Toilet: Ek Prem Katha. There are also genuine moments in the film when you laugh, and when your heart soars. Despite the formulaic arc, the makers deliver an entertaining account of a complicated mission.
Akshay plays Rakesh Dhawan, who heads the mission. This is a scientist who has dedicated his life to ISRO, with no time for distractions like love or family. After a failed mission, he is “demoted” to a Mars program, in the hope that he will take the hint and quit. In one of the film’s charming scenes, he walks into a dusty office in a deadbeat building at ISRO that has been allocated for the Mars program. An optimist who’s always ready with a joke or an old Hindi song, he pretends that the barren space is the Red Planet. As a clay water pot releases a trickle, and a stray cat jumps in through the window, he jokes that there is both water and life on Mars.
Akshay’s character is clearly the leader, but the brains belong to Tara Shinde (Vidya), who comes up with the idea of chasing the Mars dream with a low-cost rocket and satellite. This brainwave comes from the practice of frying pooris on a no-flame, a concept she cheerily demonstrates to ISRO top brass. Cleverly, but also a tad simplistically, the film employs accessible (and frequently eye-rolling) theories and concepts to explain the science of the mission to a lay audience.
And because desi films must have a videsi villain, we get NASA-returned Rupert Desai (Dalip Tahil), who assigns a ragtag bunch of juniors to the Mars program, unwilling to waste his best men for an impossible project. Sonakshi Sinha, Taapsee Pannu, Kirthi Kulhari, Nithya Menen, Sharman Joshi, and HG Dattatreya make up the rest of the team, each bringing their respective backstory. Vidya’s is the best realised of the lot; she’s a wife and mother, juggling dome
stic responsibilities with her consuming passion for science.
There are some contrived bits, like one in which the team happily takes up brooms and brushes to spruce up their office while humming an upbeat song. Or a needless fight in the Bangalore metro, scripted presumably to turn the cliché of women as victims on its head. In fact, the makers cram a lot into the film – there are token pleas for inclusion, religious tolerance, and gender equality. The film could’ve been crisper and sharper without these distractions and might have come up at least 10 minutes shorter. But as frequently happens when you’re invested in a story or its characters, you’re willing not to sweat the small stuff.
There is some pandering at the end with a flashback of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s congratulatory address in 2014. Perhaps the makers would’ve done well to have also included that the Mangalyaan project was announced in the year 2012 by then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
Of the cast, Akshay Kumar is reliably strong, bringing irreverence and humour to the proceedings, as if to make sure the film never becomes ‘too smart’. There’s also sound acting from the other actors, particularly Taapsee Pannu and Nitya Menen, and plenty laughs from Kannada actor Dattatreya. But it’s Vidya Balan who truly stands out, diving into her role of the impassioned scientist with full commitment. Vidya makes it convincing that her character’s ideas are fuelled by day-to-day life examples.
Ultimately, Mission Mangal is enjoyable and entertaining. Even the jingoism doesn’t feel entirely out of place. Director Jagan Shakti delivers a space movie that lifts off and frequently soars. I’m going with three-and-a-half out of five.