Cast: Akshay Kumar, Vidya Balan, Taapsee Pannu, Sonakshi Sinha, Nithya Menen, Sharman Joshi, Kirti Kulhari
Director: Jagan Shakti
After sanitation and hygiene (Toilet Ek Prem Katha), women’s sanitary health and social enterprise (Padman) superstar Akshay Kumar completes his nation-building film trilogy with a giant leap to Mars in his latest offering Mission Mangal.
Mission Mars is a fictionalized version of the events of 2013-14 when India (ISRO) successfully pulled off the Mars Orbit Mission becoming the first country to get a satellite to Mars in its first attempt. And this at a project cost, which was a fraction of what America (NASA) spent on its Maven orbiter to Mars.
The film recounts the story of this mammoth event in the tried and tested, personal anecdotal style. A failed project results in ISRO scientist Rakesh Dhawan (Akshay Kumar) being shunted to an implausible Mission Mars, which seems unlikely to see the light of the day. Fortunately, there is a project manager Tara Shinde (Vidya Balan) in his team who combines scientific knowledge and agency in equal measure and it is her enterprise that proves to be key to getting the project off the ground. The path to scientific achievements is expectedly strewn with roadblocks—insufficient budgets and organizational politics being a few among them but eventually, the red planet is conquered, the Tricolour making its grand entry into the farthest reaches of the universe.
The writing by Sajid-Farhad errs on the side of oversimplification. Keeping things light is a much-admired virtue in Hindi films, but in this instance, I am afraid, the ode to Indian Jugaad ends up undermining the importance of scientific ambition and achievements. Every solution to the problems facing this ambitious and complex project is found in ridiculously simple circumstances perhaps to cut down on space jargon but ends up becoming formulaic. To cite an example there is the logic of frying puris that solves the space rocket’s fuel problems, a pamphlet on plastic choking up the oceans that resolves the matter of the light material to be used or the design on a cushion cover that the provides the eureka moment on the shape and design of the satellite. Getting into details of technical snags etc. serves little purpose by way of storytelling so it is glossed over with minimal fuss.
Of the characters, Rakesh Dhawan, the male lead of the film is surprisingly one-note his sole virtue being singing old Hindi songs to suit the occasion or bringing in a touch of humour in the most tense situations. Kumar plays the rather limited role with deftness making it immensely likable. But kudos to him for playing second fiddle to Balan, who absolutely owns the film with her charming, matronly turn. Balancing her domestic life with an old-fashioned husband and demanding kids with an equally punishing professional life- this could be the story of every modern working woman. These are the bits that sparkle and make Mission Mangal worth a watch. The rest of the supporting cast comprising Nithya Menen, Taapsee Pannu, Sonakshi Sinha, Kirti Kulhari, Sharman Joshi and H.G. Dattatreya, Vikram Gokhale, Sanjay Kapoor, and Dalip Tahil make the best of the sketchy roles they have been pencilled in for.
Despite its creative shortcomings, director Jagan Shakti makes the film evoke patriotic fervor in the audience. Truth be told, in the climax, one can’t help but be filled with wonder and pride when the satellite swings into sight!
And yes, given that the film doffs a hat to the true-life heroes who accomplished the impossible feat, one hopes that the film’s collections at the box-office are ‘Mangal’ too.