“Mission Mangal”… Vidya Balan is terrific in a cutesy movie that never rises above ‘watchable’

Posted on August 25, 2019


Given the ‘heavy’ subject, you see why there’s so much emphasis on folksy colour, folksier humor. But the folksiness comes at a cost.

Spoilers ahead…

In recent years, Akshay Kumar has won a gold medal in hockey, made the country a safer place to shit in, ensured menstruation hygiene, warned us about the dangers of cell-phone radiation, scared off Brits with a navel-length beard… There isn’t much more he could do on earth, so in his new film, he wisely sets course for Mars. Still, in Mission Mangal, directed by Jagan Shakti, he plays less of an Akshay Kumar character than usual. In other words, he doesn’t jump into a spacecraft stocked with spray-paint cans, aiming to colour the red planet in shades of saffron, white and green. As an ISRO scientist named Rakesh Dhawan (is the first name a tribute to Rakesh Sharma?), he remains earthbound, literally and otherwise. He’s always the doer in his tricolour-themed films — but here, he’s the face of a team of doers. He’s like an IT team lead who hogs the limelight but also knows he’s nothing without the team. I was reminded of Aamir Khan in Rang De Basanti, who was the big star anchoring the film but also part of an ensemble. It’s good to see male stars in this mode. It’s as though they are saying: Once in a while, I can afford to step back. And Akshay has always been a very pleasant screen presence when he isn’t trying too hard.

The film, though, makes you wish it tried harder — but let’s acknowledge, first, how tough it is to put together such a project. This cannot (and should not) become a reason to overlook a film’s faults, but it’s important to note that we aren’t exactly an audience that throngs to stories about science. You have to tone down the jargon. You have to “entertain”, doing what Super 30 did so marvellously with mathematics. So you see why there’s so much emphasis on folksy colour, folksier humor. But the folksiness comes at a cost. You don’t see these people as brilliant minds tackling a scary mission on a ridiculous budget. Problems are solved almost as soon as they appear. Well, not exactly. But even if the problem and solution are separated by a few scenes, we don’t get a sense of the agonised mental calculations that must have produced the result. The magical aspect of this Mars mission is that it was “Indian” in every way, including the fact that almost everything was achieved through the very Indian technique of jugaad. But on screen, it all comes off like kids building a rocket for a school science project.

There are many characters whom we don’t see as all that valuable, and the screenplay trips over itself trying to give them a semblance of existence outside the ISRO (Bengaluru) office they work in. Sonakshi Sinha wants to get to NASA and “not be in this bloody country”. But is smoking and sleeping around the only way to suggest someone is “Westernised”? By the end, when she decides to stick with ISRO, we see her with a bindi. Taapsee Pannu plays someone who, in a moment of panic, grabs her driving instructor’s crotch instead of the gearshift. Sharman Joshi plays someone who’d love to be that driving instructor. As in Rang De Basanti, he’s a virgin. (In this film’s language, I guess we could say his rocket is yet to blast off.) HG Dattatreya plays a senior citizen, Kirti Kulhari plays a Muslim, and Nithya Menen plays a Malayali — to round off the demographics, I suppose. You cannot fault this film’s intentions — or inclusiveness. It even has a Canadian citizen in the cast.

With the exception of Vidya Balan’s character (more about her later), this motley crew registers neither as interesting people nor as scientific trailblazers. Rakesh has to keep saying things like “Yeh log bahut acche scientists hain” so we don’t forget it. Rakesh is at least a little more fleshed out. He has no hobbies, no life. He is married to his work, where he has two men competing for his attention: a sneering Dalip Tahil with an Indian-American accent (he’s from NASA) and an extraordinarily indulgent boss (Vikram Gokhale). Rakesh’s quirkiest trait is that he sings Hindi film songs that reflect his situation. For instance, after the failure of a launch, he launches into these famous lines from Hum Dono: “barbaadiyon ka sog manana fizool hai…” But a little into the movie, he stops the singing. Did the screenwriters drop the ball? Are there no songs about Mars? Things are random like that.

The screenplay keeps veering away from the science bits (what little there are end up being explained quite well) to events like a mini action scene on a train. You think this is when the big male star gets to flex his muscles in a movie where he’s so far been flexing only his brain. But that’s not what happens. What ends up happening is a nice idea, but it belongs in a different movie. The sentimental parts don’t work, either. When Tara Shinde (Vidya Balan; like the character’s name suggests, she is the star of the group) senses that the team members are losing interest in the mission, she asks them to recall the day they decided to become a scientist. This is followed by a series of sentimental (and embarrassing) flashback-vignettes, Proustian reveries that instantly jump-start their mojos. Far better is the colder scene where the Taapsee character’s husband (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub), an army man, reminds her that her job serves the nation as much as his. The scene makes you wonder what the film would have been like if, instead of constant “cutification”, we’d had a soberer version of things.

The one thing Mission Mangal gets right is Tara. I liked her innate Indianness. She doesn’t see a contradiction in being a scientist and a believer. Getting a pandit to perform a puja before a launch is part of the “cutification” we could have done without — but Tara’s belief is explained in very practical terms. This is where we really see creative producer R Balki’s touch, like the bit where Tara squeezes out the last remnants of toothpaste from a tube using a rolling pin. She is the Indian superwoman, superwife, supermom, who balances work and home like magic. And with attitude and spunk. She tells her whiny husband (Sanjay Kapoor) not to guilt-trip her when their college-going daughter doesn’t return home on time. I didn’t entirely buy the nightclub scene that follows, but I totally bought Vidya Balan downing Jägerbombs in a sari. Whether it’s her little frown of concentration while listening to Rakesh talk to a colleague or the gurgle of joy when she hears the mission is back on, every little thing she does is heartfelt in a way the film never is. Mission Mangal is watchable, sure, but the great achievement at its centre deserved a far greater movie.

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Posted in: Cinema: Hindi