Cargo on Netflix, with Vikrant Massey and Shweta Tripathi: A modest, well-made tale that’s both myth and science fiction

Posted on September 18, 2020

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The film has a charming “actors in a modest set” feel that takes you back to old Doordarshan shows like Indradhanush or Space City Sigma, but with better lighting.

Spoilers ahead…

Some of the world-building in Arati Kadav’s Cargo might make you think we are in the realm of myth. The earth’s humanoid beings are split into men and rakshasa-s/asura-s, and the situation between the two factions appears to be one of cautious, tentative peace. The protagonist (played by Vikrant Massey) is named Prahastha, after a general in Ravana’s army, and he travels in a vehicle named Pushpak, which is, of course, the flying chariot of the lord of Lanka. There’s a little boy named Ghatotkach, a singer named Shurpanakha. There’s a woman named Mandakini: that’s a sacred river from the Ramayana, and that’s also a galaxy. This film is like that name. It’s myth. It’s also science fiction. It features souls and reincarnation. It also has spaceships propelled by iridescent engines that balloon like jellyfish.

Cargo isn’t pop sci-fi, though. It isn’t Star Wars, with the bustle of people in the foreground and the brass blaring in the background. It’s moody (and lonely) sci-fi like Douglas Trumbull’s Silent Running, and a mild joke about food prepared from humans transports you to another Hollywood sci-fi film from that era: Soylent Green. But in spirit and style, Cargo is best seen as a companion piece to Hirokazu Kore-eda’s After Life (1998), which also spoke about the dead but in a matter-of-fact tone, stripped of grief. (I wrote about the film here.) Prahastha’s job, too, is like that of Kore-eda’s “social workers” who run the after-life facility: he has to prepare these souls (that’s the “cargo”) for their next go-around on earth. Like After Life, Cargo has an intentionally repetitive structure for a while, but even better, you may find yourself asking the same questions you did in the Kore-eda film, which was about leaving the dead souls with one memory for the rest of eternity.

Why does this one “memory” have to be recreated by being “staged”, with props and actors, as though shooting for a film? If we are in a story not exactly tied to “earthly” logic, can’t the social workers simply pluck that particular memory out of the ether and give it to the particular (dead) person? Why do the recently deceased need to drink tea, or use hair dryers, and why does the snow crunch under their feet? (Aren’t they… ghosts?) In Cargo, similarly, I found myself wondering why the dead couldn’t just be teleported or “beamed up”, like in Star Trek. Why do they need to arrive in a seat on some sort of conveyor belt? That’s perhaps a function of the film’s budget, but why do these souls need to be physically “healed” with a machine? Aren’t they going to discard these bodies, anyway, as Krishna said in the Gita?

But these idiosyncratic “physical” details root the film in a half-recognisable half-world between the earth and the hereafter, which is where its characters are. We’re neither fully here, nor fully there. Even with the mythical aspect, you may wonder why the job of a deva (Yama) is now being performed by an asura — but the bigger questions are about Prahastha. Why did he leave his ex without a word? Has he ever used his special power (all asura-s have an X-men like superpower) in a fit of rage, say, during the time he scratched out the faces of him and his ex from a photograph? The seemingly mild-mannered Vikrant is the last actor you’d associate with a rakshas, but he puts through the character’s dislocation, the feeling of not really belonging anywhere. You can see why Prahastha picked this profession. Given our population, there’s going to be enough “cargo” to keep him busy, keep him from thinking thoughts that torture him.

The tone of Cargo changes when Yuvishka (a chirpy Shweta Tripathi) joins Prahastha as an assistant. She is the kind of annoying person (she likes to, gasp, do small talk) that an introvert like Prahastha would recoil from in horror — but in space, there’s nowhere to run away to. Prahastha complains to his boss (Nandu Madhav, infusing welcome doses of warmth into these chilly environs) about wanting a male assistant, but he’s gently warned that gender discrimination is a crime that could get him into serious trouble. The world has apparently become a better place. Then again, the film is a fantasy.

Cargo is a modest film in every sense. Its world is modest, filled with old-fashioned contraptions like a dial-type TV set and a manual paper shredder. (Mayur Sharma is the production designer.) The film has a charming “actors in a modest set” feel that takes you back to old Doordarshan shows like Indradhanush or Space City Sigma, but with better lighting. But within these means and ambitions, Cargo leaves us with the modest satisfaction of watching the last few days of a man who’s due to retire and who needs to “fix” himself. Non-fans of Imtiaz Ali’s cinema may sigh that, yet again, a woman has been summoned up mainly to facilitate a man’s inner-growth. Yuvishka doesn’t have much of an arc herself (the loss of her superpower is a subplot that goes nowhere), and neither does the “loneliness detective”, who gives a sense of how empty this world is but — given his screen time — should have amounted to much more.

But the craft tides us over these misgivings. The director and editor (Paramita Ghosh) manufacture a serene atmosphere where “human” emotions appear to have transcended the cycle of life and death. Note, for instance, the swiftness of the cut after Prahastha says he’s sorry. We’re not allowed to linger in the aftermath of that emotion. We are yanked instantly into the cockpit, and the next scene begins to unfold. The film’s biggest triumph is its series of scenes involving the “cargo”, each of whom brings with them the paraphernalia they had on their person at the time of dying. This is a brilliant writing decision: it fills the screen with colour in an organic manner, while allowing Prahastha and Yuvishka to remain themselves. These dead people have more personality than those alive. These “after life” scenes are beautifully imagined, and some of them are profoundly moving. Like the best sci-fi, Cargo makes us wonder about something unknowable: what happens to us when we die! At the end, I found myself thinking we need more desi sci-fi.

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