This image of Mars was taken in October 24, with MOM taking advantage of its elliptical orbit to capture the planet’s breadth. Credit: ISRO

Review: ‘Mission Mangal’ (2019)

This review assumes Tanul Thakur’s review as a preamble.

There’s the argument that ISRO isn’t doing much by way of public outreach and trust in the media is at a low, and for many people – more than the most reliable sections of the media can possibly cover – Bollywood’s Mission Mangal could be the gateway to the Indian space programme. That we shouldn’t dump on the makers of Mission Mangal for setting up an ISRO-based script and Bollywoodifying it because the prerogative is theirs and it is not a mistake to have fictionalised bits of a story that was inspirational in less sensationalist ways.

And then there is the argument that Bollywood doesn’t function in a vacuum – indeed, anything but – and that it should respond responsibly to society’s problems by ensuring its biographical fare, at least, maintains a safe distance from problematic sociopolitical attitudes. That while creative freedom absolves artists of the responsibility to be historians, there’s such a thing as not making things worse, especially through an exercise of the poetic license that is less art and more commerce.

The question is: which position does Mission Mangal justify over the other?

I went into the cinema hall fully expecting the movie to be shite, but truth be told, Mission Mangal hangs in a trishanku swarga between the worlds of ‘not bad’ and ‘good’. The good parts don’t excuse the bad parts and the bad parts don’t drag the good parts down with them. To understand how, let’s start with the line between fact and fiction.

Mission Mangal‘s science communication is pretty good. As a result of the movie’s existence, thousands more people know about the gravitational slingshot (although the puri analogy did get a bit strained), line-of-sight signal transmission, solar-sailing and orbital capture now. Thousands more kind-of know the sort of questions scientists and engineers have to grapple with when designing and executing missions, although it would pay to remain wary of oversimplification. Indeed, thousands more also know – hopefully, at least – why some journalists’ rush to find and pin blame at the first hint of failure seems more rabid than stringent. This much is good.

However, almost everyone I managed to eavesdrop on believed the whole movie to be true whereas the movie’s own disclaimer at the start clarified that the movie was a fictionalised account for entertainment only. This is a problem because Mission Mangal also gets its science wrong in many places, almost always for dramatic effect. For just four examples: the PSLV is shown as a two-stage rocket instead of as a four-stage rocket; the Van Allen belt is depicted as a debris field instead of as a radiation belt; solar radiation pressure didn’t propel the Mars Orbiter Mission probe on its interplanetary journey; and its high-gain antenna isn’t made of a self-healing material.

More importantly, Mission Mangal gets the arguably more important circumstances surrounding the science all wrong. This is potentially more damaging.

There’s a lot of popular interest in space stuff in India these days. One big reason is that ISRO has undertaken a clump of high-profile missions that have made for easy mass communication. For example, it’s easier to sell why Chandrayaan 2 is awesome than to sell the AstroSat or the PSLV’s fourth-stage orbital platform. However, Mission Mangal sells the Mars Orbiter Mission by fictionalising different things about it to the point of being comically nationalistic.

The NASA hangover is unmistakable and unmistakably terrible. Mission Mangal‘s villain, so to speak, is a senior scientist of Indian origin from NASA who doesn’t want the Mars Orbiter Mission to succeed – so much so that the narrative often comes dangerously close to justifying the mission in terms of showing this man up. In fact, there are two instances when the movie brazenly crosses the line: to show up NASA Man, and once where the mission is rejustified in terms of beating China to be the first Asian country to have a probe in orbit around Mars. This takes away from the mission’s actual purpose: to be a technology-demonstrator, period.

This brings us to the next issue. Mission Mangal swings like a pendulum between characterising the mission as one of science and as one of technology. The film’s scriptwriters possibly conflated the satellite design and rocket launch teams for simplicity’s sake, but that has also meant Mission Mangal often pays an inordinate amount of attention towards the mission’s science goals, which weren’t very serious to begin with.

This is a problem because it’s important to remember that the Mars Orbiter Mission wasn’t a scientific mission. This also shows itself when the narrative quietly, and successfully, glosses over the fact that the mission probe was designed to fit a smaller rocket, and whose launch was undertaken at the behest of political as much as technological interests, instead of engineers building the rocket around the payload, as might have been the case if this had been a scientific mission.

Future scientific missions need to set a higher bar about what they’re prepared to accomplish – something many of us easily forget in the urge to thump our chests over the low cost. Indeed, Mission Mangal celebrates this as well without once mentioning the idea of frugal engineering, and all this accomplishes is to cast us as a people who make do, and our space programme as not hungering for big budgets.

This, in turn, brings us to the third issue. What kind of people are we? What is this compulsion to go it alone, and what is this specious sense of shame about borrowing technologies and mission designs from other countries that have undertaken these missions before us? ‘Make in India’ may make sense with sectors like manufacturing or fabrication but whence the need to vilify asking for a bit of help? Mission Mangal takes this a step further when the idea to use a plastic-aluminium composite for the satellite bus is traced to a moment of inspiration: that ISRO could help save the planet by using up its plastic. It shouldn’t have to be so hard to be a taker, considering ISRO did have NASA’s help in real-life, but the movie precludes such opportunities by erecting NASA as ISRO’s enemy.

But here’s the thing: When the Mars Orbiter Mission probe achieved orbital capture at Mars at the film’s climax, it felt great and not in a jingoistic way, at least not obviously so. I wasn’t following the lyrics of the background track and I have been feeling this way about missions long before the film came along, but it wouldn’t be amiss to say the film succeeded on this count.

It’s hard to judge Mission Mangal by adding points for the things it got right and subtracting points for the things it didn’t because, holistically, I am unable to shake off the feeling that I am glad this movie got made, at least from the PoV of a mediaperson that frequently reports on the Indian space progragge. Mission Mangal is a good romp, thanks in no small part to Vidya Balan (and as Pradeep Mohandas pointed out in his review, no thanks to the scriptwriters’ as well as Akshay Kumar’s mangled portrayal of how a scientist at ISRO behaves.)

I’m sure there’s lots to be said for the depiction of its crew of female scientists as well but I will defer to the judgment of smarter people on this one. For example, Rajvi Desai’s review in The Swaddle notes that the women scientists in the film, with the exception of Balan, are only shown doing superfluous things while Kumar gets to have all the smart ideas. Tanisha Bagchi writes in The Quint that the film has its women fighting ludicrous battles in an effort to portray them as being strong.

Ultimately, Mission Mangal wouldn’t have been made if not for the nationalism surrounding it – the nationalism bestowed of late upon the Indian space programme by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the profitability bestowed upon nationalism by the business-politics nexus. It is a mess but – without playing down its problematic portrayal of women and scientists – the film is hardly the worst thing to come of it.

In fact, if you are yet to watch the film but are going to, try imagining you are in the late 1990s and that Mission Mangal is a half-gritty, endearing-in-parts sci-fi flick about a bunch of Hindi-speaking people in Bangalore trying to launch a probe to Mars. However, if you – like me – are unable to leave reality behind, watch it, enjoy it, and then fact-check it.

Miscellaneous remarks

  1. Mission Mangal frequently attempts to assuage the audience that it doesn’t glorify Hinduism but these overtures are feeble compared to the presence of a pundit performing religious rituals within the Mission Control Centre itself. Make no mistake, this is a Hindu film.
  2. Akshay Kumar makes a not-so-eccentric entrance but there is a noticeable quirk about him that draws the following remark from a colleague: “These genius scientists are always a little crazy.” It made me sit up because these exact words have been used to exonerate the actions of scientists who sexually harassed women – all the way from Richard Feynman (by no means the first) to Lawrence Krauss (by no means the last).

The Oedipal intrigues of Indian cinema and if they undermine hope

British film critic Nicholas Barber has a fantastic insight in this review in The Economist. The gist is that increasingly more productions, especially from the West, have plots that ‘evolve’ to until they become some sort of a family dispute. Barber cites famous examples: Star Wars, Jason Bourne, Sherlock (by extension, Elementary), Goldfinger, Spectre, etc. Some plausible reasons he offers:

It’s not too hard to see why such universe-shrinking appeals to screenwriters. Drama is fuelled by revelations, and there aren’t many revelations more momentous – or easier to write – than, “I am your father/sister/brother!” Giving the protagonist a personal involvement in the plot is also a simple way of raising the emotional stakes, as well as making him or her more sympathetic to the viewer. Most of us will never be lucky enough to blow up a moon-sized space station, as Luke Skywalker did, but we all know what it’s like to be angry at a parent or resentful of a sibling.

But I suspect that there is more to this trend than narrative expedience. The new spate of universe-shrinking, of plots driven by personal animus, could well be a sign of how narcissistic our culture has become, and how desperate film and television studios are to please fans who are obsessed by their favourite characters. But it’s also a symptom of globalisation: now that studios are so reliant on overseas sales, they don’t want to risk offending foreign markets. It’s safer to be personal than political.

I disagree with Barber’s larger point because I think he might be projecting. Numerous episodes of Sherlock are concerned with family but only if that’s what you choose to take away. Instead, Barber appears to be picking on themes and in the process betraying a personal dislike for them. He may also be cherry-picking his examples; his review itself in The Economist has been prompted by one episode of one TV show.

Obviously this made me think of Indian cinema and if it’s been guilty of the same tactics. Of course it has and there are innumerable examples across eras. One that most ground at me was (spoiler alert) the very-recent Dhuruvangal Pathinaaru. But then the occasion also merits some introspection about the place of the Indian family and its sensibilities. Barber thinks more western creators are resorting to, as one comment points out, “Oedipal intrigues” because producers expect them to find more favour with western audiences. Similarly, what kind of “Oedipal intrigues” does the Indian audience like? A tangential take on this line of thought: what possibilities do “Oedipal intrigues” violate? For example, Barber explains how Luke Skywalker’s humble origins – which the audience may have been able to connect better with – are outwindowed when you realise he’s the brother of a famous princess and the son of the series’s greatest villain. Similarly, what possibilities offered by Indian cinema have been undermined by its own “Oedipal intrigues”?

The only thing that comes to mind is its treatment of women. Perhaps you can think of something else as well.

Featured image: A still from the film Dhuruvangal Pathinaaru.

Bollywood, Kollywood, etc.

Southern India is fertile territory for film-makers. Its 260m inhabitants are richer than the national average, and prefer content in regional languages to Hindi, Bollywood’s lingua franca. Ageing cinemas bulge to breaking-point: audiences turn into cheering spectators and drown out the dialogues. Living superstars have temples named after them; fans bathe huge garlanded cut-outs of actors with milk to pray for their film’s success. Pre-screening rituals include burning camphor inside a sliced pumpkin before smashing it near the big screen to bring good luck. It is unsurprising that five of Tamil Nadu’s eight chief ministers have been film stars or scriptwriters.

This is from an article in The Economist that touches upon a point highlighted most recently by Kabali but not as much as I’d have liked, although this line of thought would’ve been a digression. The article remarks that Bollywood has been in a bit of a “funk” of late, having “recycled” the same stars repeatedly. It’s not just that. Notwithstanding the vacuous rituals, South Indian cinema, at least Tamil cinema, has also been more comfortable taking on touchy topics, and plumbing depths that are both sensitive and nuanced (as opposed to dealing with full-blown controversies), a sort of privilege afforded no doubt by an audience able to appreciate it. This isn’t to say Tamil cinema doesn’t have any problems – it has its share – as much as to point out that it has been able to touch upon societal ills more often and better than Bollywood has been able. For further reading, I recommend Karthikeyan Damodaran’s assessment of Kabali (which includes an instructive review of the caste-focused hits of Kollywood). If you have more time, Vaasanthi’s wonderful book Cut-Outs, Caste and Cine Stars: The World of Tamil Politics is a must-read. It takes great pains to document the seeding of political power in the aspirations of Tamil cinema. A short excerpt:

Once the country attained freedom and the Congress came to power in Tamil Nadu as well, puritans like [C. Rajagopalachari] and Kamaraj who were at the helm of affairs, completely disowned the contribution of cinema to the movement. Rajaji’s rival Satyamurthy, a Congressman of great imagination and vision as far as the visual media’s impact was concerned, had in fact built up a very powerful group of artists. With the rapid electrification of rural areas under Congress rule, cinema halls and films became accessible to the rural population. Thanks to touring cinemas, even the most remote villages could soon be reached by this medium.

The Dravida Kazhagam activists, many of whom were talented playwrights, recognised cinema’s potential and very deftly used it for their purpose. At first they were scriptwriters working for producers and had no control over the medium. But they could project their ‘reformist’ ideas and insert dialogues critiquing Brahmins, religious hypocrisy, untouchability and other controversial subjects. They rode on the popularity they earned from cinema as scriptwriters and saw in the medium potential to spread their message. [R.M. Veerappan] recalls that Annadurai thought ‘the revolutionary ideas of Periyar should be told through plays. And decided to write. He as an actor himself and expressed great affinity towards fellow artistes and supported and praised them in public. The Congress, on the other hand, only made use of the artists like K.B. Sundarambal, Viswanath Das and others, but their status was not enhanced. All theatre artistes including S.G. Kittappa, who was a Brahmin, were looked down upon and were not respected.’

Featured image credit: Unsplash/pixabay.