The launch of India’s first Mars mission, Sriharikota, November 5, 2013(PTI)
The launch of India’s first Mars mission, Sriharikota, November 5, 2013(PTI)

It’s about time we say Jai Vigyan, writes Akshay Kumar

Indian cinema has rarely explored the genre, for the fear of it being too complicated for the masses
By Akshay Kumar
UPDATED ON AUG 21, 2019 08:08 PM IST

They say cinema ought to be a reflection of reality. But, then, they also question it — that too much realism takes them away from the escape that they come looking for in a theatre. It is this quandary that I experienced while making a full-fledged commercial film on a subject such as space research. But now that Mission Mangal has become the fastest 100-crore grosser of my 28-year-old career as an actor, I can share the dilemma and the trepidation, the resistance and the revelations.

“Science lends itself to documentaries, not mainstream cinema” is a sentence I heard a million times over the last two years — sometimes from others, sometimes from my inner self. Because from the moment the film’s director Jagan Shakti, a young man whose name itself sounds like the name of a missile, narrated the story of these brilliant Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) scientists, and their successful Mars Mission, the only question in my rather unscientific mind was whether it was too risky to invest crores into telling this story. But, then, if someone like me, for whom science began and ended at mugging up formulas and equations in school, could see the magnitude of challenges that the story of our space scientists was screaming out, I could only shudder at what they must have gone through while facing those challenges in reality. Despite the government’s good intentions, the fact remains that space scientists — actually, scientists, in general — do not get the recognition they deserve. This neglect, hopefully inadvertent, adds to the humongous financial and resource crunch they often face.

But interacting with Isro scientists was quite an eye-opener, especially to learn that they didn’t really see themselves as the victims we sometimes perceive them to be. Here I was, harping about the “empowerment of women”, as displayed remarkably by the team of women scientists leading the Mars Mission, when one of them interjected: “Why would you prefix the gender? You don’t address men in our team as men scientists. Do you? We are simply scientists.” Just one among the many stereotypes in my head which shattered that day.

When it comes down to it, a film is merely the telling of a story using photographs — lakhs of them. It is just that the observer registers them at a great speed; imagine flicking 15 pages of an old family album in a second. The challenge is to make the mind pause and reflect, not the eyes. Growing up, with never enough money in the family to afford watching a film on a regular basis, I remember spending hours staring at a photograph; sometimes it was a photograph on a calendar hung on the wall. As a child, I never thought about it, but looking back, I realise that while my eyes stared at the still image, my mind was playing it as a film. The person in the image would move; he would do things. And if the image was of the goddess Durga, her tiger would charge or roar, her many arms would move.

More than the film, it is the humble photograph that brings the story alive. And now, when I think back a few years, I realise the exact moment when I decided to make a film on this subject. It was the moment when I stared at the photo of two Isro scientists — their backs toward the camera, casually transporting the rocket cone on a bicycle carrier. That was it. That was the moment. I realised it was never about the planets or space-race or technology or filming it — it was about a dream of a nation of one billion, captured in that one black and white photograph. That was the film for me right there. The photograph was the film. The bicycle moved, the shirts of the scientists fluttered, the rocket cone wobbled, and a billion dreams transported in to a fantasy land that we search for in our films, the land where we can forget the drudgery of our daily grind if only for a few hours.

A film is a very small entity. But it does bring a subject to dining table conversations, especially with children. When I was a child, my father encouraged me to experiment and discover -- at the cost of failure. In 1974, my dad gifted me a transistor, which he bought for 150, a huge amount for us at the time. I was mesmerised by the songs at first, but by the evening, I was too desperate to figure out where the sound was coming from. So, I dismantled the radio to find a black object, which stuck to the metal almirah. Having never seen a magnet, I was kicked to think that I had “discovered” something. When dad came home that evening, he asked me where the magnet had come from. And I told him it was my discovery. I am sure he felt the urge to bash me up on seeing the dismantled parts of the radio lying in a bucket, but he said it’s good that I tried to discover.

During this film, reading up on the loss of GSLV, and all other failures of the space mission, made me remember how the optimism about discovery would have been ingrained into the scientists as children. Today, it is heartening to see children of all ages find space research a field to pursue. My 16-year-old son, who found scientists “fuddy duddy”, now thinks that they are rock stars, and cool enough to hero-worship. A friend, who has never WhatsApped me anything other than forwarded jokes, texted me: “Bhai, Chandrayaan 2 has entered the lunar orbit.” I felt tremendously proud, but also amused that it took making a film for me to understand the significance of this achievement — of our nation and its unsung scientists.

While promoting the film, I came across an interesting fact. About 80% of science films are produced in Hollywood. Indian cinema has never really risked exploring it, for the simple fear of it being too complicated or alien for the masses. And it is not that I am not to be blamed. Without realising, we patronise our audience; we think for them, and not with them.

Following the success of Mission Mangal, I have heard the political class tell me how this film will re-energise our scientists, and more importantly, propel our politicians, into caring more for science. Truth be told, I had never thought this far. For me, this film was always about that still photograph of two scientists transporting the rocket cone on a bicycle. It was never about the rocket cone; it was always about those scientists. It is in this context that the words once spoken by Atal Bihari Vajpayee ring so true. For years we have been proudly raising Lal Bahadur Shastri’s slogan, Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan . There had to come a time when we changed that slogan to Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan, Jai Vigyan. The third vertex of this deeply interconnected triangle forms the fabric of our country, and deserves its time in the sun now.

Akshay Kumar is an actor

The views expressed are personal

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