Mission Mangal movie review: Vidya Balan and Akshay Kumar carry off an oversimplified film
Director - Jagan Shakti
Cast - Akshay Kumar, Vidya Balan, Sonakshi Sinha, Kirti Kulhari, Nithya Menen
Rating - 2/5
It’s a godawful small affair. Rakesh Dhawan is a mission director at the Indian Space Research Organisation, and after his last mission was a non-starter, he’s been given a punishment posting and assigned to a mission nobody really wants: an expedition to Mars. This ambition appears entirely out of reach given ISRO’s budgets, and the film Mission Mangal — in an overture to exaggerate this impressive Indian achievement — depicts the Mars exploration department as a rundown room with no people, just a solitary cat. Okay then.
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India’s first interplanetary mission, the Mangalyaan launch of 2013 was a triumph and made us the fourth space agency in the world to reach Mars. The facts are stupendous, but director Jagan Shakti decides to go fast and fictional, creating an underdog story that — while often likeable — plays out like a fable.
There are cute scenes, but it is worrisome that a film about several incredibly talented women constantly plays up their stereotypical womanhood more than their scientific acumen. These are scientists, not utterly inexperienced homemakers, and their epiphanies should not exclusively be based on examples like the frying of pooris and the hailing of auto-rickshaws.
Vidya Balan is wonderful as Tara Shinde, a scientist who must juggle her research with wifely and motherly duties. She gives the narrative a boisterous can-do spirit that is eventually well matched by Akshay Kumar’s Dhawan. Kumar is typically solid as he encourages these ladies to shine — he clearly wants this to be his Chak De India — but he is gifted too many of the best lines. Meanwhile the other actresses are given ‘types’ rather than characters. There’s the licentious one, the clumsy one, the pregnant one… It’s all a bit ‘Four More Shots Please: Science Edition.’
As the girl with the mousey hair, Taapsee Pannu does reliably well. Sonakshi Sinha is rather spirited, while fine actors like Nithya Menen and HG Datttatreya are sadly wasted. The problem with creating ‘types’ as underdogs — especially in a film that will largely be mistaken for real-life — is that while asking audiences not to judge these female characters, ironically enough the filmmakers have created them (and their quirks) by judging them.
Films about science have to simplify the subject — films about rocket-science doubly so — but here things are brought down to a regretfully basic level. So while there are times Mission Mangal plays out as a pleasant enough entertainer with a message, complete with a caricaturish villain (Dalip Tahil with an unholy accent) there are other times everything feels like too much of a stretch — even the runtime. The film becomes a saddening bore.
The Mangalyaan had stunned the world. American publications put out racist cartoons about this third-world nation knocking on the doors of their exclusive cigars-and-planets club. We were incensed, and rightly so. Now in Mission Mangal — starring Akshay Kumar (one of our least hidden figures) and a shiny tinfoil version of ISRO that often looks like a lavish backdrop to a Rajinikanth song — we applaud a Prime Minister who had very little to do with supporting the mission. The message is clear: We shall create our own cartoons, thank you very much. Make in India.
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