In Mission Mangal, Kumar wants to be the brightest star

Whatever you may think of Kumar, you’ve got to give him credit for picking stories like Padman and Mission Mangal, which would have struggled to get greenlit and distributed without the star actor championing them
Picture for representation only.(HT Photo)
Picture for representation only.(HT Photo)
Updated on Aug 18, 2019 12:30 AM IST
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ByDeepanjana Pal

With Mission Mangal on its way to make about as much money as the actual cost of Indian Space Research Organisation’s (Isro) Mars Orbiter Mission, it’s time to give thanks for actor Akshay Kumar.

Yet again, he has shown what it means to be a son of the soil by turning a topic from current affairs into a hit, feel-good film. Whatever you may think of Kumar, you’ve got to give him credit for picking stories like Padman and Mission Mangal, which would have struggled to get greenlit and distributed without the star actor championing them.

Never mind the detail that Mission Mangal should really have been the story of Vidya Balan’s character, rather than a celebration of how amazeballs Kumar’s Rakesh Dhawan is; or that Toilet: Ek Prem Katha felt like expensive and sophisticated propaganda for the government’s Swachh Bharat campaign.

The point is that in Padman, Toilet: Ek Prem Katha and Mission Mangal, Kumar plays a North Indian man who not only acknowledges women, their issues and their capacities, he is even ready to share a teeny-tiny slice of the limelight with them.

You may shed that single tear now.

There are critics who sneered at Mission Mangal when it released last week. Some complained that the film downplayed the science and instead played up stereotypes feminine domesticity. Batla House, which was the other film to release on August 15, received better reviews for its retelling of a controversial encounter in which two civilians and one police officer were killed. For those who mistakenly believe a critic’s role is to predict a film’s popularity and find pleasure in being able to roar incoherently when unfavourable critiques are followed by good box office results, Mission Mangal was a triumph.

It did well at the box office despite its many flaws, including Kumar playing a modified version of the white male saviour seen in films like Hidden Figures (which may well have been more of an inspiration for Mission Mangal than the three women scientists who actually led Isro’s Mars mission).

Mission Mangal’s success is particularly remarkable because Batla House is a macho affair involving gunfights and cops. Batla House has had a decent opening (it’s made in the range of 22 crore in two days), but Mission Mangal – with the wisdom that it gleans from home science – is the clear winner with more than 45 crore to its name. Many are surprised that ‘mass’ audiences would prefer pooris and a satellite made with terrible visual effects over bullets and dead Indian Mujahideen.

To me, the box office results make complete sense. Considering the state of the nation, there is no sight more hopeful than a satellite leaving the mess that is this planet behind. Climate change, economic slowdown, rising intolerance, the collapse of democracy – forget all that and set your sights on perfectly-fried pooris and Mars.

In all seriousness, the success of Mission Mangal hints at the desperate sadness of Indian audiences who are clearly taking comfort in the film’s message that despite all the limitations and hardships that weigh us down, we can still reach for the stars (literally).

In the little fellowship that is born of Kumar, Balan and their rag-tag team, there is hope that if you’re a misfit, you’ll still find your tribe. Living as we do in a country where so many feel unrepresented and incapable of owning their narratives, fiction like Mission Mangal offers refuge from the barrage of anger and despair that bombards us on an everyday basis through our devices with their black-mirror screens.

With its claim of being anchored in true events – which it is – the happy ending that Mission Mangal offers its audiences holds out the illusion that the film is reordering reality to its proper state.

Whether the special appearance of a speech by the Prime Minister adds to the illusion or is disillusioning depends on your political leanings.

The India in Mission Mangal can deal with a brutal financial downturn. Its women are brilliant and happy to be dominated. Its men can dust off failure and rise to new challenges, thumb their noses at the West and sing old Bollywood numbers.

This is the brave, new India – and for bringing this nationalist fantasy to life on the big screen, we can thank a dude with a Canadian passport.

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