‘Mission Mangal’ review: Space Popcorn

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Reading Time: 4 minutes

She can deep-fry puffed up pooris (whole wheat breads) as swiftly and energy-efficiently as quaff shots and beer mugs. All to keep her family from going insane. And then apply principles of killing the gas while frying pooris to sling-shot a satellite out of the earth’s orbit towards Mars.

Akshay Kumar leads in the background.

Welcome to Mission Mangal, writers R. Balki and Nidhi Singh Dharma and director Jagan Shakti‘s doff to the women behind India’s successful Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) project. Taking off the acronym—that’s thought up in the story somewhere in the middle of the movie—most of the cast’s orbit is based on leading up to that project-naming epiphany. In the process, the movie also chooses to explain the seemingly unscalable technological and personnel bumps that the  Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) team must’ve faced with gnomic lines and philosophies; which also throws into relief the challenge the film-makers must’ve mind-wrestled with—how to explain the mind-boggling mathematics (there’s a MOM lurking somewhere in that phrase too) and physics that went into designing the world’s most economical and first-time-debutant successful mission to Mars. The answer? Use a combination of culinary and cricketing analogies to make it all as clear as a non-eclipse day.

Vidya Balan is cooking up new ideas.

That oversimplification apart, Mission Mangal works as a fluffy, non-nuanced entertainer with puns (the poori and Russian-to-rush into lines worked for me wonderfully) and popcorn. The performances are top-notch fun. Vidya Balan as the poori-cum-homemaker-cum-scientist lead is terrific, bringing in a sincerity to her performance that’s almost heartbreaking. The rest of the ladies—Sonakshi Sinha as the NASA-aspirant ball-buster with a hidden melting heart, Tapsee Pannu as the struggling-to-drive and balance her home crisis with work, Kirti Kulhari Sehgal as the Muslim woman struggling to get a decent accommodation in Bangalore but getting the heave-ho because of her give-away surname, Nithya Menen as the taunted daughter in-law who can’t conceive but can conceive tight designs, are all good. Each of their roles (including that of Balan’s) is as if composited of the troubles that women in India face day in and out at work and in society—the housing ones and the systemic structure itself. It’s all designed to raise a couple of laughs and also increase the team’s bonding, as they’re thrown into this mission impossible. But these one-liners are unfortunately also just about what their wafer-thin character definitions are.

The MOM team shakes a leg.

There’s the men in the team too—Sharman Joshi whose character’s smitten with one of the women in the team— and that’s of no consequence either—and whose own performance seems a shadow of his in the hard-to-get-away-from (for him) 3 Idiots, , and veteran H. G. Dattatreya in an adorable turn as a full-cup-of-tea yearning scientist. These characters are also wolverine-light in their material, and are designed to flutter and flit. But none of them makes you think about their motivations and arcs, if that’s what you’re heading into this cinematic mission for—there’s no connection, at times only a tenuous one, between their personal choices and lives and the work that consumes them. These folks could’ve been working anywhere: nothing in the writing makes them special for the mission, except for their introductory designations.

Nithya Menen and Balan struggle.

As the team’s lead, Akshay Kumar is superb—chivvied by the NASA-returned, nasal-twanged Rupert Desai (Dalip Tahil), responding with well-calibrated irascible energy—and supported by the ISRO director (Vikram Gokhale, always dignified in his twinkly-eyed magnificence), and dealing with the ups-and downs with a line or two from yesteryear Hindi film songs. His isn’t to grab the screen space, but to be pummeled and let his women-team defend him. In that sense, I can see why this was a brave—and smart—role choice for him. Sanjay Kapoor shines as Balan’s husband is a role that’s as trope-ish as it is a miserable reality. But his high point in the movie is a jig that’s set to his own 1995-hit number from Raja.

Tapsee Pannu and Sonakshi Sinha wondering if it will ever take-off.

The second-half of the movie picks up after some truly escapist fare—the team picking up brooms and paint-brushes to beautify their office is a bit much, even for director Shakti’s limited goals. On the upside, the set pieces of the space launch are well done—take a bow, art director Daniel Hansen, special effects supervisor Subroto Jalui, and cinematographer Ravi Varman. In a clever touch, the MOM team’s office is initially lit in a Martian-glow of orange, as if to convey the despondence and haplessness of it all. Amit Trivedi‘s score is, keeping with the movie’s zeitgeist, peppy; he conducts a superb piece in the mandatory anxious bit in the end—his orchestra throbs with tension that transmits and transfers itself to you with a subtle punch.

There’s no subtle punches in Mission Mangal though. It’s fun, it’s light, and it’s unpretentious in its intentions. It’s as sinful as Vidya Balan’s pooris with all their accompanying dietary sins and taste-buds rousing delight. Despite your protestations, sometimes that’s all that you’ll need—and get—to satiate your appetite.

Mission Mangal (2019) on IMDb Movie data powered by IMDb. All images owned by the producers.

Mission Mangal is rated U (Unrestricted Public Exhibition) and is streaming on Hotstar
Mission Mangal
Director Jagan Shakti  Time 2h 10min
Writers R. Balki, Nidhi Singh Dharma
Stars Vidya Balan, Tapsee Pannu, Kirti Kulhar Sehgal, Nithya Menen, Akshay Kumar
Genres  Drama, History

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