My intentions were patriotic, it was August 15, I had a whole day to myself, it being a national holiday, I thought of spending it meaningfully by showing my seven-and-half-year-old the film—Gandhi, but then again I thought it would be too serious for her age to hold her attention. Still wondering what to do I pick up the newspaper and I suddenly find that Mission Mangal has released that day. My kid being a ‘space and rocket’ buff, who dreams of becoming an astronaut one day, I could not think of anything better. So, it was first day, second show for the mom-daughter duo.

KEY TAKEAWAYS: 

  • Mission Mangal film is a dramatized recreation of ISRO’s Mangalyaan Mission.
  • It was supposed to be about women scientists and how they successfully they sent an Orbiter to Mars. 
  • Cinema watchers might come out wondering whether it was about women empowerment or further reinforcing sexist roles.
  • Hope next time Bollywood gets a powerful story like this about women empowerment, it does not bungle up. 

I don’t know why, but I am feeling a little unsettled after watching Mission Mangal. To begin with, I had gone to see this film under the impression that it’s about women scientists at ISRO and how they successfully sent an Orbiter to Mars. Well, I was wrong, as it turned out it was a movie about Akshay Kumar (Rakesh Dhawan) a scientist who was Mission Director. He being the lead actor hogs all the limelight as expected. All the other leading actresses came second, but wait that was not the only problem with the movie, let me discuss my concerns.

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However, I would like to start with a positive, one does feel proud as it shows one of the most glorious chapters of ISRO when a group of scientists could successfully implement Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), more popularly called the Mangalyaan Mission and send the Orbiter to Mars in 2014. In doing so India fought against all odds, became the first country in the world to reach the red planet in its very first attempt. The film is a dramatized recreation of this extraordinary achievement.

If the movie claims to showcase this glorious chapter about rocket and space science and Mars, I am of the opinion that it should have been made with a little more gravitas.

The film could have done with more seriousness

If the movie claims to showcase this glorious chapter about rocket and space science and Mars, I am of the opinion that it should have been made with a little more gravitas. There is this scene in which Vidya Balan (Project Director Tara Shinde) and Akshay Kumar are trying to convince a group of scientists that existing PSLV rocket can take the Obiter to Mars by turning off the fuel at regular intervals to aid its flight, by frying puris inside the conference room of ISRO. While it may be true that the original scientist, the role played by Vidya Balan got the idea from her kitchen but I thought it was downright oversimplification of how a space station works. Which lets Dalip Tahil, who plays a NASA-returned scientist, to make snide remarks about Indian space science and why we lag behind NASA throughout the film.

Mission Mangal oversimplifies how a space station works.

Sexism takes over

The film does show the five women scientists of the MOM team —Tara, Eka (Sonakshi Sinha), Neha (Kirti Kulhari), Kritika (Taapsee Pannu) and Varsha (Nithya Menon) who are assigned the task to come up with innovative, low-cost solutions for the Mars mission. Also on the team are Parmeshwar (Sharman Joshi) and Ananth (HG Dattatreya). Their personal stories play alongside the main.  It was the portrayal of these women characters I had an issue with. Tara’s husband played by Sanjay Kapoor is the real nag in her household. His wife goes out to work, no less than being a scientist at ISRO, he is shown as always being at home, couldn’t understand what the deal was here, but he is seen telling her to pay more attention to their kids than her job, trying to make her feel guilty for loving her job at every given opportunity. As a result she even thinks of quitting at one point, as if a woman’s first and foremost job is always to look after her kids and her household, her career doesn’t matter.

We see Varsha going in for IVF and working on the Mission project while being pregnant and even delivering while working on the project without a maternity leave. So, the message for women- do your job if you want to but not at the cost of your duty as a woman, which is to procreate.

Then there is Varsha, even before she is shown on the screen we know that she is little on the heavier side because we see the Mission Director and Project Director talk about it, surprised? There’s more. So, she has a supportive husband and terrible mother-in-law, who can think nothing beyond a grandchild and her daughter-in-law being a scientist, is the least of her concerns. We see Varsha going in for IVF and working on the Mission project while being pregnant and even delivering while working on the project without a maternity leave. So, the message for women-do your job if you want to but not at the cost of your duty as a woman, which is to procreate.

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Kritika played by Taapsee Pannu was very disappointing too, she is shown as the confused scientist who is taking driving classes as she lacks driving skills and this is supposed to provide comic relief. In one baffling scene she grabs the crotch of her instructor when he asks her to switch a gear; I for one couldn’t get the humour here. What is even more perplexing is when she disappears for days together, or was that months together, from work and later she is shown as taking care of her injured husband who works in the Army. When her husband recovers enough he asks her about her job, her role in the mission. She says now that she is married he is more important, and surprise of surprises he says something to the effect of “if you fell ill like this I wouldn’t have left my post and sat by your side,” to this she says, “but that would be for the benefit of the nation.” But then he convinces her that her job of being a scientist is no less patriotic, and what do you know she is back at her work the next day. So much for women and their careers and their life choices.

I have to write about another ridiculous scene here. Kritika is seen trying to work from home and her laptop hangs. Her husband comes and switches off and then switches on her laptop, this is a lesson she remembers and uses it when the team loses contact with the satellite at a crucial juncture, and this move naturally re-establishes contact successfully. Rocket science anyone?

To supposedly balance all these characters out there, in my opinion, is Eka played by Sonakshi Sinha. She is shown as a promiscuous woman as she sleeps around, smokes, swears and because she is ambitious she wants to go to NASA. For that she can go to any length, apply for NASA from ISRO office even. Then there is Parmeshwar, a believer of astrology and a virgin, who falls for her and stalks her throughout the film, so much so that she is known as his girl by the end of the movie. I didn’t know following a woman around is considered normal. Neha Siddiqui played by Kirti Kulhari brings in the Muslim angle. How because of her surname she is unable to get a house on rent. And yes, her husband leaves her for another woman is her story. Throughout the film I kept wondering which characters are real which are not, as in the beginning we are told that the film is inspired by true events.

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The positives

There are some good things to write about too, the character of Tara Shinde has some depth. Once she comes back late from work and finds her husband worried that their daughter has not yet come back. She picks up her phone dials one of her daughter’s friends finds out where she is and forces her husband to come with her. They reach a night club and find her dancing with her friends. Instead of reprimanding her daughter she makes her husband join in the fun and tells him, if he is so worried about her then he should have the numbers of all her friends. And that she loves her work so he shouldn’t make her feel guilty because of it. She also has a son who wants to become a musician like A R Rehman and so he thinks if he converts and becomes a Muslim, he’ll be one step closer to his idol. How she handles this is another plus. Parenting goals? Yes.

I was disappointed with the side-lining of the women scientists. Also I came out confused wondering whether the film was about women empowerment or further reinforcing sexist roles.

Last word  

I was disappointed with the side-lining of the women scientists. Also I came out confused wondering whether the film was about women empowerment or further reinforcing sexist roles. I am sure women in this day and age are capable of managing life-work balance like a pro so looking at the female characters through a sexist glass was uncalled for.

And, I would like to add here, the political class shouldn’t take away the glory of our scientists, our achievers, what am I speaking about? Well, if you are planning to watch this movie you will know sure enough.

Hope next time Bollywood gets a powerful story like this about women and what they are capable of, it does not bungle up. I came out proud of the achievement of ISRO but disheartened at the treatment of the women characters.

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Smita Singh is an editor with SheThePeople.TV. The views expressed are her own.

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