Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Mission Mangal: Reaching Mars on the First Try

We recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing—still the greatest achievement in human history. The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) also celebrated its 50th anniversary. Although its finest hour cannot compare with the successful exploration of the Moon, it has the considerable advantage of being much more recent. ISRO’s successful launch of the Mars Orbital Mission (MOM) or Mangalyaan “Mars Craft” probe is dramatized and romanticized in Jagan Shakti’s Mission Mangal, which is now playing in New York.

The unsuccessful launch of the GSLV-F06 (a.k.a. “Fat Boy”) was not ISRO’s finest hour. Perhaps a nickname that evokes memories of one of the original Manhattan Project atomic bombs was bad karma. Regardless, mildly eccentric mission director Rakesh Dhawan takes the fall, even though it was his senior subordinate, Tara Shinde, who made the bad call. Hoping to encourage his resignation, ISRO ostensibly promotes him to director of the Mars Probe Mission, which is universally considered a futile dead-end.

However, Dhawan stars believing when Shinde devises a method to reach Mars with preexisting light rockets, through fuel conservation, inertia, and Mars’ own gravitational pull. Although Dhawan’s inter-agency rival, former NASA scientist Rupert Desai pooh-poohs the idea, the agency director is intrigued enough to give them some budget—but of course, not quite enough. Dhawan will also have to make do with the hand-picked agency cast-offs Desai assigns to him. Most of them are women, but there is also an old dude and a sad sack, whose hopes of marriage have been undermined by bad astrology charts. Think of the second act as Hidden Figures, with a cup of 40-Year-Old Virgin mixed in.

Unlike Chazelle’s First Man, Shakti is not shy about flying the Indian flag—and why should he be? Still, it is a little odd when the film ends with a triumphant speech from Modi, especially since the MOM Probe launched before he was elected. On the other hand, it is nice to see stills of the real-life ISRO scientists, none of whom are as photogenic as their cinematic analogs, especially not Sonakshi Sinha as propulsion expert Eka Gandhi, who would be comfortable as a cast-member of Sex in the City.

Be that as it may, there is no denying how much fun it is to watch Akshay Kumar somewhat play against his action-romance type as Dhawan. Think of him as seven parts Ed Harris as Gene Kranz in Apollo 13 and three parts Fred MacMurray in The Absent-Minded Professor. Frankly, most of the supporting ensemble largely represents stock characters, but Sanjay Kapoor adds some interesting wrinkles as Shinde’s more-complex-than-we-initially-assume husband, Sunil, who also has a chance to get down on the dance floor. Remember, this is a Bollywood movie.

Mission Mangal is big, rousing, and patriotic, but most importantly, it is refreshingly idealistic about the possibilities for space exploration. Sure, it was nice to celebrate Apollo 11, but now what? Maybe the scrappiness of the MOM Mission isn’t such a bad example to emulate. Recommended for fans of Kumar and space program boosters, Mission Mangal is now playing in New York, at the AMC Empire.