Mission Mangal (“Mission Mars“) got worse the more I thought about it. While in the theater, I rolled my eyes at the film’s outdated takes on gender roles, but I found it generally enjoyable. Upon further reflection, the enormity of the opportunity missed to present an inspirational, empowering story feels too big to ignore.
In 2014, India became the fourth country to reach Mars, and the only one to do so on its first try. Photos of sari-clad women engineers in the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) gained global attention, forcing people around the world to challenge their preconceptions of what a scientist is supposed to look like.
A fictional story inspired by that real-life feat, Mission Mangal feels less revolutionary that the actual event. The contributions of women engineers are viewed through a patriarchal lens that insists on centering male characters. Perhaps this shouldn’t be a surprise, since the man playing the film’s main male protagonist — Akshay Kumar — is also one of the movie’s producers.
Kumar’s female co-lead is Vidya Balan, whose character Tara is introduced first. She bustles about the house on the morning of a rocket launch, praying for success, cooking breakfast, and trying to rouse her teenage children. Her husband Sunil (Sanjay Kapoor) asks her to bring him a cup of tea instead of getting up to get it himself, despite knowing how pressed she is for time.
The launch goes awry, due to Tara’s misjudgement in her role as Project Manager. Her boss Rakesh (Kumar) takes the blame and is reassigned to a project considered doomed from the start: getting an Indian satellite into orbit around Mars. Rakesh tells the head of ISRO (played by Vikram Gokhale) that he suspects it’s his superior’s way of telling him to finally retire, marry, and start a family, but Rakesh loves India and science too damned much to do that. The conversation is a message to the audience that Rakesh will undergo zero character development during the course of the film.
Eager to make up for her mistake, Tara joins Rakesh’s Mars team. Their first problem is how to get the satellite out of Earth’s gravitational pull using a minimal amount of fuel. Tara cracks it by equating it to cooking: oil stays hot enough to fry food even after the gas is turned off, meaning their rocket need only burn fuel in intervals, not continuously. The ISRO board approves, and suddenly the project doesn’t seem doomed after all.
Rakesh and Tara round out their team with various specialists, including four women who each fill a spot on the film’s limited spectrum of possible female life options. Eka (Sonakshi Sinha) is single and eager to move to the United States. Kritika (Taapsee Pannu) is married to a soldier. Varsha (Nithya Menen) is married and pregnant. Neha (Kirti Kulhari) is initially described by Rakesh as attractive — gross, he’s her boss — but she is de-sexualized as soon as her colleagues learn that she is Muslim and divorced. She becomes a surrogate daughter to one of the two men on the team, Ananth (H. G. Dattatreya), whose own adult son lives abroad. There’s also Parmeshwar (Sharman Joshi), a superstitious virgin who gets too much screentime.
As the team’s timeline and budget shrink, they must innovate ways to get their satellite to Mars cheaper, lighter, and faster than any space organization has done before. We see how their careers and personal lives intersect — except for Rakesh, who only exists when in the presence of his colleagues.
Tara’s work-life balance subplot is the most developed and the most frustrating. Tara is responsible for managing her household by herself. Her husband Sunil is emotionally disconnected from his children. He refuses to do tasks he considers beneath him, such as waiting in line to pay an electricity bill. The film doesn’t challenge his behavior, instead presenting it as just another problem for Tara to work around. His position as head of the family is unquestioned, despite his unfitness for the role and his disinterest in it.
Sunil’s behavior fits with an overall viewpoint on gender parity that — despite its progressive veneer — makes Mission Mangal feel as though it was written by a Tim Allen sitcom character. Sunil doesn’t pay the electric bill and the family loses power, and it’s treated as a joke, instead of either a failing that jeopardizes the family’s quality of life or a deliberate act of negligence to get him out of having to do it in the future. He’s gotta be a good guy at heart since he lets his wife work, right?
This attitude infects the workplace as well. Rakesh views Tara’s ingenuity as cute, making her demonstrate their propulsion idea by frying bread in the boardroom. When she suggests using parts from an abandoned ISRO project as a way to save money, Rakesh grins to his boss and says, “Women, sir. They don’t waste anything.” There’s a needless fight sequence in which the women engineers hit some goons with their purses that is not as funny as the filmmakers think it is.
Kritika’s and Varsha’s husbands are supportive of their wives’ careers, but they appear only in cameos (by Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub and Purab Kohli, respectively). They aren’t in the movie long enough to balance out the more regressive characters — which includes Parmeshwar, who spends the whole time hitting on his colleague, Eka.
Maybe things would’ve felt more balanced if there had been more than one woman (Nidhi Singh Dharma) on the writing or directing staff. The story moves along at a decent clip, and the characters are well-acted. The space travel elements are explained in novel ways for a general audience, and Mission Mangal‘s computer-generated effects are decent. Still, the source material is too good to result in a film this mediocre.