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Mission Mangal review: Akshay Kumar, Vidya Balan headline this jolly, enjoyable expedition to Mars

Release Date: 15 Aug 2019 / Rated: U / 02hr 13min

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Sonal Pandya

This light-hearted, fictionalized take by writer R Balki and first-time filmmaker Jagan Shakti on the Indian Space Reasearch Organization's historic mission to launch a satellite into Mars's orbit wins you over.

On 5 November 2013, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) became the world's fourth space agency to launch a mission to our neighbour, Mars, the fourth planet in our solar system. In doing so, India became the first nation to succeed on its first try.

Mission Mangal, the directorial debut of Jagan Shakti, is the story of that Mars orbiter mission, but his film is a highly fictionalized version of the actual events that took place from 2010 to 2014 when the mission was declared a success.

Basing the film on the mission but fictionalizing the actual events is a tricky but proper way to go about this space story for a movie-going public that may get overwhelmed with the actual science of it all.

Jagan's movie opens with a failure. The GSLV – Fat Boy rocket that ISRO wants to launch gets overheated and mission director Rakesh Dhawan (Akshay Kumar) orders it to self-destruct. After the mission, Dhawan is banished to the Mars project in what he thinks is a punishment but ends up being a blessing in disguise for the pucca man of science.

Dhawan's project director on the Mars mission is the highly capable Tara Shinde (Vidya Balan), who, unlike Dhawan, seeks divine blessings before her missions. It is her determination that buoys the duo over initially to get the clearance they need from the ISRO director (Vikram Gokhale). Together, the two are unstoppable.

With a slightly inexperienced set of juniors and one team member, Ananth Iyengar (HG Dattatreya), about to hit retirement, Dhawan and Shinde manage to clear hurdle after hurdle until it is time to launch their space probe and wait for its long journey to Mars. Whether it is budget cuts or satellite design, the team has to eke out a workable solution for each problem.

While eight members of this mission receive prominence in the film, around 1,700 team members worked day and night to see it through. But the clear faces of the film are Akshay Kumar and Vidya Balan. In fact, Vidya's character is better etched out than Akshay's, who is relegated to a one-note eccentric scientist. She brings the right kind of empathy as the head of a household and a department, and gives back to her husband Sunil (Sanjay Kapoor) when he criticizes her dedication to her work over her family.

The pace of Mission Mangal is brisk, never lagging behind the immense character development that must occur in the course of the film. Therefore some characters' backstories, like Taapsee Pannu's Kritika Aggarwal, Kirti Kulhari Sehgal's Neha Siddiqui and Nithya Menen's Varsha Pillai, are never fully explored. But that is forgiven for the overall story of the mission which takes precedence. Director Jagan Shakti and editor Chandan Arora smooth over time in cheery montages.

For each emotional crest the film covers, there are moments of lightness to bring a quick smile to your face, before moving on to the next scene. While many characters like to speak in rhyming dialogues, it is their eventual goodness that manages to shine through. The 'villain' of the story, if you can call him that, is Dalip Tahil's Rupert Desai, a former employee at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), who is the perpetual thorn in Dhawan's side.

The story by Jagan Shakti has been further developed by R Balki (also the creative director), Nidhi Singh Dharma, Saketh Kondiparthi and the director himself. The light approach of the film works in its favour, indeed the comic sequences don't detract from the overall arc of the film.Though the film is set in a made-up office of ISRO in Bengaluru, it 'borrows' from certain real-life events, like the infamous cartoon in The New York Times about the Indian space agency, to fit into the narrative.

The climax of the film has the right amount of apprehension and awe as this group of scientists, thought to fail even before they succeeded, achieve the impossible. The film's visual effects, too, do not disappoint. While Amit Trivedi provides the score with a bizarre ditty on how Mars lives in our hearts ('Dil Mein Mars Hai'), it was good that no one actually burst into song in the film.

Mission Mangal highlights the extraordinary achievement of some ordinary Indians, and that's never a bad thing. At the end of the film, there is a wonderful tribute to the actual scientists who worked on the mission and the completion of 50 years of India's space programme. Do give these original heroes a moment of your time as well and stay for the credits.

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