Mission Mangal Epic Fail On Feminism; Patronising About The Real Women Scientists It Claims To Portray

Posted: August 19, 2019

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What could have been a powerful, inspiring story is diluted with platitudes, unnecessary subplots and a “feminism lite” attitude.

When Mangalyaan succeeded, I was proud. When I saw that photo featuring the triumphant women who helmed the mission, I was overjoyed. When I came to know that a movie was being made on India’s Mars mission, I was excited. I imagined something not unlike Hidden Figures –a movie that highlighted the contribution of black women scientists to the American Space programme.

When I saw the poster and the trailers for Mission Mangal though, I felt that eagerness seep away. Should I bother watching what seemed from the trailers and posters to be an obvious ‘male savior’ movie?

But then I saw a Facebook post by a father detailing how the movie had inspired his daughter to watch space related programmes on TV and imagine her doll’s house as a satellite. Well, it can’t be that bad if it gave a little girl a dream, I figured, and saw the movie.

I can see why the little girl was inspired. The movie effectively highlights exactly why the Mars mission was an unprecedented success. It conveys the many hurdles that the team faced. It is an adventure, and if I were a child, I would be starry eyed too.

As a grown woman though, I can’t help but see the devil in the details. Fair warning: the rest of this post will be full of spoilers, so if you would rather avoid them, this is a good place to stop reading.

The movie begins with a falsehood, by showing the offensive New York Times cartoon which in reality appeared AFTER the success of Mangalyaan, as appearing before the same. In the world of this movie, this cartoon is the “insult” that our hero (Akshay Kumar playing an ‘eccentric’ genius, Rakesh Dhawan) suffers after a failed launch (for which he magnanimously takes responsibility and thereby “protects” Vidya Balan’s character, Tara).

From this beginning itself, we know how much faith to place on the authenticity of the rest of the events in the movie.

Akshay Kumar’s movie, women be damned

From then on this is largely Akshay Kumar’s movie that he hams through with abandon. The women exist only to show what a wonderful leader he is, who “understands” and “respects” women.

It is the Chak De formula. A man has been insulted and his commitment questioned, so he puts together a team (made up largely of women) and guides them to success, thus redeeming himself. It is problematic in the way the women are portrayed. Not to mention the ageism involved in the portrayal of H G Dattatreya’s Ananth Iyengar.

The way the women are introduced itself is odd.

In an attempt to induce humour, Vidya Balan’s character (Tara) makes a bad ‘fat joke’ in reference to Nithya Menen’s character (really Vidya, REALLY?), and while looking at the resumes of a couple of the women, Rakesh Dhawan (Akshay Kumar) thinks it is appropriate to comment about how good they look. Unfortunately the jokes don’t get funnier and all through the comedy caters to the lowest common denominator.

Home science v’s Rocket science

With the analogy of turning the cooking flame up and down to save fuel, Tara (Vidya Balan) explains how the trip to Mars is possible.

Inspired by a picture on a pillow cover, Sonakshi Sinha’s Eka, solves the problem of how the satellite can travel further on lesser fuel.

So when it is Parameshwar’s chance to solve a similar problem using an ‘out of the box’ method, we expect to see something similar. Unfortunately, the moment never comes. After all, he is a man – he probably used ‘real science’ to solve the problem.

Women, apparently don’t need an education in physics, chemistry and all that boring science – ‘home science’ and intuition are enough! All the more annoying when one character comments in the end about how the mission succeeded because it was named MOM and not DAD!

Feminism Lite version of ‘strong women’

Continuing the Chak De analogy, in this movie too, there is a scene (wholly unnecessary) that shows the women beating up men to drive home the point that these are ‘strong women’.

In another scene, a male character (H G Dattatreya’s Ananth Iyengar) helps Kriti Kulhari’s Neha Siddiqui, get over the pain of a broken heart, by staging an accident to get her cheater ex-husband beaten up.

In what is supposedly a ‘funny’ scene, Taapsee Pannu’s character (Kritika) grabs a man’s crotch mistaking it to be the gear stick (if grabbing sexual organs is not funny when it involves a woman, it is not funny when it is a man).

Maybe someone should tell Bollywood that women in general and feminists in particular don’t really go around wishing violence on men?

Problematic subplots

Other odd subplots don’t add much to the main story, and just serve to confuse the message.

In one, Tara’s son Dilip, starts reading the Quran, does namaaz, and plays in a Sufi band because he believes that it will make him a better musician like A R Rahman. Tara “tolerates” this as opposed to her openly Islamophobic husband. However, when her prayers to God don’t seem to be getting answered and her son suggests praying to a different God, she offers some ‘deep’ thoughts about how changing one’s God or the prayers are irrelevant when the ultimate power is one, leaving the son subtly but duly chastised.

In another, her daughter stays out too late at a nightclub, and her ‘solution’ weirdly enough involves going to the nightclub herself, inserting herself into her daughter’s circle, dancing and drinking with them. You see, she is the ‘cool mom’.

Sonakshi Sinha’s character (who smokes, drinks and has casual sex) at one point scolds a man who says she would look great in a saree, but in the end, like a ‘good girl’ she does wear a saree after all!

An epic fail on feminism

Mission Mangal tries to send the right messages, but it is all tinged by a note of inauthenticity. The message seems to be that women can be successful, but only when they are led by a man, and only if they are “good girls.” While the women do their best within the narrow space granted to them, the story fails them repeatedly, and does a disservice to these fabulous actors as well as to the real women who made Mangalyaan happen. If little girls are managing to take something positive away from this, it is to their own credit, because the movie itself seems to have lost the plot.

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Vijayalakshmi Harish is a book blogger and writer. To paraphrase her librarian, she is a

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