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ALTBalaji’s latest offering, a fictionalized version of the Mangalyaan project, features female characters who are real, flawed, vulnerable, and triumphant.
Mission Mangal may be soaring at the box office (not surprising, considering how much it panders to what is popular), but for me personally, it was a crushing disappointment. I felt that the women scientists behind the success of Mangalyaan deserved better. Something more like Hidden Figures.
ALTBalaji’s M-O-M: The Women Behind Mission Mangal is no Hidden Figures, but by keeping a laser focus on its female characters, it rises above Mission Mangal for sure.
It certainly has one advantage over the movie, in that it is a limited series of eight episodes, each approximately 30 minutes long, giving it more time to explore characters and their motivations.
However, where Mission Mangal wasted time on Akshay Kumar, random sub-plots and questionable ‘comedy’, M-O-M keeps it tight and focused.
Not that it doesn’t falter. There are places where I felt disengaged, and the graphics left much to be desired (not surprising, considering it is not a mega budget movie). In how it treats its women however, the series does not disappoint.
My friend, Kirthi Jayakumar, eloquently wrote about how Mission Mangal reduced its women to stereotypical tropes – the ‘superwoman who has it all’, the unsanskaari ‘liberal’ woman etc. I noticed this too, and it was one of the factors that made the movie and its brand of feminism feel inauthentic and forced to me.
M-O-M not only skillfully avoids this, but takes it up a notch by giving us women with shades of grey in them.
Unlike Vidya Balan’s Tara, who has both home and work in perfect control, Sakshi Tanwar’s Nandita and, Mona Singh’s Moushmi, are not perfect ‘goddesses’.
Nandita makes questionable ethical decisions at home and at work, and Moushmi is so blinded by her ambition and her desire to overcome past mistakes, that she is the very model of an ‘unlikeable’ woman.
Nidhi Singh’s Neetu, is a astrology-obsessed woman, committed to her family, but she also has immense confidence (the kind that in a woman, is often termed overconfidence) in her professional skills.
Palomi Ghosh’s Meghan is the ‘young woman who uses dating apps’ but the series doesn’t fit her into the ‘drinking, smoking, casual sex’ stereotype. It does seem to put her into another box however –’the socially awkward nerdy girl’, but that honestly is a trope we don’t get enough of on Indian screens and I’m willing to overlook it because except for in a few scenes, it doesn’t feel forced.
Another way in which Mission Mangal disappointed me was in how it resorted to describing the work of its women scientists as inspired by ‘home science’. Jugaad or frugal innovation is a legitimately Indian skill set, but it involves more than flashes of inspiration. M-O-M gets that.
My initial reaction on watching the women in the series make such ‘inspired’ discoveries, was one of “oh no not again!” but that feeling was soon replaced by one of relief, as the scenes were quickly followed up by scenes that debated on the merits and demerits of the ideas – as any idea for a mission of this scale. Keeping in mind the target audience, the series is not heavy on the science, but at the same time it does not forget that these women are accomplished and talented scientists. It shows them have confidence in their abilities as professionals.
The series also beautifully explores the relationships between these women. Internalized misogyny in real life often makes women view each other as enemies. The series picks up on this, and sets up some scenarios that women will relate to, but rather than stick with this “women are bitchy” stereotype, it goes on to show how a little empathy can go a long way in building a culture of sisterhood.
A mention here also, for the men in the series who ably support the work of the women, especially Ashish Vidyarthi’s performance as the ISA (the series name for ISRO) chief, K Muralidharan, and Gaurav Sharma’s performance as Nikhil, Moushmi’s ex-husband and colleague.
Like its characters, M-O-M is flawed, but endearing, and definitely worth spending time with.
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