Mission Mangal is a 2019 film directed by Jagan Shakti, loosely based on the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) or Mangalyaan, a space mission by Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) to send a satellite to Mars. It was the first mission of its kind to succeed in the first attempt. Although this fact is the central plot point of the movie, the characters are not based on the real people who were a part of this mission. Jagan Shakti was inspired by a photograph of scientists celebrating the success of the mission, who were mostly women.
This “feminist” film seems to be a rather misogynistic one instead. For one, the director feels the need to place Akshay Kumar as the film’s central character and portray him as a genius even though most of the ideas are produced by Vidya Balan’s character. Mission Mangal is strewn with fatphobic jokes, objectification as comedy, stereotyped characters such as a caricatured Kannada man, subtle slut-shaming, as well as Bollywood’s favourite trope- romanticising stalking.
Out of the “complex” characters he has created, none are queer, none are dark skinned, even though the photograph he claims to be inspired by, primarily consists of dark skinned women.
All of the women characters in Mission Mangal seem less like real, complex women and more like cardboard cut-outs to badly represent social issues. Vidya Balan plays the ‘bubbly scientist‘ who happily manages her whole household while her husband watches television. Nithya Menon plays the ‘patriotic woman‘ who does not need maternity leave as it is just a “holiday“.
Taapsee Pannu is the ‘faithful military wife‘, while Kriti Kulhari is the ‘Muslim divorcee‘, and Sonakshi Sinha is the ‘modern millennial‘. The problem is not that they are these things, but that these characteristics are all that they are. The director seems to think he has portrayed wildly different, complex women, when in reality, they are all exactly the same person with different signs to hold.
Vidya Balan’s character portrays one of the biggest problems working women face- having double the workload, as they’re still expected to manage household duties all by themselves. Except, the movie does not portray it as a problem. Vidya Balan happily takes this load, managing everything even on the day of a space launch, while her husband watches television and grumbles about having to pay the electricity bill.
This portrayal seems to be less about the problem and more to assure men that they should “let” their wives work as they will still perform all their wifely duties, as they should. She also comes up with all the brilliant ideas for the project, but Mission Mangal portrays Akshay Kumar as the genius and protagonist. It seems that the director needed a man to tie it all together.
The reasoning in the plot appears to be that Akshay Kumar’s character is her senior. But, Akshay Kumar too, has seniors. The fact that being “senior” in a bureaucratic setting does not make you more intelligent is in fact, a running theme in the film. But women seem to be an exception to this.
Nithya Menon’s character seems to have trouble conceiving, something her mother-in-law uses to taunt her. This issue is not resolved by someone standing up to the mother-in-law but by her becoming pregnant and giving birth. It is made clear that she does want to have a child, and the normalisation of IVF is well portrayed. However, no one says that she did not deserve that taunting in the first place.
A woman who is infertile should not be respected because she can use IVF but because she is a human being. Whether or not she has children should not be a factor. Additionally, when she asks for maternity leave, Akshay Kumar’s character tells her that he is willing to give it to her if she wants to sit at home and do nothing while her colleagues work for their country. She then realises she is patriotic and foregoes her maternity leave.
Although the way Mission Mangal accommodates and make the workplace friendly for a pregnant person is shown well, it would have been a lot more effective if Nithya Menon’s character had voluntarily given up her maternity leave rather than having been coerced into it. As a plus-sized actress, her character is also the subject of body shaming disguised as jokes.
Taapsee Pannu’s character has a husband in the military. When he is injured in combat, she gives everything up to take care of him. He reminds her of her duty to her country, and she goes back to work. Without context, this storyline seems harmless.
But when career driven, competent women are constantly told that they are going against their instincts while secretly wanting to take care of their family, this storyline is harmful and unnecessary, especially since this movie has been marketed as a feminist film. Had the character decided to go back with her husband’s support rather than prompting, it would be a lot more powerful.
Kriti Kulhari and Sonakshi Sinha portray two of the most caricatured women in Mission Mangal. Kriti Kulhari is a Muslim and a divorcee. That is all that her character is. She dons green in most of her scenes, in case the audience forgets she is a Muslim. Sonakshi Sinha is a modern millennial who has casual sex, smokes cigarettes, thinks sarees are oppressive and hates her country because that is what millennials do.
She also rejects ‘nice guys‘ like Sharman Joshi’s character, who quite literally stalks and harasses her, his colleague. Obviously, they end up together, and as she becomes more and more patriotic, her clothes become more and more modest. The patriotism of Indian women is inversely proportional to the amount of skin shown as per Mission Mangal.
Jagan Shakti appears to be someone who thought of making a “feminist” film only because it is in demand. Capitalising on women’s struggles, he has earned Rs. 250 crores at the box office, according to Hindustan Times. He has followed a formula – cast a few heterosexual, cisgender and fair-skinned women, made one wear modern clothes and objectified her, ensured one of the women is plus-sized for jokes and one a tokenistic minority. There you have a “feminist” film, which will be lauded simply for having more than one actress in a prominent role.
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