Chronic cynics and inveterate snarkers would do themselves — and everyone else — a great big favor by steering clear of “Mission Mangal,” an entertaining and ingratiating feel-good movie about the 2013 launch of the Mangalyann space probe, an against-all-odds triumph of the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO). In the world according to director Jagan Shakti and his team of screenwriters, this epochal event — India’s first interplanetary excursion, and the first time any country succeeded at sending a satellite to Mars in its initial attempt — is a textbook example of jugaad, a Hindi expression often translated as efficacious improvisation with minimal resources. And there is more than a hint of “Hidden Figures” to the storytelling here, in that most of the improvisation is inspired by observations and experiences of women who sign on for the Mars Orbiter Mission, or “MOM” (yes, really).
Akshay Kumar and Vidya Balan are first and second among equals in the ensemble cast, playing Rakesh Dhawan, introduced as an obsessively dedicated scientist charged with overseeing ISRO space explorations, and Tara Shinde, a project director who maintains an indelicate balance between familial and professional responsibilities. When an unmanned space launch must be spectacularly aborted — due largely, it must be noted, to a miscalculation by Tara — Rakesh accepts full responsibility for the mission’s failure, and winds up transferred to a low-profile, under-funded project to launch a Mars satellite. Rakesh labors under the near-certainty that he lacks funds and resources to ever do much but mark time in his new assignment, until Tara jump-starts his enthusiasm by applying what she knows about frying bread when her husband forgets to pay the gas bill to game-planning how a rocket could conserve fuel for a satellite launch.
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Even after Rakesh gets the A-OK to pursue possibilities for the Mars mission, however, he is severely restrained by ISRO brass in terms of who he can enlist for his project. As a result, he is limited to second and third choices — most of them female and all of whom, of course, prove to have the right stuff when it comes to jugaad. Varsha Pillal (Nithya Menen), for example, brings to the equation her knowledge of how she makes the most of the limited apartment space she shares with her husband and mother-in-law. Kritika Aggarwa (Taapsee Pannu) comes up with an on-off adjustment at just the right moment during the Mars mission— naturally, a few scenes after she’s applied the same approach to a more earthbound problem.
“Mission Mangal” is filled with such wink-wink payoffs for stealthily planted plot elements, and abounds with the sort of all-is-lost setups that screenwriting gurus suggest are mandatory before rah-rah third-act turnabouts. But here’s the thing: It’s hard to be dismissive of a formulaic narrative when filmmakers are adhering to such a potent formula.
When Balan (who is drop-dead perfect from wire to wire) has her show-stopping moment, as Tara reminds her colleagues what inspired them to become scientists in the first place, she folds the movie into manageable size and tucks it into her pocket. (“Star Wars” inspired Tara — but hers isn’t the only affecting revelation.) The final half-hour or so of Shakti’s crowd-pleaser, effectively hyped with Amit Trivedi’s wall-to-wall, adrenaline-pumping score, is so exhilaratingly schmaltzy, it might all by itself establish the movie’s bona fides as a guilty pleasure. But, really, why feel guilty about enjoying the sheer rush of such crafty emotion-stoking manipulation?
Another thing in the movie’s favor: For all of its obvious romanticizing, just about every actor — ranging from Balan and Menen to Sharman Joshi as a virginal thirtysomething male scientist on the MOM team — actually looks like who we’re supposed to believe they are. Even Indian superstar Akshay Kumar (best known to many for playing the title role in “Singh is Kinng”) is able, with the strategic application of spectacles, to be completely creditable as an ordinary guy fueled with dreams of doing something extraordinary. As he thrillingly states: “A dream is not something we see in our sleep. A dream is something that does not let you sleep.”