Space MOMs Review — Spotlight On Indian Women Who Admirably Pilot Homes And Space Missions
Space MOMs is an uplifting tale inspired by the momentous Mangalyaan mission: India succeeded in sending an orbiter to Mars in its very first try.
The title of the film references the Mars Orbiter Mission as well as the working-mom scientists and engineers who helped deliver the success.
In making Space MOMs – the feature film based on India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (M.O.M.) – writer and director Radha Bharadwaj had lofty goals.
“Through the years of living in the West, I had wanted to present a different narrative about my country, my culture, my people,” she said in a recent interview with the film’s producer David B Cohen on the occasion of International Women’s Day.
This need for a different narrative came from her experience of Western news and media coverage, the focus of which, she says, was “poverty porn”.
These stories, according to Bharadwaj, highlighted poverty, caste system, women’s oppression, and rapes in reference to India — aspects common to virtually every country in the world, yet bizarrely advertised as if it were a feature of India (and other developing countries) alone.
Unhappy with this “single story”, as described by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in her wonderful , Bharadwaj chose to make Space MOMs.
The story and inspiration for the film comes from the landmark Mangalyaan mission.
It was a remarkable mission on every count — using the PSLV rocket (repeatedly referred to as a “weak rocket” in the movie; the more powerful GSLV wasn't ready) to launch the orbiter, devising a method to fling the rocket far enough across space to reach Mars (because of said “weak rocket”), achieve the unprecedented feat of succeeding in the first attempt, and to do this and more with a budget of Rs 450 crore ($75 million).
For perspective, the American space agency National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) had placed a mission in Martian orbit around the same time as Mangalyaan with a spend nearly 10 times higher!
This incredible achievement became possible largely because of the work of the people involved in conceptualising and managing the mission.
As cameras panned across the mission control room of Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), the spotlight fell especially on women. An iconic picture emerged and quickly became the moment of the mission.
Photographer Manjunath Kiran of AFP news agency had captured women scientists and engineers dressed in elegant, colourful sarees, with gajra in their hair, huddled up in joy, celebrating the grand success.
It appears that this defining picture from 2014 had left an impact on Bharadwaj as well. And thus came to be this film based around composite characters inspired by the real women and men who worked on the project.
Taking the centre stage in Space MOMs are two lead women — Shanti Srivastava (actor Bhavna Pani) and Vimala Subrahmanya (actor Swati Das).
After the Mars mission is approved for execution on a tight 14-month schedule, they are handed a team and entrusted with “building the brain” of the orbiter, which is to say the orbiter’s software.
The job before them is hard as it is, particularly because of limited resources, but tensions rise with the stark difference in the women’s personalities.
Though they are cut from a different cloth, they have to find a way as co-leaders to stitch together a mission that takes India’s orbiter to the Red Planet.
Over the course of this journey, obstacles of various kinds show up in the lives of the women and their “Space Research” team. The challenges span the scientific and technological, professional (tension within the team), and familial.
The odds are stacked overwhelmingly against them at every stage, and they even have to project-manage their homes after work hours, which, as the launch gets closer, extends well past midnight.
How Srivastava and Subrahmanya, along with their team and the agency higher-ups, navigate this difficult and complex terrain of life and work forms the crux of the film.
Right off the bat, Space MOMs comes across as sincere, earnest, and a labour of love. You can tell that a genuine effort has been made in telling an uplifting story that not only wishes to entertain but also seeks to wake people up from the slumber of doubt and diffidence in one’s own land and culture — and especially in its deep roots.
The sound of the film is, therefore, quintessentially Indian. Within the first four minutes, the ear picks up on four different Indian languages — a familiar chorus for anyone living in multicultural Indian cities like Bengaluru or Delhi.
Adding to the potpourri of languages is the background score, made up of sounds from traditional music instruments, like nadaswaram, brass bells, and ghatam. It stands somewhat in opposition, especially symbolically, from the highly loud and mechanised music that has become a feature of mainstream contemporary music in commercial cinema.
The look of the film too is authentically Indian. The characters look like regular folks and represent, unabashedly, the strong and humble middle-class India that takes pride in its work, loves family, and balances tradition with modernity, careful not to stray far in either direction.
The characters in Space MOMs depend on their rationality to solve scientific and engineering problems while comfortably joining hands in prayer and seeking blessings from the gods after doing all they can.
Whereas in the West, this confluence of science and spirituality (or religion) may appear as a confusing contradiction, particularly in the realm of science, it is not the case in India. Bharadwaj captures this aspect deftly.
In one scene, Srivastava and Subrahmanya take an auto-rickshaw late at night to pray at the local temple before a particularly big night for the mission.
In mid-2019, ISRO chairman K Sivan himself had prayed at Tirumala temple, like his predecessors did before space missions, for the success of Chandrayaan-2.
This is a part of the Indian psyche. By including temples, prayers, the odd chant of “aum”, and references to Hindu mythology in their proper contexts in what is essentially a story of science, Bharadwaj has not given into supposed contradictions and stayed true to telling an Indian story.
Despite the sincerity of storytelling and passion of purpose, Space MOMs does suffer from faulty execution.
Characterisation, for instance, is simplistic and one-dimensional. One of the women scientists is said to be a “loner” and a “perfectionist”, but the way the character is written and performed makes her seem rude, inconsiderate, and unbearable at times.
Perfectionists don’t really have to be cold and anti-social.
It was, therefore, hard to sympathise with this character for the most part, which was unfortunate because she is one of the driving forces of the mission in the film.
Similarly, her counterpart character, who is said to be hopeful and optimistic, is shown to be impulsively reassuring and irrationally positive at the drop of a hat.
I was reminded of the “yes, we can” spirit expressed in the theme song for the animated children’s TV series Bob The Builder.
Just as with the other character, an optimist doesn’t have to spring for hope (especially in words and action) by default without care or consideration. It seemed odd for a scientist character to be that way.
Bharadwaj and the actors may have deliberately chosen to go the route of archetypal portrayals for the sake of clarity and simplicity, but the lack of colour and subtlety in characterisation takes away from the solemnity of the plot.
Additionally, the performances adopt a more dramatic pitch, making the delivery seem more suited to the stage than the screen. The lines themselves are often stilted. This is because at times, characters become vehicles for Bharadwaj’s messaging and some of the ‘take-home points’ are unnaturally reinforced by exaggerated expression and repetition.
But the shortcomings aside, the characters are too endearing and likable for an open heart to take issue for long. You are drawn to look beyond the weaker points, especially as you settle in with the characters and hop on to the seat to go the distance with them.
For this, kudos to the cast, which, besides the two leads, includes actors M D Pallavi, Ananda Shankar Jayant, Mahesh Dattani, Jayant Dwarkanath, Trivikram Nallamshetty, and Arjun Kolishetty.
Writer-director Bharadwaj herself has a role in the movie and she does a mighty fine job. Her character, Farzan, educates and inspires girl children in a rural school in Tamil Nadu after news of the Mars mission comes out to the public.
I wonder if, in some subconscious way, Bharadwaj sees herself playing that role in real life through Space MOMs — inspiring and educating people about their identity with the help of a wholesome story told on film.
Ultimately, Space MOMs is a worthy attempt to tell a truly Indian story of science. Imperfections aside, what the movie tries to tell its viewers is apparent and bound to resonate with many: embrace yourself, your way of life, and your roots as an Indian, and don’t be afraid to do it your way. A message that sits well in the aatmanirbhar (self-reliant) era.
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