'Mission Mangal' Tells the True Story of the Women Behind India's First Mission to Mars

"Mission Mangal", a new Indian Hindi-language film, tells the dramatic true story of the women behind India's first mission to Mars. 

Launched in 2013, the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), also called Mangalyaan, was India's first interplanetary mission and the first time that any country successfully reached Martian orbit on the first try. India made history again this past week when, on Aug. 21, 2019, ISRO's Chandrayaan-2 spacecraft snapped its first picture of the moon.

"Mission Mangal" was released in India on Aug. 15, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Indian Space Research Organization.

The film, likened by some to the 2017 U.S. film "Hidden Figures," showcases the team behind the historic mission which included a number of women. In the film, the characters who make up the MOM team were changed from the original women who worked on the mission. Still, the fictional characters representing the women who sent India's first satellite to the moon did a fantastic job representing the dedication, struggle and scientific accomplishments of the women on the team. 

Related: India's First Mars Mission in Pictures (Gallery)

Tara Shinde (played by Vidya Balan) develops a unique approach to reaching Mars in "Mission Mangal."  (Image credit: Silverscreen Media)

Warning: Spoilers Ahead

The MOM team celebrates their hard work and success in reaching Mars in "Mission Mangal." (Image credit: Silverscreen Media)

Okay, we're going to talk about details of the movie below. So if you want to go into "Mission Mangal" fresh, stop reading now. You've been warned.

The movie opens with lead actress Vidya Balan, who plays fictional character Tara Shinde, project director of the Mars Orbiter Mission. She's swirling around the house, hurriedly making breakfast for her family while getting herself ready to leave for work. With moody teenagers and a grumpy husband, she leaps over her troubles at home to arrive at mission control at ISRO. 

It's launch day, and Shinde, hoping that a warning signal she spots is due to the hot weather, gives the go-ahead for launch. Unfortunately, the rocket explodes before it ever leaves Earth's atmosphere. Shinde tearfully admits her mistake to her boss, Rakesh Dhawan (played by Akshay Kumar), a moment that would almost never happen in real life in mission control between officials at a space agency. But, while this teary moment is a bit eye-roll-worthy, it is obvious that Shinde's character means business. 

Rakesh Dhawan (played by Akshay Kumar) helps to lead a team of mostly women trying to put a satellite in orbit around Mars in "Mission Mangal." (Image credit: Silverscreen Media)

After the launch failure, Dhawan is put in charge of ISRO's Mars mission, a step-down for him because at the time reaching Mars was a nearly impossible, far-off goal. Dhawan even suggests that ISRO wants him to resign quietly. But, while Dhawan reconsiders his career and life in general after this transition, Shinde makes a breakthrough while frying puri (fried bread). 

Shinde, in teaching her daughter how to fry puri after the gas is shut off because the oil is still hot, cooks up an idea. She sprints to ISRO, pitches the idea to Dhawan, and together they tell a room of higher-ups at the agency about how, by intermittently firing a craft's engines in multiple orbits around Earth, they could get to Mars with a smaller rocket and a smaller amount of fuel. 

Rupert Desai, an ISRO official who came to the agency from NASA, dismisses the idea as ridiculous, but Shinde and Dhawan are persistent and convince the agency officials to let them try. This struggle between the precedent that NASA has set as a leader in spaceflight and ISRO's hopefulness as an "up-and-coming" agency is palpable throughout the film. In real life, MOM was a triumph for the agency that cemented its status as a main player in the spaceflight industry. The film conveys the misconceptions and stereotypes that were placed on the Indian agency that helped to push them to reach this status.

Varsha Pillai (played by Nithya Menen) worked on the MOM team while becoming a mom in "Mission Mangal." (Image credit: Silverscreen Media)

Throughout the film, Desai continues to doubt the project, sending what he considered to be a less-qualified group of scientists to work on the mission. But, in what is a predictably heartwarming ending, Desai eats his words as MOM becomes a historic success. 

"Mission Mangal" isn't a terribly serious film. It doesn't echo other true spaceflight stories that come across almost as documentaries. There are a few Bollywood breakdowns where the characters quickly shake off the pain and stress of the mission to dance. ("Dil Mein Mars Hai," the film's "anthem" is still stuck in my head.) 

There are certainly moments of cheesiness in the film. In one scene,  Shinde and her husband go to pick up their daughter at a dance club late at night and end up drinking and dancing with her. But while the surprising and lighthearted scene might seem a bit silly, like other moments in the film it echoes more serious truths. This scene in particular reflects a mother showing her husband how to trust and love their daughter and allow her to be herself as she grew into an adult.

Ekta Gandhi (played by Sonakshi Sinha) works on the MOM team in "Mission Mangal." (Image credit: Silverscreen Media)

The film is a unique space movie for a multitude of reasons. Despite the silly moments in the movie, it's impossible not to become emotionally invested in the team's mission. As the characters work to get to Mars with a minuscule budget that gets slashed even further, it becomes ever-more amazing that it's based on a true story. 

"Mission Mangal" also shows what life is like for the MOM scientists at home, which, while it doesn't accurately reflect the mission's real-life team, adds depth to the characters and shows how life for an Indian woman could conflict with life as a scientist. 

Shinde grapples with issues at home and carries the weight of caring for her family while working over 10 hours a day at ISRO. Made to feel guilty by her husband over her lack of time with the family, Shinde nearly quits her career for good at one point. Sonashi Sinha, who plays the rebel orphan scientist Ekta Gandhi, deals with expectations put on her as an Indian woman to dress and act a certain way, and her sky-high expectations of herself. Gandhi nearly leaves the MOM team to try to pursue a career at NASA, sure that she could never reach her full potential in India. 

Kritika Aggarwal (Taapsee Pannu) is first shown struggling to learn to drive as an act of self-defense, which alludes to the inequality and risk of assault in the country. Later, she also almost leaves the team to care for her fiancé who is injured in battle. Meanwhile, Varsha Pillai (Nithya Menon) grapples with fertility issues, though she becomes pregnant later on in the movie. Additionally, Neha Siddiqui (Kirti Kulhari) struggles with life after divorce and finding housing in India as a Muslim woman. 

While an overall success, the movie hit a few sour notes. At one point, Dhawan, Pillai's male boss, pressures her into not taking maternity leave and instead raising her newborn at the office (a detail that is celebrated in the movie but paints a negative picture of inequality on the team). He asks if she wants to be "just a mom," diminishing the importance of motherhood and her right to choose her own path as a mother and scientist. Additionally, throughout the movie, the male leaders at ISRO not only talk over Shinde and the women on the team, deferring always to Dhawan, but consistently compare "home science" with rocket science. These references condescend to the film's female characters, referencing their intellect as if it were merely a miraculous side effect of their experience as mothers.  

Furthermore, while Gandhi's role as a young Indian woman in the dating scene struck a powerful chord, it was later trivialized when she was essentially "paired" with her dorky male colleague Parmeshwar Naidu (played by Sharman Joshi), who spoke openly about his virginity and desperation for female attention. 

Still, while a few moments in the movie could have been a bit more thoughtful, and the launch CGI is relatively basic, "Mission Mangal" remains an inspiring tale of hardship and glory. 

The real women of MOM

While the women of "Mission Mangal" may have been fictional, they represented the real women behind India's first mission to Mars. The mission that, in just 18 months and with a budget of only $74 million (less than the budget of the film "The Martian"), placed a satellite in orbit around Mars. The team worked anywhere from 10 to 14 hours a day to complete the seemingly impossible mission. 

Ritu Karidhal, an aerospace engineer and senior scientist at ISRO who served as the deputy operations director for MOM, has worked at the space agency for over 20 years. Karidhal went on to become the mission director of ISRO's Chandrayaan-2 mission. 

Nandini Harinath, a rocket scientist at ISRO, has worked on 14 missions over a span of 20 years at the agency. Harinath took an early interest in science after being exposed to "Star Trek" as a child. 

Anuradha T.K., the senior-most woman in an officer position at ISRO, is a scientist who specializes in sending communications satellites to space. She has worked at the agency for almost 40 years, and is considered by many at ISRO to be a role model as a successful woman in science, according to the BBC

Minal Rohit, a systems engineer at ISRO, was another instrumental scientist in ISRO's MOM. Moumita Dutta, another critical member of the MOM team, is a physicist who works at the Space Applications Centre (SAC) at ISRO. Dutta worked as project manager for the Methane Sensor for Mars (MSM) and developed, optimized and calibrated an optical system for the satellite. 

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Chelsea Gohd
Senior Writer

Chelsea “Foxanne” Gohd joined Space.com in 2018 and is now a Senior Writer, writing about everything from climate change to planetary science and human spaceflight in both articles and on-camera in videos. With a degree in Public Health and biological sciences, Chelsea has written and worked for institutions including the American Museum of Natural History, Scientific American, Discover Magazine Blog, Astronomy Magazine and Live Science. When not writing, editing or filming something space-y, Chelsea "Foxanne" Gohd is writing music and performing as Foxanne, even launching a song to space in 2021 with Inspiration4. You can follow her on Twitter @chelsea_gohd and @foxannemusic.