Mission Mangal is not a woman-centric film. Why should I attempt to empower women who are already far superior to men?

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Together, they are a two-man army. On one side is R Balki, a powerful ad filmmaker, who graduated to Bollywood with critically acclaimed movies like Cheeni Kum and Paa. On the other side is Jagan Shakti, who assisted Balki and director AR Murugadoss over the past 14 years, and is now ready to make his directorial debut with Mission Mangal. Over to the duo, who has steered the film and made it a reality…
Jagan has been working with you since 2005. Balki, at what juncture did you realise that he’s ready to helm a film by himself?
Balki:I met Jagan through a common friend. From Cheeni Kum (2007) to Padman (2018), he’s held different designations in my directorial team. The only time he wasn’t on my team was when I made Ki & Ka (2016). For me, he’s been a part of this little family I have at work. Over these years, I’ve realised that he’s very capable. Since my wife Gauri (filmmaker Gauri Shinde) and I make fewer films, he also worked with Murugadoss. I would describe Jagan as a creative person, who can also be destructive, like most creative minds are. To answer your question, he was going to make another film years ago which didn’t work out. I was concerned about him, as he was somewhat frustrated.
Is that when you decided to produce Mission Mangal instead?
Balki: While working on Padman, Jagan came up with an idea on the launch of the Mangalyaan. His sister Sujatha works at Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) as a scientist. He worked hard to develop the idea, and initially, we even toyed with the thought of making it in another language. However, eventually, we decided that the film needs a big scale and making it in Hindi might be the best option. The thought was to make an emotional movie about a space mission we’re proud of; something that has human elements, unlike Hollywood films like Gravity (2013), which are more fiction and fantasy. I met Akshay Kumar and he, too, seemed interested in the idea. However, his question was, ‘What am I doing in this film?’ I told him that it’s just an idea and we’d flesh it out. Over the next three months, I worked with Jagan and our writers. Together, we created a set of fictitious, yet strong characters, who would narrate the story of one of modern India’s greatest achievements. We’ve kept the scientific aspects and the flow of events as close to real as possible.

Along with Akshay Kumar, the film is headlined by five strong women characters (Vidya Balan, Sonakshi Sinha, Taapsee Pannu, Nithya Menen and Kirti Kulhari). You are known to make films with strong women characters, and going by the trailer of Mission Mangal, this story, too, seems to be driven by them…
Balki: Akshay is the hero of this film, and so are the five women, who play characters that are as strong and as important as his. He’s a superstar with no herogiri to do here, but he’s at the centre of the story, while substantial parts are played by strong artistes who happen to be women. Once we completed our script draft, everything fell into place. This was the first film I narrated to Vidya Balan after Paa (2009) and she was ecstatic. Just like her, I wanted each and every character to have a place of its own. I’d like to believe that we’ve achieved that. I must add that Jagan added a lot of muscle and elements to every character.
Jagan: Balki sir and I had this very interesting line that we had planned to give Vidya’s character. At some point, we wanted her to say that it’s science that makes me a scientist, not my gender. It was a powerful line, but we didn’t find the right point to place it.
Balki: I disagree with the thought that Mission Mangal is a woman-empowerment film or a woman-centric film. It’s just phrases or concepts that we latch on to. It’s rare and nice to see so many women on a single film poster. It must have received a lot of attention, but this film is led by Akshay Kumar, like Padman was. That was about sanitary napkins, but the story was led by Akshay’s character. So, I disagree with the notion that we’ve made a woman-centric film. And why should I attempt to empower women who are already far superior and more powerful than men? Do they even need it?
Jagan: To me, they are all scientists at ISRO. In fact, even the women who work at ISRO, including my sister, don’t think that they are any different from their male colleagues. Gender doesn’t get into the way of their everyday work, which is complex and challenging. For them, sari or shirt doesn’t matter — all that matters is that you are a scientist who can aid India’s space program. There were thousands of people involved in the Mars Mission; we’ve created seven-eight characters to front their story. To us, this is a thought- empowerment film. If you believe in yourself, nothing is impossible. Akshay sir’s character is not empowering anyone in the film; he’s just working with them.

Jagan, at any given time, there were at least three top stars on your set. Did it get difficult to handle so many A-listers in your first film? Isn’t it a hefty cast to justify in terms of screen time?
Jagan: It didn’t get difficult and the credit for that goes to the script. Initially, everyone presented their views on their characters and the situations, but once they came on board, they were clear about what they were doing. My cast came with no starry baggage and they didn’t treat me like a first-time director. We knew that there was room for on-the-spot improvement. That was inevitable with such big names on board and I’d be foolish to not take their inputs; in fact, I grabbed the inputs by the collar. But there was a rhythm that no one could break because that could impact the overall film and take away from what we intended to say. No one could add or eliminate lines because it was written in a certain manner. Fortunately, everyone got their parts correctly. Balki sir and I had even rehearsed the scenes before putting them into the script. And none of the actors were vying for extra screen time. The film is bigger than that for them. Today, nearly every actor knows that a character is far more important than screen time.

When you guys started shooting, there were reports of a court case being filed by an NRI filmmaker, who had claimed that this film is based on her story, titled Space Moms…
Balki: The story of this film belongs to ISRO and it’s across every platform in the world. People have made films, documentaries, features on this subject and everything around it. The film is about a mission and the sacrifices people made for it to be a success. ISRO belongs to everyone and no one can claim to own this story solely.

Jagan, let’s talk about the research that you’ve put into the film. Balki had mentioned earlier in the interview that you put in a lot of hard work before the film went on the floors…
Jagan: My sister Sujatha helped me understand a lot of things and also directed me to the right people at ISRO. I interviewed at least 30-40 scientists, who worked on the mission and their contributions are immense. I have 1,800 hours of audio recording, which came in handy while trying to make science palatable for a regular cinegoer.

Balki: People will come to the theatre for an experience; we have to pass on knowledge without making it seem so. We had to find simpler ways to decode complex scientific things. We used every-day examples to explain the goings-on of space and blend it with an emotional and thrilling story.
Jagan: For instance, you see Akshay sir explaining a space concept by using the example of making puris. We are educated to understand science, but in a film, it has to be interpreted differently. In reality, ISRO scientists had not done it this way; this is how we’ve fictionalised the story a bit.
Did you have to get your script vetted by ISRO?
Balki: We have all seen the documentaries and the material available in the public domain. But knowing too much can also get into the way of writing a script. So, drawing that line was essential while writing the film. You see, we were not learning to launch a rocket while making this film. Each time we hit a roadblock or we needed to check on facts, Jagan would reach out to the ISRO officials. Also, we didn’t set out to make a salute-your-flag Independence Day film. The nation has anyway saluted the scientists for their magnanimous achievement. Our job here was to write an enjoyable film that will leave you feeling charged and inspired.
Balki films have a certain sensibility. Was there ever a creative clash or conflict at any level of execution?
Jagan: I pushed my way through things (laughs!). There were times when I succeeded and times when I didn’t. There were times when he came around an idea that he had initially rejected, and there were times when I withdrew my thoughts. If you have a convincing argument, sir is never egoistic about it, he takes it in the right spirit.
Balki: Jagan is an enthusiastic person with a commercial bent of mind. But I sincerely believed that this story didn’t need any seeti-bajao moments. I believe the film is Jagan’s vision; I’ve helped him shape it appropriately. I didn’t even go to his set for more than three days but I’ve shouted at him like I’ve done for no other film of mine. Gauri sometimes would come down heavily on me for that; she’d make me realise it’s his film (laughs!). Two people can never direct a film and that’s the reason I limited my contribution to the script; it’s the first time I’ve worked on a film that I’m not directing. I helped him write it to ensure it stays true to the vision he had when he came to me with it. I never let him forget the image of those women at ISRO celebrating the Mars Mission. You get your chance to make your first film just once, and it has to be nothing but perfect. It doesn’t matter if it’s the biggest hit of the year, if it’s not perfect, you will live with that feeling all your life. If I can stop a mistake, I should. Jagan’s been that mentee who’s put up with me silently.