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Indian National Award-winning actress Vidya Balan remembers being absolutely moonstruck when she saw an iconic image of a bunch of sari-clad women scientists, identified as the staff of Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro), looking jubilant as their spacecraft entered the Mars orbit for the first time in Indian space history.

The year was 2014 and that poignant image of a group of unassuming traditional Indian women who didn’t wear smart lab coats or Western corporate wear was brandished in her memory forever.

“It grabbed everyone’s attention… That picture of four women doing a thumbs up splashed in every newspaper was such an arresting image that inspired so many people. It inspired you to aspire,” said Balan in an interview with Gulf News tabloid!

Cut to 2019, Balan plays one of those women in that image who were instrumental in re-shaping Indian spatial history. She plays a South Indian project director of Isro in the film ‘Mission Magnal’, out in the UAE on August 15, which chronicles the remarkable interplanetary mission where India successfully put a satellite into orbit around mars. It’s a fictionalised account of India’s recent historical space mission.

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“This is the fourth film that I have been offered on the same subject… But with Mission Mangal I loved how the writers interpreted the theory about launching a satellite into space. They made it so relatable to everyone. Imagine applying home science like poori-making to a larger science project. It’s incredible,” said Balan.

‘Mission Mangal’ writers who impressed Balan include R Balki, director Jagan Shakti, Nidhi Singh Dharma and Saketh Kondiparthi.

In the trailer, Akshay Kumar is shown applying a home-science theory of how to make a perfect fluffy Indian bread (poori) on a stove by adjusting temperatures of a stove to his scientific mission of launching a satellite into Mars, while an army of women — played by a spectrum of talented actors including Taapsee Pannu, Nithya Menon, Sonakshi Sinha and Kirti Kulhari — join hands to make their space mission possible.

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“With ‘Mission Mangal’, science has not been compromised but only simplified… We always imagine and assume that scientists and engineers are made differently. They probably have horns or extraterrestrial powers, but we want to show that they are as real as any one of us. They cry and get angry like any one of us. They are passionate and driven like any of us.”

While Balan enjoys a tremendous amount of goodwill, her lead actor Akshay Kumar has often been criticised for making propaganda, agenda-driven films that glorify current Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s achievements during his reign. Who can forget his ‘Toilet: Ek Prem Katha’, based on Modi’s Swacch Bharat Campaign.

While Balan reveals that it’s Kumar’s seventh film release on Indian Independence day, ‘Mission Mangal’s is not jingoistic by any definition.

“We aren’t any less of a hero because we haven’t fought a war… I am glad that stories of real achievements where extraordinary emerges from the ordinary is shown in films. I promise you that you will feel proud as a nation after watching Mission Mangal. You may even feel patriotic, but it won’t be of the jingoistic kind.”

To be fair, there’s a lot to applaud in India’s 2014 space mission to mars. With their successful Mars Orbiter Mission, India became the first country to send a satellite to orbit the planet at its first attempt and became the first Asian nation to get to the red planet.

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So what was it like to be a part of a woman-dominated film? While we refused to fan the narrative that actresses get petty while working together, Balan claims that the atmosphere on the sets was insulated by layers of warmth and affection for each other. Contrary to the stereotypical image of catfights on a women-dominated show, there was a palpable sense of sisterhood says Balan.

“The atmosphere on the sets was fantastic. We are all secure actors and we weren’t looking over our shoulders to see how other actors were doing their shot or how many lines each had. Each of us have always done our own bit to change the larger picture in Bollywood... ‘Mission Mangal’ is just a start.”

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CELEBRATING THE MEN

Vidya Balan points out that the Mars Mission by India had contributions by men too.

“Their contribution cannot be ignored. While the contribution of women was important and prominent, there’s no ignoring that men were involved in the mission… Director Jagan realised that earlier on itself.” To put it in context, a large section of movie-mad Indians weren’t pleased with Akshay Kumar taking charge in a film filled with award-winning female stars. Balan is pragmatic about that criticism and believes that Kumar has a huge fan following that will ensure that the reach of Mission Mangal expands exponentially.

“When you have an Akshay Kumar, you want to utilise and exploit his stardom… More number of people are going to come to the theatres. As long as they come and watch the film, they will see it for what it is.”

Don’t miss it!

‘Mission Mangal’ is out in the UAE on August 15