India’s 2013 Mars Orbiter Mission is the gift that keeps giving. After the short film Mission Mars: Keep Walking India, the documentary Mangalyaan: India’s Mission to Mars, and the movie Mission Mangal comes the web series Mission Over Mars. The series was premiered on September 10 on Alt Balaji and Zee5, less than a month after the release of Mission Mangal.
Like the movie led by Akshay Kumar and Vidya Balan, M.O.M. seeks to highlight the role of women scientists in the Indian Space Research Organisation’s successful attempt to launch an orbiter around Mars. The 500-strong team of scientists comprised several women, with 27% of them in leadership positions, according to Minnie Vaid’s book Those Magnificent Women And Their Flying Machines: ISRO’s Mission on Mars.
The eight-episode series has been directed by Vinay Waikul and written by him and Sambit Mishra. The cast includes Sakshi Tanwar, Mona Singh, Nidhi Singh, Palomi Ghosh, Ashish Vidyarthi, Mohan Joshi, Mona Ambegaonkar and Chittaranjan Tripathy.
The similarities with Mission Mangal are numerous: a seemingly impossible project, the race against time, an unimaginably tight budget, multiple complications, and a team that works against the odds to create history. Both the movie and the web series begin with a setback that gives a key character a point to prove. Both try to examine the uneasy dance between science and religion through the inclusion of a superstitious scientist in the core team. Both invoke a comparison to India’s 1983 Cricket World Cup win to motivate the staffers. In both productions, complex scientific solutions are explained through ordinary tasks (frying puris in the film; firecrackers in the series).
However, unlike Mission Mangal, M.O.M. is an all-women show, with men as mostly bit players or troublemakers. What we get is a celebration of female power and an engaging enough portrayal of the historic mission despite largely familiar observations about the challenges facing women in the workplace.
The Indian Space Research Organisation is replaced by the Indian Space Agency in the series. The contribution of the women is represented by project head Nandita (Sakshi Tanwar), senior scientist Moushumi (Mona Singh), superstitious maths genius Neetu (Nidhi Singh) and eccentric analytics engineer Meghan (Palomi Ghosh).
Moushumi, who is also the narrator of the series, is the most rounded character. She is struggling to regain her professional credibility after an error on her part derails a previous space mission. She has anger issues, anxieties about being a good mother, difficulties in working with a team and a fraught relationship with her ex-husband.
The theme of motherhood is extended to the other characters. Nandita is at loggerheads with her teenage son. Neetu’s attempts to get pregnant are frequently interrupted by the demands of the Mars mission (also an element in Mission Mangal). Depending on how you see it, this is either a realistic depiction of the challenges faced by working women or yet another example of society tying women to their biology, no matter how many glass ceilings they break.
The series sidesteps the science behind the mission for the most part. Instead, hope, passion and dedication steer India to the red planet. The narrative energy flows from the emotions, anxieties and personal journeys behind the scenes. By reminding viewers of the time when Indian scientists did what no other country could, M.O.M. doubles up as a confidence booster for India’s space ambitions after the setback to the recent Chandrayaan-2 moon mission.
Though the web series format gives M.O.M. the opportunity to flesh out its themes, too many obstacles are piled on in episode after episode. The unending and yawn-inducing hurdles include technical setbacks, inter-departmental rivalries, numerous naysayers, an antagonistic government and an unconvincing track about a senior scientist hell-bent on destroying the mission.
When the narrative sags, the performances come to the rescue. Mona Singh and Sakshi Tanwar carry their roles well, but the pick of the lot is Palomi Ghosh, who snugly inhabits the character of an eccentric scientist with a high IQ and poor emotional skills and makes the cliche endearing.