With Cargo, Arati Kadav has boldly gone where few women have gone before – she has written and directed a science-fiction film set in space.

Cargo takes place sometime in the future, and stars Vikrant Massey and Shweta Tripathi as astronauts on board one of the spaceships in a series named Pushkar, after the mythical vehicle of the gods. Prahastha (Massey) has been on Pushkar 634A for decades, and if his age doesn’t show, it’s because he is an anthropomorphised demon and a beneficiary of a “Demon-Sapien Peace Treaty”.

Prahastha is an employee of Post-Death Transition Services, a corporatised version of Yama, the god of death. The recently departed are the “cargo” of the title, who are wooshed into the spacecraft right after their demise and wooshed away once an ‘extraction process’ is completed. Prahastha has been at it for years, and when his genial boss Nitigya (Nandu Madhav) sends over an assistant, Yuvishka (Tripathi), Prahastha finds that he has to share his workspace and his life with his younger and more ebullient colleague.

Impermanence is among the themes explored by the film, Kadav told Scroll.in. “Life is like a set of revolving doors – you have had your time in the world and then it is your time to go,” she observed. “Nothing is final, but nothing ends forever, and even in the impermanence, we leave traces behind.”

Shweta Tripathi and Vikrant Massey in Cargo. Courtesy Fundamental Pictures/Electric Films.

Despite tackling untimely deaths, interrupted lives, failed relationships and loneliness and the inability to form lasting connections, Cargo stays away from the brooding melancholy that is usually found in space movies. One reason is because of Kadav’s life-long interest in mythology, folk literature and origin stories, which can “talk about deep emotions and yet be involving without having melancholia”, she said. Kadav quoted the graphic novelist Amruta Patil’s observation in the preface of her 2012 novel Adi Parva – Churning of the Ocean – “To know if a tale is worth its weight in gold, check if it reveals threefold. In your bloodstream. In the town square. In the turning of galaxies.”

Through her film, Kadav hopes to evoke the quality of a grandmother’s bedtime story, the kind with many layers and emotional registers. “I also wanted people to be engaged with the film,” she pointed out. “We do go into melancholia, but we try and come back to something funny.” The cargo proves to be unfailingly human, holding on to emotions, learned behaviours and last-minute gestures even as it makes its way to the final exit.

The unusual names of the main characters have also been inspired by demons in Indian mythology. “We had different names earlier, but Vikrant suggested naming them after rakshasas,” Kadav said.

Cargo (2019).

Produced by Fundamental Pictures and Electric Films, Cargo was shot in 2018 and completed in 2019. After a premiere at the Mumbai Film Festival in 2019, Kadav’s debut feature will be screened at the SWSX Film Festival in Austin, Texas, in the United States in March followed by the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles in April.

Kadav has previously directed short films, including Time Machine in 2015, which shares with Cargo its low-fi visual effects, retro look and a nostalgia for days past but still within reach. Her love for science fiction meant that her first full-length feature too had to be in the same genre.

“I am obsessed with creation and afterlife myths, the purpose of life, and whether we should study death to understand life better,” Kadav explained. “I was working on something else before Cargo, and that one too was a sci-fi film. It was about an existential crisis, but it could not be pulled off. That’s when I hit upon the idea of a spaceship as an immigration service.”

The 37-year-old filmmaker graduated from the Indian Institute of Technology-Kanpur in computer science. She worked at Microsoft’s Seattle office for three years before heeding her true calling – to be a storyteller.

Science fiction, usually the preserve of men the world over, appealed to that side of Kadav that likes designing systems as well as the other side that likes to explore magic, bottomless possibility and happy accidents.

“Science fiction is still dominated by men the world over, and the narratives are overwhelmingly masculine,” she noted. “However, sci-fi can have a lot of layers. It need not be about a spectacle, but can have nuanced perspectives and a range of stories.”

In 2011, Kadav enrolled for a direction course at the Whistling Woods International film institute in Mumbai. She was 28 at the time – a relatively late start for a career in cinema – and was like a “kid in a candy store”, she recalled.

Time Machine (2015).

After working on her short films, Kadav began expanding her horizons. She wrote Cargo in under five months, mostly at Taj Mahal Tea House in Mumbai’s Bandra neighbourhood – she would come in soon after they opened up for breakfast. The world building that the production required, and which shaped the screenplay, took some more time. The challenges of making a low-budget space movie in India cannot be emphasised enough. Without access to massive funds or advanced visual effects, Kadav decides to focus on concepts – Yama transformed into a corporation to transport souls, Surpanakha as a pop star – and make the spaceship as real and tactile as possible.

“I wanted the spaceship to be interesting and have a unique look – I wanted it to be an organism in itself,” she said. “I wouldn’t be able to compete with films like Interstellar, so why not make it like Terry Gilliam instead?”

Pushkar 634A is “clunky and retro”, filled with objects that indicate the number of years Prahastha has been on the ship. “I wanted his world to be similar to my childhood – a world of All India Radio and Doordarshan,” Kadav said. The interiors of the spacecraft were created on a set at Mumbai’s Film City. “Every material has been re-used to make each of the rooms,” she said.

Her crew included cinematographer Kaushal Shah, who was studying at the American Film Institute at the time and travelled to Mumbai to lens Cargo. The production design is by Mayur Sharma, whose credits include Kedarnath (2018) and Bala (2019). “We were not clear if we would get a release date, but we decided that whatever we did, we would do honestly,” Kadav said.

Cargo. Courtesy Fundamental Pictures/Electric Films.

Among those who took leaps of faith and trusted a first-time director on an unconventional adventure were the actors. Shweta Tripathi, whose credits include the films Haraamkhor and Gone Kesh and the web series Mirzapur, was among the first people to be cast in Cargo. Tripathi knew Vikrant Massey because the two of them were working together in Mirzapur, and she introduced Kadav to him. “He was a bit unsure, but agreed because Shweta was so ready and confident,” Kadav recalled. “He became very passionate about the film, and it is because he believed in the world so much that his conviction comes through.”

Several actors have small parts in Cargo, including Konkona Sen Sharma, who plays Prahastha’s former lover. “Vikrant had worked in Konkona’s film A Death in the Gunj, and she is also a huge sci-fi fan,” Kadav said.

After its festival journey, Cargo will probably be released on a streaming platform – unless a distributor takes a punt on a movie whose very existence is a marvel. Indian filmmakers have rarely ventured beyond Earth, and a woman, even less so.

Arati Kadav.