The irony is inescapable. The production value of India’s Space Odyssey – a 47-minute documentary on the 60-year-old journey of ISRO (Indian Space Research Organization) – is an inadvertent reflection of the low-budget legacy of ISRO itself
The film-making is as thrifty and modest as the subject, which is a pity, because if there were one dimension of India’s scientific history that deserved more than a crash course (pun unintended), ISRO is it. Forty-seven minutes to cover more than six decades – one might argue that is the point of modern “infotainment,” but the bullet-point functionality of such films flattens out all the innovation of an organization that is deceptively evasive about its ingenuity.
India’s Space Odyssey is so quick and dirty that it cannot even undo Bollywood’s space-for-dummies fetishization of the Mars mission (Mission Mangal) and the Pokhran tests (Parmanu). Maybe it can be shown at school, but the same kids might prefer watching Vidya Balan and John Abraham save the day in Hindi cinema’s slick and glorified infotainment projects.
The Hindi voiceover of India’s Space Odyssey is by actor R Madhavan. But I watched the English version, which boasts of an American voiceover even as a paranoid USA is painted as the ‘enemy’ during ISRO’s formative years. The talking heads – a space historian, an assistant editor of a newspaper, an author, an early pioneer, and an ex-ISRO chairman – do a decent job of lending authenticity to the pacey journey. Some of the footage of the late APJ Abdul Kalam is charming, if only to confirm that greatness often stems from the most unassuming personalities. I wish there were more archival faces, but if wishes were horses, I’d be on Venus today to defy the gender stereotypes associated with planets.
One of the most interesting parts of the documentary features the establishment of India’s Equatorial Rocket Launching Station in Thumba in the early ‘60s by nuclear physicists Homi Bhabha and Vikram Sarabhai. The use of bullock carts to transport equipment and a church as a workshop is reduced to animated recreations, almost as though the brief were to stay as campy as possible to demonstrate India’s underdog status as a rising space power.
The film speeds through Rakesh Sharma’s record-breaking foray into space, India’s Soviet bond, the Sarabhai vision of development through space research, the humble origins and the launch of the PSLV rockets against all odds, before the success of the Chandrayaan-I and Mangalyaan missions, and the recent failure of the Chandrayaan-2 landing. As one might expect, every milestone is touched upon with rousing music before moving onto the next one. The hagiographic tone is mercifully limited, with an honest admission of infrastructural troubles, though there is no mention of any administration allocating more resources to the bolstering of religion than the advent of science.
One might argue that the money allocated towards the building of statues and temples ensure that the heroes of ISRO remain underdogs, and not frontrunners. That ISRO continues to operate – and excel – despite these financial constraints is an ode to the minds that make necessity the mother of invention, and not the politicians who get the credit for its achievements.
On a personal level, I have fond childhood memories of ISRO. Perhaps that is why the meagre status of this documentary on Discovery+ feels a little offensive. I grew up in the “Satellite” area of Ahmedabad, with ISRO’s Space Applications Centre walking distance from our colony. I would make my father drive me past the gated venue every Sunday, while ambitiously vowing to do well in Science so that I could pass the ‘practical exams’ taking place in the Centre. Space fascinated me, even if I did not have the aptitude to pursue this curiosity. Our next-door neighbour was a modest, soft-spoken man. He would politely inquire from time to time about my studies, my marks, and my favourite subjects. I barely saw him on weekends, but I remember the whir of his Maruti 800 leaving the gate.
My father mentioned he was a scientist, but I thought it was some dumbed-down term used by adults to describe doctors or pharmacists. I once played cricket with his daughter, who was my age, and I never saw her again after that. Maybe she was sent away to study. Years later, I discovered that the man actually worked in the Space Applications Centre – a genuine, real-life, bonafide nerd. I asked my parents why he was living in such a small apartment opposite us if he was such an important scholar. My perception of space scientists was derived from the glossy representation of NASA in Hollywood movies. They were minor celebrities. And yet, I barely knew my neighbour’s name.
He went on to become ISRO’s ninth Chairman, playing a key role in the unprecedented success of the Mangalyaan mission. I recognised that disarming face in a newspaper. Not much had changed. He still looked like a man happy to make something out of nothing. The problem, however, is that Indian filmmakers misinterpret this brilliant humility as a silent “odyssey.” A faceless story of a larger collective that can be compressed into 47 minutes of national progress. I know he deserves better, from both art and country.