In 2014, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) launched the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) or Mangalyaan. In the roughly 500-strong team behind this mission’s success was a group of women who made up about 27 percent of key executive positions.
That the story of these women has been fictionalised in the recently released Akshay Kumar-Vidya Balan starrer Mission Mangal is well known. What is not as well known is that a lower budget, devoid of star cast film called Space MOMs has a script that runs along very similar lines.
Space MOMs has been written and directed by US-based Radha Bharadwaj who alleges in a November 2018 lawsuit that the makers of Mission Mangal violated the copyright for her script, which she had discussed with producer Atul Kasbekar's company as far back as 2016. Bharadwaj refused to discuss her case as it is still pending. However, she says that she began work on her script back in 2014.
With the lawsuit still pending in court, the filmmaker is busy focusing on screening her film around the globe.
"I know many people wish they could see a film on the women of Mangalyaan that is heartfelt, sincere, authentic and genuinely celebratory of our culture," Bharadwaj told Connected to India.
Notwithstanding the copyright clash with Mission Mangal, Bharadwaj feels that Space MOMs has its own niche in the cinematic sphere and is her homage to her Indian roots.
“Space MOMs has been the repayment of my debt to my astonishing Indian heritage… I'm thanking my ancestors with Space MOMs,” she says.
The film tells the story of regular, middle class working mothers who balance their everyday lives with being rocket scientists working on sending a mission to Mars.
It is inspired by the true stories of the women engineers behind India’s 2014 Mars Orbiter Mission and holds a special place in Bharadwaj’s heart.
“The focus on women comes from a deeply personal space - I'm female, and the depictions of Indian women as hapless victims (oppressed by barbaric Indian men) have been offensive to me,” says Bharadwaj.
When ISRO launched the Mars Orbiter Mission, India became the first Asian nation to reach Martian orbit and the first nation in the world to do so in its maiden attempt. When the mission succeeded, Space MOMs was born.
“I was growing sick and tired of the repeated negativity in Western media and entertainment on all things Indian. No culture is perfect, but India is repeatedly flogged for her perceived faults,” Bharadwaj told Connected to India. “I decided to stop being upset and do what I could do, in my small way, to present a different - and a positive - picture of India. When the Mars Orbiter Mission succeeded on September 24, 2014, I launched my mission - a film, with the women engineers as protagonists.”
Inspired by the stories of these women, Space MOMs attempts to explore their struggle to pull off an unprecedented feat as they balance their brutal work schedules with their family lives. It is also Bharadwaj’s attempt at changing the way women, especially Indian women, and India are depicted in the media.
“I hope media and entertainment catch up to the reality of who Indian women are: we take second place to no one,” says Bharadwaj. “In Space MOMs, I show women and men working side-by-side to achieve something marvelous. The idea of gender difference never comes into their reckoning. You are as good as your brain and work - that's true gender parity.”
The director met and interviewed a number of the women scientists and engineers involved in the Mars Orbiter Mission before writing her script.
“They were every bit as rooted to their country, culture and customs as I had thought they would be,” she told Connected to India. “They came from authentically Indian, middle-class roots, and they were proud of who they were.”
In creating the film she received ample support from ISRO which facilitated interviews and guided her in her research.
“I was clear with them that mine was a fictionalized version of real events... Space MOMs captures the spirit and character of both ISRO and the engineers accurately, because I came from a place of deep respect for them. I wasn't out to caricature them or their beliefs; I wanted to capture who they were, and celebrate that,” says Bharadwaj.
Residing in the United States, Bharadwaj is known for her previous two films - Closet Land (starring Alan Rickman and Madeleine Stowe, released in 1991) and Basil (starring Derek Jacobi, Christian Slater, Jared Leto and Claire Forlani, released in 1998).
This is her first film centred around her birthplace and she says the decision to not have any big name actors in her movie was a conscious one.
“Space MOMs is an underfunded underdog of a film… I've worked with major American and British stars in my other feature films. But in the case of Space MOMs, I wanted India to be the star. I didn't want anything or anyone to overshadow that message,” she told Connected to India.
Space MOMs will be screened at the Singapore South Asian International Film Festival on September 6 (Tickets).