Deep into Cargo — a infrequent sci-fi film from India now on Netflix — the male lead Prahastha (Vikrant Massey, from Chhapaak) laments that the deceased people he interacts with in his job feel more alive than he does. Named after the chief commander of Raavan’s army from the Hindu epic Ramayan, Prahastha is a member of homo rakshasas, which draws off the mythology of bloodthirsty beast-like demonic creatures referred to as rakshasas. But Prahastha and his cohorts are nothing like that. Instead, they look just as homo sapiens (that’s us, humans) do, aside from they all have one superpower each and every. And plenty of of them, like Prahastha, are involved in processing deceased humans for reincarnation. Heal their bodies, wipe their memories, and send them back into a new life.
In addition, the rakshasas have fully embraced the contemporary way of living. Now called Post-Death Transition Services and products, they conduct their commerce on retro-futuristic spaceships dubbed “Pushpak” that circle the Soil. (In Hindu mythology, the Pushpak Viman was once a flying palace.) Set in an undisclosed close future, Cargo in large part takes place aboard a vessel called Pushpak 634A. It’s been Prahastha’s home for a very long time — it’s hinted that he was once some of the first to fly off and has maybe been in the job for 75 years — where he has diligently performed his duties. Prahastha has seemingly embraced the loneliness and the monotony of his day by day rituals, with his only colleague Nitigya (Nandu Madhav, from Harishchandrachi Factory) restricted to a TV screen. It’s kind of like Duncan Jones’ Moon, in that regard.
For the reason that Prahastha has been by himself for so long, he is naturally stuck in his ways. He doesn’t want to check out anything new. When Nitigya suggests that he build an online following provided some of his contemporaries are renowned on social media, Prahastha says he isn’t interested in the fame. He is happy to be good at his job and merely go through the motions. And despite repeated reminders from Nitigya, Prahastha resists making training videos that would help the next generation of rakshas astronauts like him. But all that changes after his superiors force him to accept a new assistant in Yuvishka (Shweta Tripathi, from Masaan), endowed with magical curative powers with the assistance of a torch.
Recently graduated, Yuvishka is bursting with enthusiasm for her first job. Minutes after moving in, she begins posting on social media and talking to her fans. A bemused Prahastha wonders: “What fans?” Yuvishka is essentially the Gen Z equivalent of rakshas, who except her more extroverted personality, also believes in helping people and standing up for a cause. When Yuvishka tells a deceased human that they’re approximately to erase their memories — it’s in the rulebook, she justifies — Prahastha is upset over Yuvishka rankling the process. When she offers to heal another, Prahastha insists that he would relatively fix the curative machine that’s continuously out of sorts. Yuvishka lets it remain unsaid, in that moment, that the machines have been banned for pushing the likes of her out of a job.
Cargo is in large part made up of a series of vignettes, involving the deceased people who pass through Pushpak 634A. Through it, Cargo writer-director Arati Kadav — this is her feature-length directorial debut — hopes to give us an perception into our two central characters. It’s an oft-used tactic in filmmaking. Meantime, Kadav also has two larger yarns to spin. One that expands on why Prahastha has willingly indifferent himself from the world. And a second that’s meant to be a life-altering moment for Yuvishka, which will test her unravel and capability in her new job. This is screenwriting 101. Set up a mystery (Prahastha’s loneliness) and answer how it came to be. Or put your character (Yuvishka) in the worst imaginable situation.
But the trouble is that Cargo is unable to scratch beyond the surface. The aforementioned vignettes spotlight a few things approximately Prahastha and Yuvishka, but they are not very revealing and do not let us know enough. These scenes also entail a couple of moments spent down on Soil, which showcase how those people died — at times, they feel like a live-action rendition of the viral Australian PSA crusade, Dumb Ways to Die — but they add nothing to Cargo. They also break the visual homogeneity of the spaceship’s interiors. By keeping us on the ship, Cargo can put the audience in Prahastha’s shoes. It loses that when it takes us out of that.
Additionally, the route Cargo takes to Prahastha’s emotional core doesn’t feel biological, and it kind of feels to be reaching for a connect. And Yuvishka’s important scenes are either not directed very polite, or are unable to hit on the turning point. Where the film does better is in finding the inherent comedy in the interactions between the rakshasas and the deceased. Also, kudos to Kadav and Cargo’s production designer Mayur Sharma for realising its afterlife spaceship world at “one-millionth the budget of Gravity”. If truth be told, its lo-fi approach is relatively appropriate, what with the spaceship’s analogue interiors feeling as old-fashioned as Prahastha is.
Kadav holds her own for most of Cargo, bringing an understated touch to proceedings that never flare up in the manner mainstream Bollywood productions have a habit of. And to their credit, both Massey and Tripathi deliver in what they’re provided. Though their characters seemingly have decades between them in age difference, it’s unattainable to tell visually. If truth be told, Tripathi is older than Massey in real life. But through their interactions and mannerisms, the Cargo leading duo paint a plausible mentor-mentee relationship, which involves a generational passing of the torch, and the mentor learning something in return too.
After premiering at the MAMI Mumbai International Movie Festival final year, Cargo was once meant to have a bigger life, having been selected for the South by Southwest (SXSW) Movie Festival in america. But as the coronavirus pandemic swept through the world, SXSW was once cancelled. Cargo is not the type of film that would have found a theatrical release, a minimum of not in India, but it has cut short the movie’s festival run. Its arrival straight on Netflix is a win for audiences, and with a bit of luck, despite its lack of depth, they’ll see the potential offered by the sci-fi genre. India has produced precious few in the space, particularly on the small scale, and perhaps Kadav’s debut with Cargo can also be the start of a new generation.
Cargo is out September 9 at 12:30pm on Netflix in India.
Cast: Vikrant Massey, Shweta Tripathi, and Nandu Madhav, with cameos by Konkona Sen Sharma and Hansal Mehta. Director and creator: Arati Kadav. Producers: Navin Shetty, Shlok Sharma, Arati Kadav, Anurag Kashyap. Executive producer: Vikramaditya Motwane.