“Man created God in his own image,” said Ludwig Feuerbach, a German philosopher, in 1851. Come 2019, and “man has created demons in his own image” would be the perfect description for the Hindi-language science fiction film “Cargo”.
Originally premiering at the 2019 MAMI Film Festival, Cargo was released on Netflix only this month, not generating as wide a viewership as was probably expected but still creating enough interest. Written and directed by Arati Kadav, Cargo is one of the rare Indian cinemas based on future time and science fiction. And Kadav’s imagination reels in Hindu mythological demons to be a part of the film that is borderline dark comedy.
Prahastha (Vikrant Massey) is an astronaut abroad the spaceship named Pushpak 634A run by the Post Death Transition services. A 100-plus-year-old demon himself, Prahastha’s job is to recycle dead people and get them ready for rebirth. He has been living in the spaceship alone for 75 years, following the same daily routine, with the video call with Nitigya (Nandu Madhav) his only regular contact with the outside world.
As retirement approaches for Prahastha, he is given an assistant in the form of Yuvishka Shekhar (Shweta Tripathi), a fellow demon and astronaut. How the two interact and what changes the younger demon brings to Prahastha’s life makes up the movie’s main plot, which has plenty of undercurrents of dark humor and satire on human life and society.
Evidently made on a low budget, and not very sci-fi friendly despite its literal out-of-the-world setting, Cargo is a film that tries to bank more on its writing and acting than exciting visuals. Nonetheless, Kaushal Shah’s cinematography is crafty and manages to capture scenes that are well suited for the genre. In line with the writing that makes use of comedy, irony and satire to substantiate a very simple, twist-less plot, the cinematography and direction create an interesting collage of ideas to form Cargo.
But despite noticeable performances form the behind-the-camera team Cargo fails to capitalize on the talent it features. For one, the use of the talented leads Vikrant Massey and Shweta Tripathi is underwhelming. These actors, although relatively new to the industry, have made a mark with meaningful roles in critically acclaimed movies. But in Cargo, there is nothing to compliment them on their acting. Also, guest appearances of gifted comedian Ritwik Bhowmik and the immensely experienced Konkona Sen Sharma, which could have been delightful additions, don’t make the movie any less mundane.
Not to take away the credit from the actors, it’s the film’s slow pace that takes away the luster from what could otherwise have been a compelling premise. While there have been feature-length films in the past with just a handful of cast and next to no outdoor shootings that nonetheless have entertained us for two whole hours or so, unfortunately, Cargo, even with all its witty dialogues, off-center setting and surrealistic approach, doesn’t hold its ground for its 1h 59mins runtime. In fact when Prahastha talks about uploading the memories of dead people (the cargo) onto digital drives, it feels like the movie would have fared well as an episode of the British dystopian science fiction anthology “Black Mirror” (2013-2017) that were between 40-90 minutes.
Also noticeably underwhelming is the film’s background score. In a movie that is otherworldly, dystopian or surreal, we expect the score to be as arousing as the visuals. We understand budget constraints, but the background music doesn’t even match the effort of the cinematographer and the director.
Who should watch it?
“Cargo” is one of those films that could become a cult classic. It does have its Kubrickian moments and the writing has enough material for sequels or spinoffs. But this particular movie does not sit very well with the larger masses solely in it for entertainment.