Deep into Cargo — a rare sci-fi movie from India now on Netflix — the male lead Prahastha (Vikrant Massey, from Chhapaak) laments that the dead 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 known as rakshasas. But Prahastha and his cohorts are nothing like that. Instead, they look just as homo sapiens (that’s us, humans) do, except they all have one superpower each. And many of them, like Prahastha, are involved in processing dead humans for reincarnation. Heal their bodies, wipe their memories, and send them back into a new life.
Moreover, the rakshasas have fully embraced the modern way of life. Now called Post-Death Transition Services, they conduct their business on retro-futuristic spaceships dubbed “Pushpak” that circle the Earth. (In Hindu mythology, the Pushpak Viman was a flying palace.) Set in an undisclosed near future, Cargo largely takes place aboard a vessel called Pushpak 634A. It’s been Prahastha’s home for a long time — it’s hinted that he was one of the first to fly off and has possibly 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 daily rituals, with his only colleague Nitigya (Nandu Madhav, from Harishchandrachi Factory) restricted to a TV screen. It’s a bit like Duncan Jones’ Moon, in that regard.
Given that Prahastha has been by himself for so long, he’s naturally stuck in his ways. He doesn’t want to try anything new. When Nitigya suggests that he build an online following given some of his contemporaries are famous on social media, Prahastha says he’s not interested in the fame. He’s 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 healing powers with the help 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 apart from her more extroverted personality, also believes in helping people and standing up for a cause. When Yuvishka tells a dead human that they are about 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 rather fix the healing machine that’s frequently 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 largely made up of a series of vignettes, involving the dead 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 insight into our two central characters. It’s an oft-used tactic in filmmaking. Meanwhile, Kadav also has two larger yarns to spin. One that expands on why Prahastha has willingly detached himself from the world. And a second that’s meant to be a life-altering moment for Yuvishka, which will test her resolve 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 possible situation.
But the trouble is that Cargo is unable to scratch beyond the surface. The aforementioned vignettes highlight a couple of things about Prahastha and Yuvishka, but they aren’t very revealing and don’t tell us enough. These scenes also involve a few moments spent down on Earth, which showcase how those people died — at times, they feel like a live-action rendition of the viral Australian PSA campaign, 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 organic, and it seems to be reaching for a connect. And Yuvishka’s important scenes are either not directed very well, or are unable to hit on the turning point. Where the movie does better is in finding the inherent comedy in the interactions between the rakshasas and the dead. Also, kudos to Kadav and Cargo’s production designer Mayur Sharma for realising its afterlife spaceship world at “one-millionth the budget of Gravity”. In fact, its lo-fi approach is somewhat 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 are given. Though their characters seemingly have decades between them in age difference, it’s impossible to tell visually. In fact, Tripathi is older than Massey in real life. But through their interactions and mannerisms, the Cargo leading duo paint a believable 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 Film Festival last year, Cargo was meant to have a bigger life, having been selected for the South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival in the US. But as the coronavirus pandemic swept through the world, SXSW was cancelled. Cargo isn’t the kind of movie that would have found a theatrical release, at least not in India, but it has cut short the film’s festival run. Its arrival straight on Netflix is a win for audiences, and hopefully, despite its lack of depth, they will see the potential offered by the sci-fi genre. India has produced precious few in the space, especially on the small scale, and maybe Kadav’s debut with Cargo can 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 writer: Arati Kadav. Producers: Navin Shetty, Shlok Sharma, Arati Kadav, Anurag Kashyap. Executive producer: Vikramaditya Motwane.