Pick of the Week: Cargo
Debutante feature director Arati Kadav’s Cargo is a finely balanced melange of Western pop-culture influenced science-fiction and Indian mythology, its intergalactic stage telling of Kadav’s ambitious vision, its translation into this nuanced human story, indicative of her craft.
Set in a not-too-distant future, Cargo depicts the aftermath of a ‘Demon-Sapien’ Peace Treaty which allows ‘Homo Rakshasas’ - descendants of the mythical demons, to coexist with humans on Earth. Going a step further, these supernatural beings have also been entrusted with facilitating the human journey after death into reincarnation; they execute this transition for recently deceased people aboard a series of spaceships launched and monitored by their Inter-Planetary Space Organisation (IPSO). On one such spaceship named Pushpak - 63A, lives an astronaut-demon called Prahasta (Vikrant Massey), who has been there for an inordinately long time and seems to have got comfortable living a life in outer space. Things change however, when his manager, Nitigya-ji (Nandu Madhav) sends onboard a young and eager new assistant, Yuvishka (Shweta Tripathi Sharma) to ease his transition duties.
Cargo evokes curiosity, not just because of its novel science fiction plot, but because Indian cinema has rarely seen experimental concepts being executed without great difficulty, much less, this thoughtfully. Debutante director Arati Kadav’s film is a finely balanced melange of Western pop culture influenced science-fiction and Indian mythology, its intergalactic stage telling of Kadav’s ambitious vision, its translation into this nuanced human story, indicative of her capabilities as a film director.
The humans who die and arrive on the spaceship are referred to as ‘cargo’. They are healed, their memories are wiped, and they are then sent for reincarnation or what is also referred to as ‘extraction’. Prahasta only has one job; to receive the cargo, heal them, wipe their memories, and extract them back to earth as reincarnated beings. The tired mechanics of it all have taken over his life, to the point where he is unwilling to envision any other way of life and dreads any disruption to his routine. At one point in the film, he even remarks, ‘these dead bodies feel more alive than I do’. And yet, he passes his time quietly, without attempting to change anything nor relaying much back.
On the other hand, Yuvishka, his enthusiastic new assistant, the valedictorian of her class, is representative of a generation that has a constantly active digital social footprint. Cheerful, chatty, and extroverted, she is determined to make the most of this grand opportunity and keeps her followers and fans regularly updated about life in space via her vlog. We see a stark contrast between her and Prahasta, who in one scene, immediately covers his face with his hand when she’s recording a video. Yuvishka wants to be respected and relevant, but most of all, she wants to be remembered. Prahasta shows no such interest at all, all he wants to do is concentrate on the job he’s assigned and do it satisfactorily.
Their contrasting stories are intercut with the backstories of the impending 'cargo' arriving from earth; a struggling junior artist who wanted to be an actor, a kind-hearted old man who gets run over, a couple who hold hands throughout the extraction process and miraculously find each other afterwards, a young man on the cusp of securing a major business deal and many others. No matter who the person is and how they led their lives on earth, Pushpak - 63A treats them all the same. Through their tales, the film raises many existential questions.
The spaceship on which most of the film takes place is a character in itself. Without delving too much into technological accuracy and sophisticated features, Kadav instead prioritises on making it a space that is catalytic to both Prahasta’s and Yuvishka’s journeys, amidst the emptiness. The set is minimalistic, with each of their living areas decorated only with personal memorabilia. The interiors of the spaceship; analogue and old-fashioned seem to mimic Prahasta’s tenure in space. At first, this creates some dissonance with the film’s futuristic plot. But eventually the vintage styled look and feel for the craft provides a sense of familiarity and warmth, against the stark reality of death it is a witness to everyday. Similarly, although Prahastha is much older than Yuvishka, it is impossible to tell visually - an inconsistency that can be confusing. But the mannerisms and body language of both actors are successful in establishing a warm mentor-mentee relationship.
What struck me most about the film was how effortlessly human pop culture and everyday elements of life and rakshasa mythology are transposed on to each other. For instance, a famous pop singer is named Surpanaka, a tiny glimpse into the coming-of-age of Yuvishka’s little brother who bemoans that all the other kids at his school have already started developing powers unique to themselves except him, Nitigya-ji wants to leave early one day because it is his umpteenth anniversary celebration with his wife (rakshasas live longer lives than humans, a reference perhaps to the difference in lifespan between humans and the Vulcans in the popular series Star Trek). Another delightful element is the deadpan, nonchalant humour that the film inserts into the interactions between the characters.
One aspect that Cargo does suffer from is that it doesn’t scratch beyond the surface too much - like a film restricting itself to the spotlight, unwilling to step out of the edge of the circle. Prahasta has been on the spaceship for 75 long years, and it’s hinted at the start that he was one of the first demons to go up into space. But we hardly dive into his personal life, nor do we get to know much about his life on the spaceship before that point. All we’re exposed to is his attitude towards his work and his relationship with Yuvishka. And when the film does attempt to reveal a past, sentimental side of his life, it doesn’t seem organic.
At its core though, the film raises many salient questions about loneliness, relevance, permanence, and whether how we lead our lives matters or not. The director charts out two distinct paths to address all these questions; Yuvishka’s fight to stay relevant, and Prahasta’s seemingly quiet and resigned way around the spaceship. But it leaves for us to find the answers. We seem to understand both sides, but we find it difficult to choose, ultimately coming to the conclusion that there may be no answers apart from the overwhelming nature and relevance of the present. Nothing is permanent, but nothing disappears forever either. Something always remains, whether its memories or memorabilia.
Now streaming on Netflix.
A computer science and engineering graduate from IIT Kanpur, Arati Kadav left her job at Microsoft in Seattle to become a filmmaker. Cargo is her first feature film. She has also made a 40-min short film called, The Time Machine, which is currently streaming on MUBI.