Debutante director Arati Kadav's homegrown science-fiction film Cargo, picked up by Netflix after playing at MAMI and almost playing at SXSW, is an innovative but inert mashup of Eastern ideas and Western storytelling. Like Masaan by way of Moon, Cargo is a film that explores themes such as reincarnation — or, more accurately, the corporatisation of reincarnation — and caste, all coated in a layer of slick modern sci-fi.
But while it might seem refreshingly original here, in an industry that has mostly stayed away from the genre, Cargo could feel massively derivative to certain audiences. Moon, for instance, is a film whose influence can be felt in virtually every scene. Vikrant Massey's character, a 'rakshasa' named Prahastha, is having the same sort of existential crisis that was slowly consuming Sam Rockwell's miner in Duncan Jones' film.
Watch the trailer for "Cargo" here
For decades, Prahastha has been stationed in a space ship, where he readies recently deceased people for rebirth. He goes about his job with rigid precision as he attends to his 'cargo' — men and women who are usually reeling under the shock of having just died — almost like an Apple store technician working on a used MacBook, or an unemotional physician tending to his patients.
But Prahastha is neither an IT guy nor a doctor. If anything, he a sad sap stuck in a 'sarkari naukri'. For company, he has another 'rakshasa' — a middle-aged uncle called Nitigya — whom he talks to via a CRT monitor. But things take an unexpected turn when Nitigya tells Prahastha that he will soon be joined by an assistant. Prahastha protests. He is, as he has been projecting for over seven decades, a lone wolf.
The arrival of the youthful Yuvishka (Shweta Tripathi) brings a new energy not only to Prahastha's life, but also to the film, which in its attempts to portray monotony had become slightly monotonous itself. Tripathi is an effortlessly endearing actor, and her character is a nice foil to Massey's more stoic veteran.
Solitude in outer space, as an idea, is just so ripe for drama that filmmakers can't help but return to it every couple of years, it seems. And although few will ever be able to come within sniffing distance of 2001: A Space Odyssey or Solaris, the recent Ad Astra and even Prometheus made some clever observations about loneliness.
But while Michael Fassbender's android in Ridley Scott's movie had the time and curiosity to contemplate his place in the universe, the fact that Prahastha is a demon really adds nothing to him as a person in Cargo. It's the equivalent of changing a character's ethnicity, but without their ethnicity having any impact on the plot. If the ultimate goal is to suggest that even mythological creatures are capable of feeling human emotion, then Prahastha, frankly, should have been more fantastical to begin with. Here, he basically looks like Vikrant Massey. No pointy ears or nothing.
Kadav also seems to have taken inspiration from comic books. There is an attempt at world-building that, while clunky in its execution, reminded me of Brian K Vaughan and Fiona Staples' brilliant comics series Saga. The lore, however, only weighs the film down. Did Cargo really need regular exposition dumps about human-demon diplomacy? Perhaps, if the information could've added something to the plot. An excuse to talk about capitalism or class, maybe? But as it stands, it only adds to the confusion. If the demons have X-Men-like superpowers, why are some of them still doing menial jobs? Why have they not yet overpowered human beings and taken over the world; they're demons, right? How can Prahastha be a legend on Earth, and yet go unrecognised by every single deceased person when they come face-to-face?
The trouble with Cargo is that it gets too bogged down by a self-imposed responsibility to break its audience in. There's a sense that Kadav is pulling her punches so as to not alienate viewers, whereas she should've just thrown them in the deep end and relied on them to swim up to the surface. But that being said, not many filmmakers (or actors) would have the courage to attempt something like this at all. Perhaps now that the heavy cargo has been delivered, she can approach her next film with more confidence. I look forward to it.