Cargo (Arati Kadav 2019 Hindi): A meandering rumination about the weightlessness of human existence
Reviewed by Abhishek Lakkad
Please note that this review contains spoilers.
Death can be understood as a scientific/biological phenomenon, but its gravity is experienced as a spiritual phenomenon. Both the scientific and the spiritual perspectives allow one to contemplate death. But when the makers of Cargo (2019) choose science as merely a veil for religious/spiritual ideas in order to comment on alienation and abandonment rampant in contemporary societies, they could have made sure that the film is passionate (or at least compassionate) enough to sustain its slow-paced narrative. Cargo (now available on Netflix) is the first feature length film of Arati Kadav, although she has written and directed several science fiction shorts in the last decade. Cargo highlights the theme of ‘loneliness’ in these times of pervasive social media that creates the impression that one is always connected and hence never alone. Hindu spiritual/religious ideas about karma and the cycle of life, death and rebirth are central to the narrative. The action mostly takes place on a spaceship orbiting Earth where human-like demons called rakshasas are essentially technicians enabling the transition from death to rebirth in a mundane, technocratic and institutionalised process — reminiscent of an airport security checkpoint, medical lab or a prison admissions office. The film terms this process as “post-death transition”, supervised by a department called Post-Death Transition Services (PDTS) that operates under the aegis of Inter-Planetary Space Organisation (IPSO) that has been established by the rakshasas. Owing to the film’s stance of deriving its fictional futuristic technology from elements of Hindu spirituality and mythology, the film has a distinct retro-futuristic feel. Perhaps the datedness of the film’s visual effects is meant to reinforce the 80s inspired aesthetics.
Cargo has been presented as a cutting edge, science-fiction drama from India made on a modest budget. However, the film rejects many of the more interesting possibilities that the science fiction genre offers, in favour of a somewhat shallow scientific makeover of the Hindu spiritual concept of rebirth and karma, the idea that one’s actions in the present life have an influence on what one faces in the next. Hindi cinema has often depicted the rebirth of one or more characters as a crucial aspect that drives the narrative. In Cargo, it is what the characters do between this life and the next that is under examination. Spoiler: they don’t do much but mostly submit, unquestioningly, to being stripped of their illnesses, belongings and memories (in that order).
Cargo is a character-driven film. The actors try sincerely to bring their characters to life. The actors make some impact, but the characters not so much. The film presents the “Homo Rakshasas” as almost similar to Homo sapiens in their appearance as well as nature. The demons talk and behave like humans. And they have emotions like humans. The signifiers of difference are eliminated early on in the film when the chief of PDTS (Hansal Mehta in a cameo) updates the audience regarding the evolution of demons from the former days when the Hindu deity Lord Yamaraja used to come to Earth riding on a buffalo to ‘scavenge’ for people who are on their deathbed to the present day space-age rakshasas who use sophisticated information and communication technology to extract memories/souls and reincarnate humans (see figure 1 below). The differences between the two species are erased to heighten the similarities between humans and demons in terms of their emotional response to alienation and abandonment. Except rakshasas age much more slowly and are born with mutant-like powers which they are trying to put to benevolent use (or substitute for glitchy outdated technology).
Figure 1: PDTS as a modern avatar of Lord Yamaraja. Courtesy: Netflix, Fundamental Pictures and Electric Films
However, one is left pondering why an advanced species would institute a bureaucratic technological process to reincarnate a lesser species? It is never made clear as to why only humans are given a rebirth and not other living organisms as Hindu religion stipulates? Is it because other living organisms are not primarily regarded as religious beings? A more interesting approach would have been one where a character opposed or broke free from the institutionalisation of rebirth or reincarnation. What would this entail for the rakshasas and humans? How would it affect the negotiated peace between rakshasas and humans? A narrative that attempted to dabble with these questions would have been more thought-provoking and exciting. Instead rebellion against the system seems unlikely in Cargo — we are trapped in a dull dystopian world where even the deities live repetitive, monitored, little and, often, lonely lives.
A major portion of the film is presented in the form of a series of conversations that revolve around the meaning and purpose of human life, sometimes evoking pity or mildly satirical humour. These conversations take place inside a spaceship equipped with technology for biological healing, memory extraction and rebirth. The vast vacuum of interplanetary space serves to underscore the emptiness and loneliness of human life, and even that of rakshasas’ life. The film thrives on revealing the thoughts of humans coming from various backgrounds and circumstances after they die. The humans reflect upon the kind of lives they have lived, their innermost conflicts, the things that are still dear to them in their afterlife, the things that made them feel that life was unfair to them or things that they would like to do if they get to live again. During one such conversation, Cargo also makes a reference to Time Machine (2016), one of Arati Kadav’s short films.
A majority of the film is set inside the Pushpak 634A spaceship, one of the many in operation. The Pushpak spaceships are designed like living organisms. Their rears are fitted with diaphragm-like structures which evokes a feeling as if they are breathing as they solitarily float around in space. Although the spaceships have technology for wiping out human memories and ‘transitioning’ them to a new life, they are marked by a certain sense of anachronism. The spaceships do not have touch screens as communication devices although tablets and smartphones are brought onboard by the newly arrived. Rather they are fitted with CRT screens of yesteryears. This is especially true for the screen which Prahastha uses to interact with Nitigya (played by Nandu Madhav), a rakshasa who works as a ground control officer. Throughout the film, we see Nitigya talking to Prahastha via this CRT screen. Like the humans, the rakshasas are also bound to or trapped within their screens; they are also subject to near total surveillance via these devices. Particularly unnerving is the screen above Prahastha’s bed that connects him to a demon whose special talent is that he does not need sleep, so even as Prahastha sleeps he is being watched by another employee. Mayur Sharma’s production design makes use of dull shades of blue, grey, white and brown to evoke the sombre mood of an institutionalised environment aboard the spaceship.
Figure 2: Material belongings float away into oblivion. Courtesy: Netflix, Fundamental Pictures and Electric Films
Another notable feature is that when humans die and come to the spaceships for processing, all their belongings are taken away from them by the rakshasa or the post-death agent. Once they have been reincarnated (they don’t seem to linger), their personal belongings and clothes are discarded into space. Slow motion shots are used to show these belongings floating away into oblivion (see figure 2 above) emphasising the futility of the struggle to acquire material wealth and possessions. Ultimately, humans are going to be stripped of everything they have ever possessed, including their bodies and memories. Or almost everything – love, one scene seems to suggest, might be carried over as the souls of two lovers, represented by tetris-like pixels on one of the spaceship’s screens, appear to find each other and merge in their afterlife.
The film’s protagonist is Prahastha (Vikrant Massey), a humanoid demon who has been working solitarily as a “post-death services agent” aboard the Pushpak 634A spaceship (comparisons can be drawn with Moon (Duncan Jones 2009) where a clone is left to work alone in space) for 75 demon years (which seems equivalent to several human lifetimes). Prahastha is so used to being alone that he even dislikes the idea of having an assistant when Nitigya tells him that a new assistant named Yuvishka (played by Shweta Tripathi) will be joining him soon on the spaceship. Yuvishka is an avid user of social media – diametrically opposite in this respect to Prahastha. Prahastha prefers hand-written letters instead of digital media or social media. Although he has written many letters to his lost love, he has not posted any of them. In this sense, Prahastha’s character mirrors the retro-futuristic feel of the spaceship Pushpak 634A.
Prahastha’s initial reaction is hesitation and unwillingness to tolerate another rakshasa presence on his spaceship. It seems his stance to protect his solitude stems as much from the fact that he wants to be alone as from the fact that his new assistant is a female demon — this ties to a back-story about heartbreak. But he slowly adjusts to Yuvishka’s presence and the film intends to convey that he changes in the process. But one does not get to feel his transformation; it is abrupt and forced. All through the film the character of Prahastha is shown as someone who has become extremely attuned to his solitary and mechanical lifestyle aboard Pushpak 634A spaceship. So it becomes hard to believe that Prahastha offers no resistance to the decision of his superior, Mr Raman, to retire him. Instead, he feels upset when he is told that his assistant Yuvishka might be recalled from the ship. This is where Prahastha’s character feels a bit contradictory because he is easily ready to give up his solitude on the spaceship and start a new phase of his life on ‘Patal-lok’ or the Netherworld. Although human beings can feel lonely despite having the latest communication technologies at their fingertips – akin to the rakshasas in the film – it is also equally true that there are people who choose to be happy and peaceful by not staying connected most of the time. However, the narrative largely shows solitude as something that is detrimental to happiness. Had Prahastha been depicted as someone who does not want to readily give up the confines of his spaceship simply because he has become habituated to it, it would have resulted in a more nuanced narrative about alienation/solitude and its influence on the psyche of a living being. Instead, we are offered lingering shots of a small sculpture of a gorilla right at the start of the film (see figure 3 below) to perhaps suggest that Prahastha is like the gentle, lonesome beast that was stranded on a lesser-known remote island with no intentions to leave the confines of it. The parallel goes further, a quirky female shows up, befriends the beast and leads him to abandon his self-confinement and go to a world of lesser beings that are not good at dealing with those who are different from them.
Figure 3: Cargo’s nod to King Kong. Courtesy: Netflix, Fundamental Pictures and Electric Films
On the other hand, Yuvishka, as a child, was afraid that if she stays in Patal-lok, her life would be ordinary and insignificant like that of other demons. Hence, she decides to become a PDTS astronaut when she grows up as it would make her life relevant and less mundane (apparently PDTS astronauts are like celebrities and have a fan-following!). She literally rises above the rest of the demons so that she can make her life more meaningful. Thus, the film inscribes Yuvishka’s character with the human yearning to give meaning to life. Her motivation to become a post-death services agent is that she does not want to be forgotten by her people. She wants her life to be special and thereby ensure that she is remembered by others – a sentiment reinforced by the captivating tune and lyrics of the song ‘Forget me not’ that appears in the film as a pop single launched by Surpankha, a small-town demon from Patal lok. The song appears on a couple of occasions and its upbeat quality suddenly lifts the dreariness of the film. The lyrics also echo the film’s central preoccupation with abandonment, longing and new beginnings. Shezan Shaikh’s music and background score lend the much-needed vigour to the proceedings.
In a telling scene of the film, Yuvishka is recording a video on her mobile phone after reincarnating an unusually large number of humans in a day. In the process, Yuvishka gets to know the personal lives of some of the ‘cargos’. While recording a selfie video on her phone, she talks about the meaning of human life when Prahastha interrupts her video by stating in a matter-of-factly way that there is no meaning to the existence of anything or anyone. The pointlessness reaches a peak with the reincarnations — the memories of humans are wiped out just before they are ‘transitioned’ to a new life. There is no scope of hindsight for the old life from the new one. Humans get to live again but it is not a second chance. The film feels most alive and authentic in all such moments when it is contemplating without the entire religious overture.
Cargo limits ‘post-death transition’ to a Hindu socio-cultural context because there are no explicit and substantial markers of people belonging to other religions in the film. There are no non-Hindu characters. However, there is an unmistakable presence of names, ideas and characters from Hindu mythology. Being a story set in India (apart from interplanetary space), one wonders why the film has no significant characters from other religious backgrounds. It seems the film, inadvertently or not, imagines India as a Hindu nation. It would have been interesting to see how non-Hindu characters would have responded to the idea of rebirth at the hands of Hindu rakshasas. Or even the other way round: Hindus being reincarnated by non-Hindu deities, although not all religions permit the depiction of their deities on screen. The lack of non-Hindu characters definitely feels like a curious absence in the film as in the past few years Hindu supremacy has been questioned and critiqued in India. It is also strange because science fiction is a genre that has come to be known for the use of its tropes to effectively narrate experiences of marginality and marginalisation (e.g. Afrofuturism).
Coming back to the film’s allusions to Hindu mythology, Pushpak is the name of a flying vessel that appears in the Ramayana. The name of the protagonist, Prahastha is the name of the commander-in-chief of Ravana’s army in the Ramayana. There are also fleeting references to other negative characters from Hindu mythology such as Duryodhana (one of the antagonists in the Mahabharata) and Ghatotkachh (a half-demon character from the Mahabharata). Mr Raman – the director of the PDTS – is shown as a rakshasa having a vertically-placed third eye on his forehead – a reference to Lord Shiva, the Hindu deity of death and destruction. But these references to Hindu religion/mythology don’t add any depth to the film. Rather, they only make it feel like a spiritual fiction that wants to give a sophisticated, futuristic feel to Hindu religious ideas. On the other hand, the image of rakshasas as sophisticated space-faring demigods operating a university system that feeds into Inter-Planetary Space Organisation (IPSO) also somehow draws upon or alludes to the progress achieved by India as a formidable player in the domain of space science and technology, especially after the successes of Indian Space Research Organisation’s (ISRO) missions to the moon (Chandrayaan) and Mars (Mangalyaan or Mars Orbiter Mission). However, despite this technological makeover of Hindu spiritual ideas, a glaring drawback is that there is no rationalisation of the novum. These drawbacks make the film more superficial and allegorical rather than a discourse on science and technology.
Death and rebirth being a major preoccupation with Cargo brings to mind another Hindi film named Masaan (Neeraj Ghaywan 2015) which had Anurag Kashyap as a producer and Shweta Tripathi as one of the lead actors — both are attached to Cargo in the same respective capacities. Masaan was a refreshing movie which narrated two interconnected tales set on the banks of river Ganga in Varanasi where Hindus are cremated in large numbers. What made Masaan interesting was that its protagonists come into their own and go against the deeply entrenched social conditions (of caste, gender, corruption and sexuality) to rise above their circumstances. In a sense, when Masaan’s protagonists triumph over their social circumstances, they start their lives anew – a rebirth of sorts without literally showing a rebirth. All good science fiction or speculative fiction depends on the effective or striking use of metaphor or departure from reality to convey something about contemporary human life by tying it to specific socio-political, cultural or technological contexts. Cargo does this but in a very direct manner. Instead of letting the viewers work through the film, the central novum is given away in a straightforward way so that there is no fascination left to keep the viewers engaged.
So, although the film has been promoted as a sci-fi drama, it fails to realise or actualise the full potential of the science fiction genre. The film is predicated on the fictionalisation of the Hindu religious idea of rebirth and not the plausible fictionalisation or extrapolation of a scientific idea. Hence, it can be considered as a speculative/spiritual fiction drama that mines Hindu mythology to derive its characters and philosophy about reincarnation as a means to think about alienation. This is not to say that borrowing ideas from mythology/religion is not a good idea; but the use of these ideas in the narrative feels very obvious and shallow. The film’s outward visage of Hindu-futurism obstructs a deeper connection with its primary internal brooding about the universal phenomenon of human alienation. The film’s observations about the enslavement of humans by social media feel like a loose appendage to the overall setup because the narrative fails to establish a link between the use of social media and feelings of alienation/loneliness. The prominence of religious/mythological metaphors and constant reiteration of human alienation gives a feeling that the film is being too deliberate about these aspects which hampers what the film tries to convey about how human feelings of alienation and the use of (social) media shape each other. The film’s running time is slightly less than two hours, yet the film feels long drawn owing to its slow-paced narrative filled with spiritual and emotional rumination. It would have been more interesting had the narrative explored the consequences faced by humans and/or rakshasas as a result of carrying out erroneous or selective rebirths or opposing the institutionalisation of rebirth, instead of exploring the suffering of humans and rakshasas who are all leading lonely lives in their own ways. At best, Cargo is a brave attempt to do something different. But it is more of a slow-floating spiritual ride whose message gets scrambled in the medium.
Abhishek Lakkad is mostly a movie enthusiast. He is fascinated by various aspects of cinema, among other things, which somehow led him to pursue and finish a PhD at the Central University of Gujarat (Gandhinagar), India. He is interested in Science Fiction Studies, Film Studies, Posthumanism and Science, Technology and Society (STS) Studies. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The author would like to thank the editors, Polina Levontin and Jo Lindsay Walton, for their comments and edits on an earlier version of the review.