India’s “first spaceship movie” is a languid, but occasionally thoughtful sci-fi dramedy about the bureaucracy of death.
(This review is part of our coverage of this year’s SXSW Film Festival; while the festival itself is canceled, we’re still providing remote reviews for some of the independent offerings the festival would have had.)
We’ve seen a lot of conceptions of the afterlife in cinema — fluffy white clouds, pearly gates, hellish purgatories. But Cargo, touted by some as “India’s first-ever spaceship film”, puts a uniquely Hindu sci-fi spin on the material, ending up with something as introspective and quirky as it is languid.
In a world where “demons” (rakshasas, humanlike beings that are a fixture in Hindu mythology) and humans have reached a tentative treaty with one another, the way humans live, die, and reincarnate has been upgraded for the 21st century. Demons now work for a space-based company called Post-Death Transition Services, in which the souls of dead humans (dubbed “Cargos”) are transmitted to spaceships, where they are healed and sent back to earth to be reincarnated. One such demon, Prahastha (Vikrant Massey), has spent centuries by himself processing the dead on the spaceship Pushpak 634A, his only contact through his supervisor Nitigya Sir (Nandu Madhav).
But his world is soon shaken up when a young demon named Yuviksha (Shweta Tripathy) arrives as his new assistant, learning the tools of the trade while passing the time by vlogging to her social media followers. As the number of Cargos start piling up, and the two demons get to know each other, the true nature of Yuviksha’s appointment becomes clearer.
Conceptually, there’s a lot to wrap your head around in Cargo, especially from a non-Indian perspective. Arati Kadav‘s feature debut is deeply mired in Indian cultural and religious traditions; reincarnation and the concept of demons are treated as matter-of-fact, though it’s gussied up with some inventively lo-fi science fiction trappings. “There is no heaven or hell, sir,” Yuvishka says to one Cargo. “Everyone comes here.” The Pushpak is just a waystation for these people, who greet their deaths and eventual transition into rebirth with a kind of existential elan. Cargo‘s most effective scenes come from the droll, Six Feet Under-esque ways Prahastha’s Cargos arrive on the ship — in a small, tram-like pod, often in the middle of whatever activity got them killed.
There’s more than a glimmer of Silent Running or Moon to Prahastha’s malaise and loneliness manning a dissatisfying job in space, albeit one with such cosmic significance for so many people. But Kadav’s script, and the two lead performances, inject unexpected humanity and dark comedy to the proceedings. Granted, the elliptical nature of the script (and, I’m certain, unfamiliarity with the nuances of Indian culture) makes it a difficult story to wrap one’s head around at times, and the matter-of-factness of the entire film makes it harder to invest too much in the fates of these characters.
Arati Kadav’s feature debut is deeply mired in Indian cultural and religious traditions.
The modestly-budgeted nature of Cargo aids the quirkiness, leaning into a relatively ‘cheap’ look to mine more droll absurdity from Prahastha’s situation. The Pushpak 634A itself masks its cut-corners production design in heaps of retro kitsch, from old-school CRT monitors to the paper-roll calculator tacked onto the computer console. Even the spaceship exterior feels like the Satellite of Love crossed with the U.S.S. Defiant from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (maybe because the ship’s nose looks dead-on like the Defiant, to the point it probably crosses into copyright infringement territory).
At just shy of two hours, much of Cargo‘s narrative payload begins to sag at times, especially in the second half once Prahastha’s ongoing problems become clear — demons are set to retire once they’ve been around long enough to start processing the same Cargos over and over again, and Yuvishka is primed to replace him. Kadav’s approach is slow, methodical, and ultimately gentle, which can make for languid pacing at a film of this length. It’s tempting to say that the characters are thinly drawn, but it’s more accurate to say their ambitions are modest and straightforward enough it becomes difficult to fill two hours with their stories. But if you have the interest and patience for Indian cinema, Cargo presents an intriguing take on an interstellar afterlife, and the bureaucracy it takes to keep it all running.