White Guy Watches Bollywood

A random white guy engages with contemporary Indian cinema... one movie at a time

Hindi Movie Review: Mission Raniganj takes a dated, but still emotionally engaging approach to telling a harrowing true mining story

Akshay Kumar stars in the Hindi film "Mission Raniganj," here reviewed by White Guy Watches Bollywood.

The box office underperformance of Mission Raniganj has led many online and in the Bollywood media to speculate that Akshay Kumar may be ‘done for’ as a leading man, especially when paired with the disastrous results for his other key film this year, Selfiee. And the movie itself lends plenty of ammunition to this argument, coming across as dated in several ways that feel less nostalgic (a la Top Gun: Maverick) than they do just-plain-tired. Based on the famous coal mining rescue mission of 1989, the film’s story is truly remarkable, but as audiences have been reminded countless times before, inspiring source material doesn’t automatically lend itself to great filmmaking.

The first few scenes, in particular, had me fearing for the worst. They immediately struck me as though they could be part of a Bollywood film quickly forgotten 20 years ago – and I’m relatively new to watching this industry’s productions! Kumar’s character, mining engineer Jaswant Singh Gill, is introduced with such an old-fashioned heroic tone that feels so artificial, you have to keep reminding yourself that he’s actually based on a real person. Then there’s a throwaway musical number because… well, the filmmakers still feel obligated to include one and there was no other logical place to toss it in. Not long after, we get to the big action set-piece where the mine collapses, trapping dozens of miners inside, and the cheap-looking CGI (especially the water effects) undermines the authenticity of the chaos.

But you know what? As the movie got more and more into Gill’s planning and execution of the rescue mission – the kind of against-all-odds feat made for the silver-screen – I got more and more absorbed by it. I soon forgot about the hokey, antiquated style of the exposition because the filmmakers convinced me to invest in the human stakes of the rescue. Not just the survival of the miners themselves, but also the perseverance and reputation of Gill, the man masterminding the mission to extract them from the mine by quickly drilling three successive holes more than 40 feet into the ground.

There are really two keys to the film’s success in getting the viewer to invest in the thrust of its story. The first is that the filmmakers excel at building and developing a strong sense of suspense throughout, even for those viewers who know the outcome (or who simply realize that they would be unlikely to make a movie about this mission had it been a fatal disaster). Realizations that the mine is flooding and that lethal gas is encroaching upon the trapped miners are perfectly positioned for maximum impact. Director Tinu Suresh Desai and editor Digvijay Thakur really nail the urgency of the mission from a pacing perspective, and the musical score by Sandeep Shirodkar helps up the ante.

Secondly, the performances keep the viewer emotionally invested in the people involved. Akshay Kumar may be stuck in a rut of making movies that feel stylistically out-of-vogue to today’s audiences, but he’s still every bit as commanding as ever in his acting here. As viewers, we’re deeply invested in Gill’s personal commitment to freeing the miners, both as a matter of national pride and spiritual duty. The movie may overdo the tone of his heroics a bit, but Kumar’s performance itself still feels natural. Additionally, the ensemble performances from the miners are generally pretty good, with the conflicts that emerge between them when trapped mostly making for compelling drama that sympathetically renders the men’s desperation. None of this is handled in a particularly nuanced or complex way, but it still keeps us engaged out of the human desire to see the men survive.

There are some clear shortcomings over the course of the movie, beyond just its dated overarching style and sometimes overly straightforward storytelling. In particular, several supporting characters are shafted (pun intended) sufficient texture and development. This is especially true of Gill’s pregnant wife, Nirdosh (played by Parineeti Chopra), who feels like she was only included because the film needed at least one female character. It’s also an issue for D. Sen (played by Dibyendu Bhattacharya), who effectively functions as the villain of the piece. I have no idea whether this character was part of the actual story – and if so, how true he Is to his real-life equivalent – but his attempts to sabotage Gill’s mission feel highly contrived as presented. Sen is there to toy with the audience’s emotions, but the main reaction his mischief provokes is groaning.

While Mission Raniganj tells an important story in recent Indian history, it also feels a little bit like a retread of the other recent mining disaster film, The 33. There are some key differences between the stories, especially revolving around their respective timelines; in Raniganj, Gill had to rescue the miners in only a couple days, while in the Chilean incident chronicled in the 2015 film, the men were trapped for a whopping 69 days. But both pictures traffic in the same kind of suspense, fraying the viewer’s emotions in pursuit of eventual uplift. Mission Raniganj makes a few efforts to craft a story that feels more culturally specific in order to distinguish itself, but these are largely just gestures, dropped quickly in the spirit of positioning this as a story of national pride instead of malfeasance. The film tends to feel a little surface-level (pun again intended) as a result, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get fully caught up in the onscreen rescue effort regardless.

Rating: ★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

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