Cargo (2020, India)
Director: Arati Kadav
Writer: Arati Kadav
Women in the crew: Paramita Ghosh (editor); Anita Chakravadhanula (director’s assistant); Sayali Kulkarni (sound recordist) – small close-knit team
Available to stream: On Netflix internationally
This review contains **SPOILERS**
Cargo begins with a statutory warning: what you are about to see, is something you have never seen before. A vision of the future that fluidly combines science fiction and Indian/Hindu storytelling. In space. Told in an episodic style that is very much in the moment, it is set up like a public information film with news clips, induction videos and even adverts. Arati Kadav’s debut feature film gives us lots we haven’t seen before: an Indian SF for an international audience, directed by a woman that follows a young woman’s journey of self discovery. Except the woman is a demon and her journey includes working on a reincarnation processing station in outer space.
In an unidentified point in the future, humans and rakshasas have made peace and signed the Rakshas-Manushya (Demon-Human) Peace Treaty that stops eons of misunderstanding and conflict. Rakshasas are a race of night-dwelling demons from Indian mythology found across the texts and epics of Hinduism and Buddhism. In Kadav’s retro-futuristic revisioning of these ancient stories the once soul-stealing raksha is imagined as part of a corporate system where souls – referred to as cargo – are processed for reincarnation in the outer reaches of space.
“I am obsessed with creation and afterlife myths, the purpose of life, and whether we should study death to understand life better,” Kadav explained. “I was working on something else before Cargo, and that one too was a sci-fi film. It was about an existential crisis, but it could not be pulled off. That’s when I hit upon the idea of a spaceship as an immigration service” Arati Kadav
When the recently deceased (although they don’t always realise that they’re dead on arrival) arrive on Pushpak 634A they are greeted (ish) by Post Death Transition Services (PDTS) rakshasas agent Prahastha (Vikrant Massey). He has been processing cargo for decades and for him this literally life-changing moment is routine and he shows an oddly delightful ambivalence to the cargo’s shock and confusion as he processes them ready for their next life. The deaths in Cargo are funny, which made me think of the way death is treated in the brilliant women-created not-really SF show Russian Doll. Death is not the end but a stage of a cyclical process, but here it is stripped down to its basic function beyond the religious and cultural discussions of caste and faith. The dead bring with them what they had on them at the moment they left their physical bodies; they bring the vestiges of their lives and memories. Like items at an airport security lane they are placed in grey trays and see-through bags: iPhones, keys, tickets and even a magician’s scarves (and pigeon).
The rakshas are in charge of running the Post Death Transition Services (PDTS) and Cargo initially follows Prahastha’s humdrum solitary existence on the PDTS spaceship Pushpak 634A with only Nitigya Sir (Nandu Madhav) for virtual company who transmits from his base on their home planet. After 75 years of service the PDTS send Prahastha a workmate, a young trainee medical raksha called Yuvishka (Shweta Tripathi). Just as he begins to accept Yuvishka’s presence on the ship and works with her, she entertains doubts about herself and the job she has spent her life training for. Yuvishka loses her ‘power’ to heal. Their approaches to cargo processing differ: Prahastha uses machines and technologies to heal and prepare souls for reincarnation while Yuvishka using simple tools, her powers and intuition. It is only once she trusts in herself and her abilities as a medic and raksha that she is able to progress allowing Prahastha to retire and return home to his once lost love Mandakini (Konkana Sen Sharma).
Isolation is a key theme in Cargo. But where other space isolation SF films like Moon (Jones, 2006), Interstellar (Nolan, 2014), and Ad Astra (Grey, 2019) show that the loneliness of space is an extension of the characters’ ongoing failure to connect to others on Earth, Cargo’s image of a lone Indian man is culturally distinct. As Kadav explains on episode 9 of the #WomenMakeSFPod, isolation takes on a different meaning in Cargo as in South Asian society being alone is an alien concept. With such a dense population, especially in the cities, being far from other humans (and raksha in Cargo’s storyworld) is an impossibility. The urban environment of the near-future is distant and only glimpsed through Nitigya Sir grainy transmissions and the tightly framed and fractured background shots in Yuvishka’s influencer-styled vlogs, and her video calls with her mother and sister.
Rakshasas in Indian mythology are not the same as Western audiences might imagine the demon. They can be good or bad, and their powers are not always particularly useful. Nitigya Sir can make himself invisible, well 86.75% transparent at least. Yuvishka has the most clear power as she can heal souls. And Prahastha can make objects levitate. Sometimes. They are defined as non-human but it doesn’t mean these are supernatural figures automatically more powerful than their human counterparts. Some sources retrofit the rakshasas into the vampire myth – they are night-created/dwelling and a threat to human’s body and soul – but this mythological creature is more fluid and often a bit useless – in the podcast Arati told us there is one that is just described as being really long. Even contemporary revisions of vampires highlight their danger (even if they are morons or sparkly or out of the coffin), whereas Kadav’s raksha are more domestic. The demons who started the PDTS wanted to change the public perceptions of their kind – explaining that they were misunderstood and only took for reincarnation the souls of those who had already died. By turning reincarnation into a production line industry the rakshasas can collect souls separate from the myths and legends that had previously hindered their work. They are not space vampires (see: Lifeforce, 1985 – starring Patrick ‘make it so’ Stewart) but bureaucrats in the void of space devoid of the trappings of fantasy and layered into a SF storyworld that pulls upon science fictions from around the world.
As science fiction fans, Lyle and I saw (or even applied) our own intertexts — we saw references to Star Trek, Star Wars, 2001, Dr Who, Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, Tron — because of the striking retro-futuristic, analog styling. We also enjoyed Shezan Shaikh’s synthesizer score that felt quite Wendy Carlo/Vangelis recalling the digital scores of A Clockwork Orange (1971) and Blade Runner (1983). The production design created with Mayur Sharma is, as Kadav describes it, ‘clunky’ in a way that distinguishes it from both contemporary Western space films and contemporary Indian SF cinemas (Hindi, Telugu, Tamil, Bengali, Malayalam…) . It is retro because of budgetary constraints but Kadav and her team really lean into the aesthetic creating a fascinating analog future that smoothly merges with the human world of iPhones and wifi connectivity. For discussion of Kadav’s Indian influences take a listen to our podcast interview with the director.
“Science fiction is still dominated by men the world over, and the narratives are overwhelmingly masculine, however, sci-fi can have a lot of layers. It need not be about a spectacle, but can have nuanced perspectives and a range of stories.” Arati Kadav
It is exciting to see new spaces opening up for women directors of science fiction and films that allow for a challenge to the predominantly man-made science fiction mainstream. In diversifying and promoting voices that have been historically unheard we get stories that explore alternative perspectives and imagined futures for traditionally marginalised people (non-white, non-male, differently abled). Of course, Arati Kadav’s story mirrors many of the women filmmakers I have worked with as opportunities are few and stereotypes about difficult or disinterested women are plentiful. But she talks with passion about her desire to tell stories and opportunities for storytelling that short films offer, rather than a stepping stone to features Kadav has returned to short film since making Cargo. I look forward to seeing her future films and hope that they can be shown on the silver screen where Cargo deserved to be seen. Similarly to Neasa Hardiman’s Sea Fever, Cargo competed on the festival circuit but did not receive a theatrical release due to the pandemic. I hope that the straight to streaming model that has at least allowed these films to be seen does not deter studios from commissioning and buying distribution for innovative women made science fiction. Women make great science fiction. Let’s get the word out: watch, review, share, and buy women-made films.
What to watch next from Arati Kadav:
Cargo is Kadav’s first feature film, but she has also directed a brilliant lockdown-filmed short film 55 km/sec (2020) and the short film Time Machine (2016, 40 mins) that has a clear influence on the style of Cargo. You can view these films here:
Time Machine https://www.shortfilmwindow.com/time-machine/
55 km/sec https://www.shortfilmwindow.com/55-km-sec/
Nandini Ramnath (2020), In Indian sci-fi film ‘Cargo’, a journey into the unknown for its characters and its creator. https://scroll.in/reel/954758/in-indian-sci-film-cargo-a-journey-into-the-unknown-for-its-characters-and-its-creator
Rohan Patil (2020), Exclusive: Director Arati Kadav Says, ‘Before Cargo, I Almost Felt Like Giving Up’. https://www.republicworld.com/entertainment-news/web-series/cargo-director-on-her-struggle-of-making-movie-cargo-cast-cargo-trivia.html
Pramitt Chatterjee (2021), ’55 Km/Sec’ Review: Arati Kadav’s Short Film Featuring Richa Chadha Is Surprisingly Poignant. https://in.mashable.com/entertainment/19675/55-kmsec-review-arati-kadavs-short-film-featuring-richa-chadha-is-surprisingly-poignant
Tanzim Pardiwalla (2020), We Got ‘Cargo’ Director Arati Kadav To Unpack Desi Sci-Fi, World-building And VFX. https://in.mashable.com/entertainment/12814/we-got-cargo-director-arati-kadav-to-unpack-desi-sci-fi-world-building-and-vfx