One of the benefits of Netflix's business model is the way it picks up films that would otherwise languish in obscurity. Super-low-budget movies that would otherwise only screen at festivals and art-house cinemas are added constantly. In between the student films and B-movies lie some truly brilliant gems, including this 2019 sci-fi charmer.
Cargo is a 2019 Hindi-language Indian film from upstart director Arati Kadav. Besides being a genuinely creative sci-fi film, it's a masterclass in using next to no budget to make a movie that still maintains its suspension of disbelief. And that's saying something when you find out what Cargo is all about.
The film follows Prahastha, a type of Hindu demon called a Rakshasa who is sent to space to receive, heal, and reincarnate the dead from Earth. At first, it seems like just another "secluded astronaut lives a lonely life" story. But then, through a cathode ray video call from his point person back home, Prahastha is told he's being sent an assistant. These two characters form the backbone of the film, and the rest is just window dressing for their complex relationship.
The world of the film has a lot to explain, and it does so deftly. Every Rakshasa is born with a unique power. Prahastha can levitate objects, and his new assistant Yuvishka has healing powers, which proves handy as the ship's healing machine is constantly malfunctioning.
Prahastha and Yuvishka shuttle all manner of people to the afterlife, but the most interesting part of Cargo is their relationship. Prahastha was one of the first astronauts sent on this new mission, and the social media-obsessed ways of his new assistant bristle his feathers. It's a great twist on the "buddy cop" formula.
Cargo's low budget doesn't take away from the enjoyment at all, instead adding to the kitschy tone. A palm scanning machine is obviously just an ATM painted green, but the retro look of the entire spaceship makes inconsistencies like these seem completely natural.
Production on Cargo was also pretty backward. Arati Kadav heard a studio was going to be available for a month, so she set out to write and film a movie that could fit the strict restraints of that time frame. The plot was inspired by the simple premise of "an immigration office for the dead" and grew from that into the touching story of Prahastha and Yuvishka.
The most creative parts of working around the budget aren't visible. For example, in one scene containing an entire band who died in a bus crash, the production could afford 10 shirts, but only 5 pairs of pants. Through clever filming strategies, it's completely hidden, but it goes to show just how tight the budget really was.
The characters feel so human it's easy to forget they are literal demons, but this addition of Indian mythology brings a whole new layer of lore to the story. For American viewers, it could be a bit baffling, but there's no specific folktale you need to know to understand Cargo. Just absorb yourself in the story, then go back after and read up on the myths and the ultra-shoestring budget.
Cargo is now streaming on Netflix.