It’s said to be based on true events and it might well have happened – or least some version of it. Since the source is the annals of Indian spycraft, there is no way to confirm or deny. Mission Majnu, though, is disinterested in building credibility for the idea that a lone Indian spy played the crucial role of scuppering Pakistan’s nuclear bomb plans in the late 1970s.
Shantanu Bagchi’s Hindi thriller, written by Parveez Sheikh, Aseem Arrora and Sumit Batheja, is out on Netflix. The screenplay’s elements include dodgy history lessons, stereotypes about our unfriendly neighbour and scores of Indian actors trying to pass as Pakistanis.
Mission Majnu sets itself up for ridicule early on. A garrulous brigadier spills out state secrets to Tariq – whom he has met seconds ago. A gossipy grandma gives Tariq enough dope to open a file on a prized target.
We’re supposed to be believe that this is evidence of Tariq’s charm – the most potent weapon in his intelligence-gathering arsenal. After all, Tariq, who is posing as a tailor in Rawalpindi, has managed to marry a woman above his station, Nasreen (Rashmika Mandanna). Tariq continues to snag assignments that take him closer to his goal. He teases out information with a cute smile.
This tactic doesn’t always succeed. Tariq is played by Sidharth Malhotra, best suited for portraying good-looking heroes with a vague air about them and a diffused sense of purpose. Mission Majnu needed a cannier leading man, someone capable of suggesting layers of deception beneath an unchanging visage.
It’s hardly Malhotra’s fault. Like Tariq’s Research and Analysis Wing handler Sharma (Zakir Hussain), who wastes precious time belittling Tariq’s leads rather than following them through, Mission Majnu bumbles along amateurishly, relying on anti-Pakistan sentiment to get its job done.
The film is set around the fallout of India’s successful nuclear test in 1974. Tensions heat up between India and Pakistan, which continue even after each country gets new leaders (we: Morarji Desai; they: Zia-Ul Haq).
RAW chief RN Kao (Parmeet Sethi) is confident that Tariq will deliver the goods. Tariq sticks to his mission despite his handler’s taunts, his love for Nasreen, and another inept covert operative (Sharib Hashmi).
Among the Indian actors who line up to play various important Pakistanis are Rajit Kapur as Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Mir Sarwar as nuclear scientist AQ Khan, and Ashwath Bhatt as a very heavy-lidded Zia Ul-Haq. Avantika Akerkar plays Indira Gandhi. Avijit Dutt is Morarji Desai, who gives Zia hot tips over the hotline on improving his health (it’s yoga – not what you think.)
Mission Majnu follows in the footsteps of D-Day, Raazi and Romeo Akbar Walter in imagining Indians beating Pakistanis on their turf – a literalisation of “ghar mein ghuskar marenge” (We will thrash them in their own homes). This line, used in Deewar (1975) in the context of crime, has been weaponised by Neeraj Pandey for his nationalistic thrillers and imitated endlessly since.
In Mission Majnu’s fantasy, RAW’s ability to penetrate Pakistani defences puts it on par with Israel’s Mossad. But it’s actually a sad state of affairs. If Indian agents are more interested on putting down their own people, the Pakistanis too cluck about aimlessly. At least this bit of the 129-minute film rings true.