Director: Shantanu Bagchi
Writers: Sumit Batheja, Parveez Shaikh, Aseem Arrora
Cast: Sidharth Malhotra, Rashmika Mandanna, Kumud Mishra, Sharib Hashmi
The year is 1974. The city is Rawalpindi and Tariq (Sidharth Malhotra) the tailor is actually an undercover Indian agent named Amandeep Ajitpal Singh. Unlike the international men of mystery who leave a trail of lingerie behind them, our man Tariq is a sanskari spy. He performs namaaz diligently and doesn’t just romance his boss’s blind niece Nasreen (Rashmika Mandanna), but also marries her. Meanwhile, incensed by India carrying out its first successful nuclear bomb test, the Pakistani prime minister (Rajit Kapur) stuffs his face with chocolate cake and declares that even if it means everyone in the country has to starve, Pakistan will also make a nuclear bomb. Entrusted with realising Pakistan’s explosive dreams is Dr. A.Q. Khan, allegedly “the most dangerous scientist in the world” though all we see him do is stare at greenery, point at some maps, and toss the word “centrifuge” into conversation.
Cut to 1977. The gent manning the phone at the “undercover RAW desk” in New Delhi informs Tariq that after India’s “Diwali” celebrations — that’s code for the nuclear bomb test — its neighbour also wants to celebrate “Diwali”. You’d think that a spy whose only job is to gather intelligence would already know this since the news is about three years old, but Tariq seems to be taken by surprise. He is told to find out more about Pakistan’s nuclear program and it’s in the process of doing this that Mission Majnu finds its way to the toilet, literally and metaphorically. Because it seems that in 1977, there was just one Western-style commode in Rawalpindi and it belonged to Khan, who has a foreigner wife. While Tariq’s blind, brown bride unwittingly supports him by adding credibility to his cover and giving Tariq a sense of belonging, Dr. Khan’s white wife makes him an outsider in his home country and she has eyes only for the commode. Ultimately, because of Mrs. Khan’s choice of (toilet) pot, Pakistan’s nuclear program goes to pot. As does Mission Majnu.
On paper, Mission Majnu is about three Indian agents who successfully carry out a covert mission to uncover Pakistan’s nuclear program despite getting little support from the state. It’s supposed to be a thriller that shows you how everyday behaviour — getting a haircut, going to the bathroom — can be mined for suspense, drama and thrills. On screen, Mission Majnu feels like a parody of a spy thriller, filled as it is with ridiculous scenarios and contrived plot points. The promise that the film is “inspired by true events” and cameos made by historical characters like Indira Gandhi, Morarji Desai and General Zia-ul-Haq do little to add to Mission Majnu’s credibility. The less said about the film’s fictional Pakistan, the better. The landlocked Rawalpindi apparently has what looks like a small bay on its outskirts (also a hanging bridge and very pink skies). Pakistan is a country of empty streets, ethereal women who are happy to blend into the background, kohl-wearing men, foolishly-trusting elders, frowning patriarchs, and cops who brandish guns but have terrible aim. Much rests on Malhotra, but he’s as flat as a cardboard cutout. If he and director Shantanu Bagchi had chosen to give Tariq a different persona from Amandeep, the role would have been more interesting to watch and a better showcase of acting skills. Instead, Tariq and Amandeep are indistinguishable from one another and Malhotra’s performance lacks both charisma and dynamism. Rashmika Mandanna’s Nasreen is about as important to the plot as the third spare wheel of a two-wheeler. Bagchi has some fine actors in the film’s supporting cast, including Kumud Mishra, Sharib Hashmi and Rajit Kapur, but all they do in Mission Majnu is strut around and overact.
This is a shame because Mission Majnu had the potential of being a thought-provoking look at patriotism, viewed through the lens of an action adventure film. While he has all the stunts and spectacles associated with the genre, Amandeep is not just a spy who needs to maintain his cover and complete an impossible mission. He carries the stigma of being the son of a traitor and the Indian agent is constantly alienated by fellow Indians who treat him with suspicion and contempt. Many doubt his integrity and Tariq’s handler repeatedly needles him with jabs about his father. In contrast as Tariq, he finds love and warmth from everyday Pakistanis, most of whom welcome him into their homes and lives. Amandeep’s pride at being Indian doesn’t preclude falling in love and finding a new family in Pakistan, but the film barely scratches the surface of this complexity. There’s an idea of India that Amandeep holds close to his heart and unfortunately for Mission Majnu, the monologue in which he talks about it is a tangle of clichés made all the worse by Malhotra delivering it like he’s competing at a school elocution contest. True to the ethos of an action hero and a filmi spy, Amandeep’s patriotism never falters, but his unhesitating loyalty to his country could have offered a perspective upon different performances of patriotism.
There’s a hint towards the end that the film wanted its audience to think about today’s ‘keyboard warriors’, who believe trolling is their way of serving the motherland. However, the few interesting ideas in Mission Majnu are buried deep in the hopelessly silly screenplay credited to Sumit Batheja, Parveez Shaikh and Aseem Arrora. If not for the bullet-riddled climax and its lethargic pace, Mission Majnu could have easily passed as a screwball comedy thanks to the profusion of ridiculous plot points. For example, Tariq’s ingenious methods include asking a roadside bookseller for a “nuclear physics ki kitaab (book on nuclear physics)”. A failsafe way of procuring top-secret information is to simply ask for it. In one instance, he gets an audience with a brigadier by pulling off two buttons from the Army man’s newly-tailored uniform. The brigadier’s response is not to send the uniforms back, but to call for the tailor to sew those buttons in his presence. Enter Tariq. While stitching, Tariq laments that Pakistan is behind India in the nuclear race and that’s all it takes for the brigadier to confirm to Tariq that Pakistan is developing its own nuclear program, that a scientist from abroad is heading it, and the facility is near Rawalpindi. These details happen to be literal state secrets, but the brigadier cheerfully shares them with a stranger.
This happens repeatedly — Tariq turns up, beams his brightest smile while asking for sensitive information, and people obligingly give it to him. It’s as though Malhotra’s handsome face blinds everyone to the fact that a stranger is bombarding them with questions and this stranger is frequently accompanied by a man wearing a wig, a patently fake moustache and a necklace with pendants spelling out “love” (it’s the stylistic predecessor of Rahul’s ‘COOL’ necklace from Kuch Kuch Hota Hai). The latter is another Indian spy, named Aslam (Hashmi) and there’s no explanation for how a man who sticks out like a sore thumb in every setting and is constantly behaving suspiciously, has evaded Pakistani intelligence.
Had the faux pas in Mission Majnu been engaging enough to hold one’s attention or spark curiosity, the film would have at least been entertaining. As it stands, it’s just progressively tiresome and by the time we get to the scene in which a character yells “Bharat Mata ki Jai” in desperation, it feels like a hail Mary move to wake up the audience. Rarely will you find an action thriller in which a gunfight offers less of an adrenaline rush than the hunt for a commode, but that’s Mission Majnu for you in a nutshell.