In the midst of a discussion about patriotically inclined motion pictures, the word jingoistic popped up — ie to be fanatically and bellicosely patriotic, aggressively chauvinistic and belligerent in international relations.

The word, to a great extent, defines Mission Majnu (MM), a pro-India spy thriller set during the regime of Gen Ziaul Haq and the government of Indian PM Morarji Desai (1977-79) where, according to the film’s fictional account spun by screenwriters Aseem Arrora, Sumit Batheja and Parveez Shaikh, deeply embedded R&AW agents stop Pakistan’s atom bomb-making plans by uncovering the Kahuta research facility.

Set entirely in Pakistan — Rawalpindi to be precise — MM carries the usual tropes and shortfalls of agenda-driven Bollywood movies: a smart patriotic hero with a scarred past and a few of his likeable cohorts (Sharib Hashmi, Kumud Mishra) defy their top brass (Zakir Hussain) to prove their worthiness in the field, while exclaiming — mostly in hushed tones — their unflinching solidarity to their nation.

Meanwhile, their nemesis (that would be us Pakistanis), are content acting like nincompoops and spouting Urdu as if everyone in Pakistan is a pseudo-nawab from Lucknow.

Insert: sigh number one.

Sidharth Malhotra plays Amardeep Singh urf (aka) Tariq Hussain, a R&AW agent skilled in the art of the karate chops and kurta shalwar tailoring.

Usually a man who abhors violence, his detective skills lead him to local libraries where Pakistani newspapers give him all the intel he needs, and whenever the press lets him down, a 100 rupee note, secreted into the right hands, points him in the right direction.

The more Mission Majnu progresses, the more its fictitious nature peeps up and, by the third act, the film loses most of its credibility

Amardeep falls in love with the local beauty Nasreen, who happens to be blind (Rashmika Mandanna, whose use of Urdu just kills you). They marry, despite the usual family opposition — her father can’t stand the strapping young lad — and, by the time she gets pregnant, the Indo-Pak nuclear crisis begins escalating.

Indira Gandhi (Avantika Akerkar), who was in support of both the R&AW programme and the 1974 Indian nuclear tests, is thrown out of office by Morarji Desai (Avijit Dutt), while Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (played without ZAB’s charisma or panache by Ranjit Kapoor) is overthrown by Ziaul Haq (Ashwath Bhatt, sporting bushy brows and all).

This Netflix feature does have a couple of things going for it. With exception to a handful of cutaway scenes of Indian politics, the bulk of the narrative is set in Pakistan and, despite the tendencies of such stories to paint the country as malicious, there is some care in portraying us as just simple-minded, gullible humans who have a one-track agenda: to checkmate the neighbouring country. The country is not made up of bad people, you see; we just have some men in power who harbour malicious, backstabbing intent.

Insert: sigh number two.

The production design too isn’t atrocious. For once, Pakistan doesn’t look like a variation of Afghanistan, Iran or Iraq. The song Rabba Jaanda, one of the four in the soundtrack (excluding the reprise versions), is swell as far as tuneful Bollywood songs go.

But the more MM progresses, the more its fictitious nature peeps up. By the third act, the film loses most of its credibility as a realistically inclined adaptation of history, and becomes a commercial Bollywood ‘flick’ — a term I usually stay away from.

Sidharth Malhotra is a good-looking hero, and he brings considerable humanity to his role, irrespective of a handful of reservations this critic has with the way his character is designed on paper (given the story, there is no way these traits and decisions could have been avoided). The actor holds the film well enough until the climax which, by the way, the trailer gives away.

In MM, despite its jingoistic nature, director Shantanu Bagchi does a fair enough job with the idea. It is not the best representation of the patriotic spy thriller genre but, given the fodder Bollywood throws at you in this genre, one might just applaud the film for its tame mediocrity.

Streaming at the top-spot on Netflix, Mission Majnu is rated suitable for ages 16 and over

Published in Dawn, ICON, January 29th, 2023

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