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Mission Majnu Review: Sidharth Malhotra is wasted in this witless spy thriller- Cinema express

Mission Majnu Review: Sidharth Malhotra is wasted in this witless spy thriller

Shantanu Bagchi’s film isn’t as crudely jingoistic as certain other recent Hindi films, but boy is it dull

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Published: 20th January 2023

At the end of this year, I plan on listing down some of the most patently ludicrous scenes from Bollywood 2023. Something tells me it will be rich pickings. I already have a contender: the climactic highpoint of Mission Majnu. Tariq, an Indian spy in Pakistan, is watching through tears as his pregnant wife boards a one-way flight to Dubai. In the nick of time, alerted officials storm the airport. They’ve got descriptions, and one of them spots Nasreen (Rashmika Mandanna). To distract them, Tariq – who’s earlier described as the best cadet in his batch, and who knows well that blowing one’s cover means certain death – climbs up on a chair and loudly chants, “Bharat Mata Ki Jai!”

Director: Shantanu Bagchi
Streaming on: Netflix
Cast: Sidharth Malhotra, Rashmika Mandanna, Kumud Mishra, Sharib Hashmi, Zakir Hussain, Parmeet Sethi 

This scene tells you pretty much everything you need to know about Mission Majnu. Every time Shantanu Bagchi’s film – based on a real espionage operation from 1977 – runs out of wind, it resorts to silver-bullet nationalism and sentimentality as an escape route. This is apparent not only from the dialogue (“Our tricolour blows not in the wind but the dying breath of martyrs,” goes the somewhat overwrought final line) but also its use of music. ‘Maati Ko Maa Kehte Hain,’ a patriotic number voiced by Sonu Nigam and written by Manoj Muntashir, has the same treacly emotionality and imagery that marked Muntashir’s previous hit, the 2019 song ‘Teri Mitti’ from the film Kesari

We begin, expectedly, with a generic history lesson. The creation of Bangladesh in 1971 flags off a nuclear arms race between India and Pakistan. After India successfully tests its first nuclear bomb in Pokhran, Pakistan wants to do the same. They fly in scientists and build a secretive nuclear facility somewhere on the edges of Rawalpindi. To determine its exact location becomes the mission of Tariq Ali (Sidharth Malhotra), actually a RAW agent named Amandeep. He is disguised as a tailor, and, to further buttress his cover, marries visually-impaired customer Nasreen. Their love story is rushed over the course of a single song, as though the film does not want us to think hard about Tariq’s decisions. As he explains, “Whatever you do, be thorough with it.” Some advice, that.

Spy movies need not follow a set pattern or temperament. They can be slow (The Conversation, The Lives of Others), fast (The Man from U.N.C.L.E, Mission: Impossible – Fallout), moody (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Munich) or extravagant (take your pick). But one thing they must all unerringly be is smart. Mission Majnu fares miserably on that front. Tariq has a soft smile and an ingratiating manner that makes everyone he approaches spill the beans, from a small child to a military chief. You wouldn’t believe it, but one of his initial quests involves tracking down the owner of the singular western toilet in Rawalpindi. Inexplicably, Shantanu saves the cleverest detail for the last: the amazingly real-life story of Indian agents confirming the existence of the nuclear base by stealing hair samples from a barber shop. 

Despite its frequent appeals to national duty, Mission Majnu isn’t as crudely jingoistic as something like Bhuj: The Pride of India. When a character says, “Patriotism is not in one’s blood but in one’s soul,” he is expressing a sentiment closer to the spirit of films like Raazi and Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl. Indira Gandhi, who was India PM through the early 70s, is shown as a tough and competent leader who loses her premiership due to the excesses and antipathies of the Emergency. Her successor, Morarji Desai, is initially soft on Pakistan. He extends an olive branch to his opposite number, who responds – as Pakistani political leaders tend to do in films – in deceit and duplicity. The film also does not comment on the moral implications of nuclear proliferation; for that you will have to see the pilot episode of Rocket Boys. 

Sidharth Malhotra was feted for his performance as Vikram Batra in 2021’s Shershaah. Whatever the merits or demerits of that film, he was at least an imposing (and engaging) physical presence. Tariq, by contrast, is much more slight and soft-centred. He visibly flinches at the sight of violence—not the best look for a film that later straddles him with a train fight. The only true element in Sidharth’s performance is the moments of romance and heartache. I wanted to root for Tariq and Nasreen, a desire made difficult by Rashmika’s Beautiful Blind Girl hamming. 

Are epaulettes and fake moustaches enough to fool the Pakistani Army? I don’t know - maybe it is. The nicest detail about Mission Majnu is that Rajit Kapur turns up as former Pakistani PM Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. That adds to a CV that already includes Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Narendra Modi (in Uri: The Surgical Strike). I can’t wait to witness which esteemed political personality Rajit plays next. Someone should cast him as the Dalai Lama.

Rating:
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