Bollywood produces another weird-to-Westerners but otherwise on-brand genre-mash in Mission Majnu (now on Netflix), a historical-fictional action-adventure domestic-drama romance spy-comedy set during the tense political/military standoff between India and Pakistan during the 1970s. Director Shantanu Bagchi stops just short of launching into musical numbers as deep-cover spies infiltrate foreign governments in a quest to stop nothing short of nuclear freaking war – and it may be an act of filmmaking restraint by Bollywood standards.
MISSION MAJNU: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
The Gist: A narrator who says he’s the chief of RAW – the Research and Analysis Wing, or India’s version of the CIA – explains the backstory of the nuclear arms race between India and Pakistan, which followed the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971. India won, but the tension remained, especially after India successfully conducted a nuclear-bomb test in 1974, prompting Pakistan to secretly begin developing their own atom-bomb technology. And here we meet Tariq (Sidharth Malhotra), a simple man who lives in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. He lobbies a tailor for a humble job in his shop, and falls in love with the tailor’s niece, Nasreen (Rashmika Mandanna), who is blind, but surely sixth-senses how handsome he is. For Tariq, it was love at first sight – you can tell because everything slows down to slo-mo speed and her every move is graceful and the music floods the scene and the movie stops just short of showing cartoon hearts fluttering around Tariq’s bewildered and smitten head.
And so Tariq and Nasreen get married and live a very, very modest life on the pitiful salary of a sub-tailor. It’s perfect – perfect cover for an Indian RAW agent, yo! Tariq’s real name is Amandeep Singh, and he’s in deep. I mean, Nasreen is pregnant now, and his love for her is very, very real, although she doesn’t know he’s a spy who’s been tasked with finding the location of the uranium enrichment plant and reporting it to the Indian government. For a guy living a double life and keeping such a gigantutron secret and bearing the weight of his father’s status as an Indian Benedict Arnold, he’s surprisingly light on his feet. But that seems to be all part of the game. He’s disarmingly handsome and is so good at playing a simple, illiterate fellow, his sneaky interrogation of a Pakistani general – Amandeep talks his way into his house under the guise of repairing the buttons on his uniform – seems like the innocent questions of a lowly needle-and-thread man.
And so Amandeep never seems to work at the tailor shop or be home, and Nasreen never thinks to question what he does at all hours of the day and night. (Her father has his suspicions, unfortunately – for him, anyway.) Amandeep takes unusual avenues to acquire intelligence – chatting up gossipy grandmas and children playing soccer, posing as a plumber, etc. Meanwhile, Pakistan suffers a comically nondramatic military takeover, thus ushering in a PAPERS PLEASE era that only increases tensions with India, and to top it off, Israel is planning an air raid on what it believes to be the nuclear plant. So the pressure’s on Amandeep to hold together his string of crazy gambits and prevent a terrible, terrible war! Can he do it?
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: Mission Majnu is like Cuban Missile Crisis drama Thirteen Days if it didn’t take the threat of nuclear annihilation so damn seriously.
Performance Worth Watching: I liked Malhotra’s silly charisma here, striking an unassumingly dashing figure who shows not much in the way of character depth – the subplot about his father gets near-zero dramatic traction – but plenty of charm as he outwits, outruns and out-fist-and-fire-fights the opposition.
Memorable Dialogue: One of Amandeep’s clues to the identity of a nuclear scientist is the rare, non-squat Western toilet commissioned for his wife:
Amandeep’s government liaison: I won’t waste my resources on the basis of the toilet they use to take a dump!
Amandeep: Finer details make the bigger picture, sir!
Sex and Skin: None.
Our Take: Action! Adventure! Political intrigue! Toilets! Mission Majnu is insistently unserious in its approach to the based-on-true-historical-events subject matter, although it doesn’t lean into it hard enough to become outright farce. So maybe the oddly juxtapositional tone is a tad problematic, and Bagchi’s attempt at cramming in a few things shy of the kitchen sink renders the film about 20 minutes past the point of testing our patience – but at least it’s generally entertaining. Broad characterizations veer tantalizingly close to satire – watch the politicians discuss the potential fates of millions of civilians as they nosh on birthday cake! And the action sequences are deeply silly – watch Amandeep take on a horde of Pakistani soldiers atop a moving train in a sequence that makes a Bruce Lee showdown against a million-zillion ninjas seem plausible.
So you can’t say the movie isn’t fun, at least in fits and starts. You’ll wish the comedy and romance had sharper teeth, and that Bagchi would’ve indulged a full-on eff-it/gonzo sensibility, but it’s as if Bagchi is using restraint in the face of its significant true-life historical context. It’s strange how the film renders a complex sequence of events – political maneuvers in both countries tangled with Amandeep’s espionage infiltrations – into something simpler than the sum of its many parts, a kind of impressively counterintuitive display of subtraction by addition. Subtraction by addition in everything but the editing, which could have used another round or two to render a lengthy film more palatable. Otherwise, it’s a reasonably technically adept movie that moves forward with enough purpose and style to make it worth your while. It concludes with an unconvincing display of pathos and patriotism, a portrait of sacrifice for the fatherland that’ll induce a few rah-rahs or eyerolls, depending on your perspective. Either way, the movie ain’t so bad.
Our Call: STREAM IT. Mission Majnu isn’t quite ambitious or silly enough to warrant too much of an enthusiastic recommendation, but it’s nevertheless modestly enjoyable as an international thriller rendered as nigh-disposable fluff.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Read more of his work at johnserbaatlarge.com.
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