The chief of RAW is advising Indira Gandhi to greenlight a covert mission to expose Pakistan’s plans to build an atomic bomb in 1974. They need intelligence, not force, he argues—“someone who can get the job done without attracting any attention”. That man is Tariq Ali—actual name Amandeep Singh—who’s already undercover in Rawalpindi, looking for work as a tailor. He’s played by Sidharth Malhotra, who’s handed the impossible task of pretending he has formidable intelligence and a forgettable face.
The Malhotra-starrer Shershaah was such a success in 2021 that it was only a matter of time before someone reworked it. Like Shershaah, Shantanu Bagchi’s Mission Majnu is founded on India-Pakistan tensions. Malhotra is cast once again as a wholesome Punjabi patriot, a spy this time instead of a soldier. There’s another sappy love story, with Tariq falling for Nasreen (Rashmika Mandanna), a blind Pakistani girl, while keeping his true identity from her. Tanishk Bagchi is composer again; ‘Rabba Janda’ is a close cousin of Shershaah's ‘Raatan Lambiyaan’, which was also sung by Jubin Nautiyal.
Little by little, Tariq pieces together the details of the nuclear programme, using his cover as a tailor to coax a general into saying more than he should, then tracking down the scientist who’s making the bomb (commodes are involved), and finally locating the facility. He’s helped in this by two undercover assets, Aslam (Sharib Hashmi) and the local maulvi (Kumud Mishra). Amandeep's patriotism has an edge to it; his father killed himself after he was caught selling military secrets to Pakistan. Foiling the enemy’s nuclear plans is his chance to restore his family’s name.
With a capable cast and a smarter plot, this might have been enough. But the film is hampered in too many areas—something, somewhere is always below par. Malhotra doesn't sit right as a quick-thinking spy, Mandanna says her lines like she’s afraid she’ll be fined for every intonation she gets wrong, and there’s committed hamming by most of the supporting cast (Hashmi alone amuses—his delivery of “Badi kutti cheez hoon” belongs in a better film). Sumit Batheja’s dialogue is like a first draft that never got polished; Amandeep is described as “academy ki history ka sabse number one cadet”. The film’s idea of normal Pakistani speech is to have ‘janaab’ or ‘miyan’ or ‘bhaijaan’ in every sentence. There’s no effort to include little details specific to Pakistan in the ‘70s; the only cultural references are to Indian film stars.
I found Shershaah a simple-minded film when it released, but at least it had impressive battle scenes. Mission Majnu has only one big set piece—well-executed, despite some iffy CGI at the end—and a few shootouts and chases, all in the film's second half. For the most part, it tries to get by on its wits… which is a problem, because Mission Majnu isn’t Raazi. It doesn’t have an actor of quality at its centre. It doesn’t have a clever screenplay, or a director who can patiently build a scene. And it doesn’t have the imagination to suggest that the Pakistani armed forces might have a few decent, honest people who don't want to start a war with India.
Mission Majnu’s biggest failing is that it has no interest in, much less love for, its setting. Pakistan is treated with a mixture of pity (for dupes like Nasreen) and contempt (for everyone in power). The military are shown to be duplicitous in their dealings with India and willing to kill their own if it gets the job done. “They’re a fanatical country, they won’t think twice about using a nuclear bomb,” a worried Gandhi remarks. You can say stuff like this in Hindi cinema in 2023 and no one even blinks. The film ends with a triumphant mention of India’s May 1998 nuclear tests. It doesn’t say anything about Pakistan’s nuclear tests later that month.