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Fact-checking Mission Majnu, from mosque-like nuclear plant to Moraji Desai vs RAW

Shaurya Thapa
Shaurya ThapaJan 23, 2023 | 16:14

Fact-checking Mission Majnu, from mosque-like nuclear plant to Moraji Desai vs RAW

Mission Majnu mixes up a few historical details for a rather formulaic India vs Pak tale (photo-DailyO)

The latest Netflix India film Mission Majnu claims that it is loosely based on true incidents. The disclaimer helps, given the extreme dramatisation the Sidharth Malhotra-starrer goes through in covering the efforts of Indian R&AW (Research & Analysis Wing) agents in Pakistan in the 1970s. 

If you too sat through the entirety of the overlong 2 hours and 9 minutes film this weekend, first of all, we offer you sympathy. Now, let’s get to what was real in Mission Majnu, what was not, what was absolutely caricatured. 

The context behind Mission Majnu: As is common knowledge among Indians and Pakistanis, India’s first successful nuclear bomb test was undertaken back in 1974, with the test codenamed as Operation Smiling Buddha. Pakistan grew alert of India’s efforts to become a nuclear power and tried to follow suit.

As shown in the film, Pakistan indeed developed a nuclear plant at Kahuta but couldn’t successfully launch a nuclear test up until 1998. 

Pakistan did stop its tests at Kahuta but it wasn’t that dramatic.  As expected, Mission Majnu valiantly shows India as a stronger power who can annihilate Pakistan once it comes across its covert plans of developing nuclear weapons. In a scene that plays out like an absurd “breakup over phone”, Indian PM Moraji Desai rings up Pakistan President General Zia-ul-Haq, expressing how betrayed he feels. 

Once the General finds out that R&AW agents have discovered their plans, he immediately tells his scientists and forces to abandon their project or Indian airplanes would enter Pakistani airspace and conduct an air strike 'within the next 15 minutes'. 

Ashwath Bhatt as General Zia ul Haq in Mission Majnu
Ashwath Bhatt as General Zia-ul-Haq in Mission Majnu

While India could have orchestrated an air strike, the situation is not that easy to escalate and the truth might be more diplomatic than expected. 

Enough documentation of that nuclear era including books like Adrian Levy and Catherin Scott-Clark’s Deception: Pakistan, the United States and the Global Nuclear Conspiracy point to the fact that the Indian Air Force mission was cancelled as Pakistani nuclear scientist MA Khan had a meeting with Raja Ramana, the chief of the Indian Atomic Energy Commission. The two agreed to a compromise as Khan threatened a counter strike by Pakistan on India’s Bhabha Atomic Research Centre. To prevent the situation turning into a full-blown war, India obviously had to pause the the airstrike. 

Dr Raja Ramana is generally regarded as the Father of India's Nuclear Program (photo-DRDO)
Dr Raja Ramana is generally regarded as the Father of India's Nuclear Program (photo-DRDO)

Israel joined the nuclear drama only in the 80s: Mission Majnu’s timeline is set mostly during the tenure of Moraji Desai as the Indian PM, with him staying in office from 1977 to 1979. This is the giveaway that Israel’s intervention in Mission Majnu seems to be muddled-up given that its plans on getting involved in Pakistani airspace mostly happened during the 1980s. 

The flight routes from Israel to Iraq for Operation Opera (photo-Defence Aviation)
The flight routes from Israel to Iraq for Operation Opera (photo-Defence Aviation)

National security expert and author of the book India’s Nuclear Policy Bharat Karnad suggests that Israeli Air Force was planning to join forces with India for an aerial attack on Kahuta in 1984 chiefly because the country didn’t wish to witness a so-called “Islamic Bomb” being developed by India’s neighbour. If approved, this airstrike could have been a follow-up to 1981’s Operation Opera, an Israeli airstrike on an unfinished nuclear reactor in Iraq. 

Levy and Scott-Clark write about this Israeli-led operation in their book, adding that India had to back off after America’s Pentagon warned India of a potential US response if India went ahead with the plan. The then-incumbent Indira Gandhi finally shot down the idea (as opposed to Desai in Mission Majnu). 

Did Pakistan’s nuclear plant actually look like a mosque? Right from when the trailer dropped, Pakistani and Indian Twitterati were mocking the stereotypical nature of the film’s visual aesthetic. This included Pak’s Kahuta plant which seemed to have a green dome reminiscent of a mosque. While this does seem like a stereotypical architectural element at first, it is surprisingly one of Mission Majnu’s more realistic aspects!

(photo-Netflix India)
(photo-Netflix India)

Domes (or gas-tight shells) are quite a common feature in nuclear power plants, a necessary requirement to prevent any accidental releases of radiation. And while associating the colour green with everything Pakistani might seem cliched, archival images of the plant (that cannot be shared here for copyright reasons) do imply the presence of a green dome. 

Moraji Desai’s friendliness with Pak and hatred for R&AW. How real was it? It is well-documented in Indian history that Moraji Desai tried to be less aggressive than his predecessor when it came to dealing with Pakistan. His alleged friendliness with Pakistan and Zia-ul-Haq reached such levels that it is believed that he even spilled state secrets about R&AW’s investigations to the Pakistani head of state. 

However, Mission Majnu chooses to gloss over these details by showing Desai as an ally to Pakistan, only to feel betrayed and indulge in the aforementioned “phone breakup” scene. 

Moraji Desai at the United Nations (photo-India Today)
Moraji Desai at the United Nations (photo-India Today)

Desai's hatred for R&AW also seems to be slightly toned down in the film. Even though he is shown to significantly cut the funding and operations of the intelligence organisation, he eventually respects the valiant R&AW operatives in Pakistan towards the end. 

Pawan Khera, the chairman of the Congress’ media and publicity department, recently tweeted on how Mission Majnu seems to underplay how destructive Desai’s leadership was for R&AW. 

Desai was, in fact, an outspoken critic of R&AW believing that the organisation was an instrument of Indira Gandhi’s rule. Not only did he cut down on its funding by 30 per cent in 1977, but he also divulged major findings in casual conversations with Zia-ul-Haq. Ex R&AW officer B Raman has strongly backed this theory in his book Kaowboys of R&AW explaining that Desai’s phone calls would start with informal topics and eventually transcend into more politically-charged conversations that included some ill-advised tea-spilling. 

Ex-RAW agent B Raman reveals in his book that Moraji Desai did disclose agency secrets to Zia-ul-Haq (photo-Apple Books)
Ex-RAW agent B Raman reveals in his book that Moraji Desai did disclose agency secrets to Zia-ul-Haq (photo-Apple Books)

Mission Majnu however just portrays Desai as an Indian leader betrayed by his Pakistani counterpart and the two are shown to just talk about yoga and Indian sweets. 

What about the chief of R&W? The first chief of R&AW, RN Kao, serves as the narrator of Mission Majnu, giving a rundown of the historical events in Wikipedia-like fashion. Compared to the other elements in the film, Kao is still portrayed with hints of truth to his character. His resignation as the chief during Moraji Desai's coming to power in 1977 is real even though he later served as a security adviser to both Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi. 

Parmeet Sethi plays RN Kao, the first chief of R&AW who resigned after Moraji Desai became PM in 1977 (photo-Netflix India)
Parmeet Sethi plays RN Kao, the first chief of R&AW who resigned after Moraji Desai became PM in 1977 (photo-Netflix India)

But, was the Pakistani military really that foolish? From Uri: The Surgical Strike to Mission Majnu, Bollywood loves depicting the enemy’s military as one filled with simpletones who are too easy to dupe. So, it is not surprising to find Sidharth Malhotra very conveniently posing as a tailor and asking a Pakistani brigadier about the country’s (then-covert) nuclear plans. 

When the R&AW agent-tailor asks the uniformed personnel if Pakistan will be ready with an atom bomb like India has, the military man easily responds by saying that Pakistan will soon have a similar jashn (festival) in a neighbouring area. And that’s how Malhotra’s protagonist confirms to India that Pakistan is indeed working on a nuclear bomb!

The film is filled with such glaring loopholes, with the Indian R&AW agents dodging the gullible Pakistanis throughout the entire narrative. Safe to say, Mission Majnu caricatures the Pakistanis to quite a cartoonish level. Personally speaking, the writer of this article suggests the readers to stick to Madras Cafe and Raazi if they wish to watch films on R&AW agents taking on national conspiracies.

Last updated: January 23, 2023 | 16:14
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