Mukhbiir is not long enough. It’s just over 2 hours long, does not stop for a standard bollywood type song/dance routine, but it is still not long enough to finish all it starts. That leaves me frustrated but it does not mean the film is bad. It is the strongest spy movie I have seen in a very long time.
Mukhbir is an infilt zzrator/informant for the Indian Security Services. As with any spy-like job, he is on his own in any operation and the service will very rarely make any effort to rescue him.
Rathod, an about-to-retire officer for the ISS, is Mukhbir’s handler. Rathod didn’t so much recruit the young ward as Shanghai him. Mukhbir was an orphan living on the streets and perhaps guilty of a minor crime. He is caught up in a sweep and Rathod gives him the choice between jail and becoming an expendable spy. We learn that Mukhbir is just the latest such man with no family, no ties, and no history to speak of which means he has already “disappeared.” Whether this one orphan is special or if it is because of a sense of a career’s worth of guilt at using young men like Mukhbir, Rathod’s emotional involvement runs deeper than it had with any of the others.
The film shows this most directly early on. Rathod neglects to give Mukhbir any special way to identify himself on a mission to infiltrate a paramilitary group ready to set bombs in a major city. The security services’ order is to liquidate the camp. Rathod is able to work a small trick that gives Mukhbir just enough time to escape coordinated heavy machine gun fire. The implication in this instance is that if the infiltrator had been anyone else, Rathod would not have bothered.
Mukhbir wants to quit but realizes he doesn’t have enough money—and since he doesn’t really exist, getting a job outside the service would be all but impossible. So he accepts a massively risky mission which Rathod assures him will give him enough money to live comfortably for a while at least.
He joins the family of an aging godfather with two sons. His assignment is to cozy up to Saaya, the brutal son. Saaya is extremely suspicious about the newest member of the “family.” Saaya has an assassination plan to kill a government minister and his wife and daughter. To test his mettle and loyalty, Saaya gives Mukhbir the gun to kill both women. Mukhbir made a promise to himself and his god (more on this in a moment) that he would not kill; luckily, he is given a revolver he is able to make jam. Saaya’s suspicions are not allayed but Mukhbir is able to survive with both the mission and his promise intact.
Meanwhile the foppish son, Biju, entices Mukhbir to help him smuggle drugs across state boarders. Biju’s actions give Mukhbir a taste of fun it seems he may never have had: some drinking, some drugs, a little sex. All of that comes to an abrupt end when Rathod kills Biju and purposely wounds Mukhbir. His mission, after all, is to stop Saaya’s multi-billion rupee human organ smuggling operation, not help the low-level playboy son.
I cannot go into the specifics of what happens next except to say that Mukhbir is forced to escape and compelled to take on one more mission. For this one, he has to “become” Muslim. What happens for the last half an hour is too intense to spoil in this review. So…
The cinematic stuff. In the spirit of people degreed in the humanities, I can rationalize a misunderstanding as fraught with meaning. The film quality is questionable, so it is difficult to say if the over-exposure and washed out color is intentional. It wasn’t truly distracting, but in the glib spirit of my education comment, it can be seen as a metaphor for the quality of the real versus the pretend. But it can indicate low production value which is anything but true. Even filmed on a shoestring budget, it is a great movie. I say it more as a warning not to dismiss the film if the picture looks less than crisp.
The acting was top notch across the board. Because it is a terrorism-spy movie, it is going to be more loaded with stock characters than a more run of the millspy flick (you run into serious risks as a filmmaker if your terrorists are painted ambiguously). That said Rahul Dev plays Saaya with just the right mix of playboy and kabuki over-the-top evil; and this balances with the interpretation Rajendranath Zutshi gives to Biju whom he plays with the right mix of playboy and kabuki over-the-top fool. But the main forces are the strength that Sammir Dattani brings to Mukbhir, reluctant spy and meek Macgyver, and the relationship he has with the fatherly Rathod (Om Puri). This bond is what makes the movie great (without it the movie would still be good).
As I hope I have proven without overselling, the story is solid. I detected no plot holes. Also, the twists were truly surprising and there are more than a few—since the film covers more than one mission, there is room for a multitude of twists without getting the sense that they have gotten out of control.
A quick word about the subtitles (which will segue into the cultural exploration). India produces tons of movies and all require subtitles. More careful companies, or larger budget films, will tend to focus more on the meaning than the exact translation. Mukbhiir’s translations are very stiff. Dancing girls are not likely to say that you need to love their “salaciousness.” Even if they really are dancing only to pay for college, they may know what the word means, but drugged and drunken gangsters are not going to have any idea what the word means. And the same scenes contain the following translation whose interpretations are very wide and … well … salacious: “Bangle of your name. Adorn me with it, gypsy man.” Yea I have a few ideas what that might mean (blush). It is my current favorite for confusing subtitle.
Not everything is subtitled. Mukhbir (as Kailash during this mission) chats with the mastermind of the plot he is infiltrating. While they speak Arabic, there are no subtitles. The tone is conspiratorial during these brief scenes and I don’t get a sense that I lost any relevant point since everything that happens makes sense based on the rest of the dialog. Back to the educational comment … I can think of several reasons why Arabic would not be translated in a movie made in and about an area whose cultural, religious, national, and linguistic differences are always in tension (I will spare you the thousand additional words of that investigation). Or it could be that the film was under tight deadline and their Arabic translator was sick.
Apart from how successfully writer/director Mani Shankar created the tension and suspense, the movie’s success hangs entirely on sympathy with Mukhbir. He is devoted to his god and makes pilgrimages to a shrine as a penitent (at least as I understand it) after each mission. We can assume that each mission is fatal for many and that he is able to keep his promise not to kill (whether this remains true to the end is not something I am going to reveal). This devotion makes his “conversion” to Islam heart rending instead of just a plot point. This also means that his motives for doing so would have to be nearly world-ending.
I am in an odd position with regards to religion (I am largely without). But it fascinates me to the point of significant study that can often leave me with a host of facts that do little but befuddle. This is a situation that does not leave me confused in a technical sense but does from an emotional one. What, if anything, would make you forsake your god?
I am not misspelling either the title or the character's names, the movie title has the extra 'i'.