In the very first scene of Farah Khan’s directorial debut, Main Hoon Na (2004), General Amarjeet Bakshi (Kabir Bedi) asks: “Do Pakistanis not love their children?” Bakshi is the architect of a goodwill gesture, titled Project Milaap, under which the Indian government plans to release civilian Pakistani prisoners languishing in Indian jails after mistakenly crossing the border. He is in a TV studio giving an interview about this, when the show is interrupted by Major Raghavan Dutta (Sunil Shetty), an ex-Army officer who has gone rogue and wants to scuttle Project Milaap. General Bakshi’s rhetorical question is in response to Dutta’s claim that Pakistan would never respond to India’s gesture because it doesn’t want peace.
Protecting children by choosing peace over war is the central theme of this film. When Raghavan threatens to harm General Bakshi’s daughter Sanjana (Amrita Rao), he sends his best officer Major Ram Prasad Sharma (Shah Rukh Khan) to go under cover as a student in her college in Darjeeling and protect her. A little later Raghavan also turns up in Darjeeling, and in a bid to send a message to General Bakshi, plans on shooting one of Sanjana’s close friends. His aide Captain Khan (Murli Sharma) objects: “He is a child, sir!”. Raghavan dismisses the objection, and explains: “If we must shed blood, we must Khan! It could be ours, the enemies’ or that of a kid.” The dichotomy is set up early in the film—the good guys (Ram, General Bakshi) protect children, the bad one (Raghavan) harms children.
As we learn later, this is not without reason. Raghavan’s son was killed by terrorists in Kashmir, turning him blood-thirsty, a sworn enemy of Pakistan. In a flashback, when he shoots civilian Pakistanis who had mistakenly crossed the border, Raghavan is court martialled. During his trial Brigadier Shekhar Sharma (Naseeruddin Shah)—Major Ram’s father—tells him: “We are not in a state of war with Pakistan.” Raghavan replies: “We have been in a state of war with Pakistan since 1947.” Disgusted with such an attitude, Brigadier Sharma declares that he is ashamed to have ever befriended Raghavan. “This man is mentally ill. He does not deserve to be an officer of the Indian army.”
How times have changed! In 2004, someone imagining such a thing can be easily declared mad; now, Raghavan might have been hailed as a great nationalist. The othering of Pakistan and self-fashioning through hatred is a dangerous choice, as Ram warns Raghavan towards the end of the film. “You hated the terrorists who killed your son so much that you have become exactly like them. Now, you want to kill these children to extract your vengeance.” At this point, Raghavan is holding the students and teachers of Sanjana’s college—which also includes Ram’s brother Lakshman Prasad (Zayed Khan) and his girlfriend Ms Chandini (Sushmita Sen)—and demanding that Project Milaap is called off, though Pakistan has also reciprocated the gesture and is releasing Indian prisoners.
Raghavan, like most terrorists, treats his cause like a religion, albeit a secular one. His closest aide is Khan; there are other Muslims in his gang. The idea of Hindu Rashtra which imagines India as a nation for Hindus, was in wide circulation in 2004, but not yet as mainstream as it is now. In her ground-breaking work, “If we must shed blood, we must Khan! It could be ours, the enemies’ or that of a kid.”
Project Milaap is a counterpoint to this blood-thirsty vengeance. It is not only about friendship between two nations but also about the union of broken families (This is also a reference to Bharat Milaap in the Ramayana.) The microcosm of the broken families—Ram’s, General Bakshi’s—represents the macrocosm of the subcontinent. India and Pakistan are twins separated by the violence of the Partition. There is a pair of twins among Sanjana’s college friends, who cannot ever do a high five—a symbolic representation of the Indo-Pak discord. The names of the characters of Shah Rukh Khan and Zayed Khan refer to another duo of “twins”, in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s 1979 classic Gol Maal.
The cause of the broken families in this film is usually male. Brigadier Sharma’s infidelity—a reference Shekhar Kapoor’s 1983 film Masoom, which also starred Shah in the role of the cheating husband—is the reason his wife, Madhu (Kirron Kher) leaves him. Brigadier Sharma’s misogyny of wanting a son to send to the army has alienated his daughter, Sanjana. The desire of Bakshi and Ram to be reunited with their families is also the desire of those trapped on the wrong side of the India-Pakistan border to be reunited with their families. The source of the solution is often female. Madhu forgives her husband and accepts Ram as her son; Sanjana forgives her father. Without any female influence, Raghavan burns to death. Of course, this also seems to suggest that it is for women to do all the emotional labour for the men in their lives, and allows Shah Rukh Khan to play to male saviour, which he would do in several other films later.
The desire to save children from the ravages of war is the theme of other films such as Slaughterhouse Five. In the latter, the narrator is reprimanded by his friend’s wife for writing a book about his experiences in World War II: “You were just babies in the war... But you’re not going to write it that way... You’ll pretend you were men instead of babies, and you’ll be played in the movies by Frank Sinatra and John Wayne or some of those other glamorous war-loving dirty old men. And war will look just wonderful, so we’ll have a lot more of them. And they’ll be fought by [my] babies.” Vonnegut knew what he was writing about: He had served in the war, had been captured by Germans, and had witnessed the Allied fire-bombing of Dresden. As recent conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria have shown us, children are the most vulnerable during conflict. Those in Indian and Pakistani TV studios and social media calling for a war since the Pulwama terror attack could do well to remember children on either side of the border before they continue with their diatribe.