In the biographical war-action film Shershaah, also starring Kiara Advani, Sidharth Malhotra plays Captain Vikram Batra, a 24-year-old commander of the Indian army, who fought in the 1999 Kargil War. Ahead of its release on Amazon Prime Video, the actor talks about playing a real-life hero, the long journey to getting this film made and his view of success and failure:
Anupama Chopra: If a script writer wrote the story of Captain Vikram Batra, we would probably say, 'Yeh zyada ho gaya.' Here's a man who's so brave that he kills Pakistani soldiers in hand-to-hand combat and dies while trying to rescue one of his own. Here's a man so filmy that when his girlfriend says that she's insecure about marriage, he cuts his thumb and puts blood in her maang. Here's a man who is inspired to become a soldier after he sees Param Vir Chakra on Doordarshan and then wins a Param Vir Chakra posthumously. I mean, what a formidable human being. How did you prepare to play this guy?
Sidharth Malhotra: Well firstly, we are not making up these things – 99% of the film's scenes have pretty much happened, whether it's his friends, his family, his love story, or the army. And he was an incredible personality. He said such 'filmy lines' because he genuinely was a film buff.
He grew up in Palampur, he studied in Chandigarh, Punjab University, where we shot as well. What also helped me prepare for the role was getting to know his family. When you meet someone's family, you know what their background is, where their thinking comes from, even just seeing his belongings helped. His family has very sweetly set up a lovely museum on the first floor of their house. There are his pictures, his diaries, his belongings, his clothes, the outfits that he had in his barracks. It was very emotional and very touching, but once you read his comments to his friends in his diaries – he's cracked jokes, he's written funny comments and he's trying to remember people's birthdays. For one friend he says, 'I don't care even if I forget his birthday, it's fine.' He was all heart.
My preparation started with trying to understand what he was like in his personal zone. He was just a good-hearted, lovable Punjabi boy. Right from his childhood, he aspired to be an army officer. He was a very driven leader. He was very impatient and a go-getter. He was like, 'Do not distract me, that's my goal. I'm your leader, trust me and let's move forward.' I spoke a lot to his fellow army personnel. His subordinates would say, 'Jab Batra sahab lead karte the to humein bada sukoon hota tha because wo itni confidence se lead karte the. (We felt safer when Batra sahab was leading because of his confidence)' That's the personality that he had. He was soft, charming and lovable, and at the same time, he was very driven and very focused.
So it took a lot to absorb all of that as an actor and my attempt, hopefully, is to do it in a more genuine way, with a more realistic point of view. With such high-octane material and dialogue, the war between India and Pakistan, it's very easy blow things out of proportion. You could say, 'Ya to tiranga lehra ke laaunga, ya to usmein lipat ke aaunga' in a far more dramatic way. But, as an actor, with all the drama that happened in his life, we need to take up more of today's tonalities, something more believable and real.
A lot of prep went into the physical aspects of the training. We had Army personnel training us in Mumbai – from army drills to gun training to how to behave in combat, to the hand signals. And then when we went to Kargil, which was the toughest terrain to shoot in. So a lot has gone into this film, genuinely, blood, sweat and tears.
AC: How do you make a film about war without glorifying violence. Are these conversations that you had on set at all?
SM: Absolutely. We were very conscious right from the beginning. I've been involved with the film's process since 2016. Back then, there was a completely different, much broader script. Shabbir Boxwala and Vishal Batra were involved back then and my issue was that while we were shortening the script, it wasn't feeling contemporary. It wasn't giving us a fresh take. It took a year-and-a-half to figure that out. It wasn't going anywhere and so I remember chatting asking Vishal if he was okay with me taking the film to another production house. I took it to Dharma Productions and we were lucky to get Sandeep Srivastava as a writer. Vishnu Varadhan came along because he knew each other and he'd heard the script and was eager to make. And then Kiara (Advani) came on board.
We were very conscious. We sat on the script for a month-and-a-half. We had to cut it down and eventually we also cut stuff during the edit. So it became much more precise. But the initial conscious effort was to not take a side or pick who was right or wrong. The film has a sense of loss, which shows that war is not good. It's not a win for either side. We wanted to tell the world why Vikram Batra is called Shershaah. It's because of his bravery or the heroic acts he did for the country. From the writing to the edit table, we've made every effort to not make anything jingoistic, anything that digresses from his life story. Everyone knows what the battle was, who it was with. We have documentation because we need that in the screenplay. But there's also a conversation with the other side, with the enemy. All of this is documented, it's something that Vikram has said in his interviews. It's purely about how he faced his fears and said the most iconic lines in the history of the Indian Army.
AC: I've been reading pieces about how this is going to be a make or break film for you. Is this how you view it? Or after nine years in the business, have you come to have a more measured view of failure and success?
SM: Definitely. After nine years here, I don't think any of my films were make or break because it's a constant process. If someone tells you after three or five years or 10 years that they loved one of my films or that they cried during Kapoor & Sons or that they loved my look in Ek Villain. That's the stuff that stays, that's really valuable for an actor.
The industry does make you feel like business is everything. Actors are obsessed with the business aspect of Bollywood. Numbers are thrown around on social media, but eventually, that's such a short-lived happiness. Ask any actor – I can assure you that the moment you hear the narration of a scene or story, that's something that gives you true happiness. I've matured and grown to love this character so much and given it a lot of heart purely because I knew I could only do it once. And, so far, the response that the trailer has gotten – that's the real victory. Because the film is releasing on streaming, it's not box-0ffice based, it's purely content-based. People will see it for what it is and not get distracted by numbers.