Director: Abhishek Sharma
Cast: John Abraham, Diana Penty, Boman Irani, Vikas Kumar, Aditya Hitkari, Yogendra Tiku, Darshan Pandya
In May 1998, India conducted nuclear tests in Pokhran. Incredibly, the elaborate preparation for the tests went undetected by the CIA and the successful detonation of the bombs established India as a full-fledged nuclear power. Parmanu: The Story of Pokhran is a fictionalized retelling of this fascinating story.
It’s a difficult and ambitious subject. Everyone knows the ending so the suspense has to be in the telling. The beginning is bumpy. Firstly, it’s hard to get used to John Abraham with a thick moustache playing Ashwath Raina, an IAS officer in research and strategy. In a clumsy opening sequence, we see him trying to convince lazy bureaucrats why India needs homegrown nuclear weapons. He says: We need to show the world our power. I braced myself for an amateurish, chest-thumping movie.
Thankfully, director Abhishek Sharma and his co-writers Saiwyn Quadras and Sanyukta Shaikh Chawla don’t let that happen. After this tepid start, they shift gears and Parmanu becomes a suspense thriller about men on a mission. A new prime minister – Atal Bihari Vajpayee – takes charge. And with him comes a forceful secretary – Boman Irani playing Himanshu Shukla – a stand-in for the late principal secretary Brajesh Mishra. Ashwath is summoned back to Delhi. A crack team is assembled and eventually India achieves its nuclear technology goals.
What works here is the detailed rendering of what these men were against – the first hurdle was the CIA and American satellites that kept a track of all activity. Then there were American and Pakistani spies, the shortage of time, political shenanigans that threatened to topple Vajpayee’s government and the sheer enormity of the task. The narrative pauses as a character explains how satellites work and why they are such a hindrance. It’s pure exposition but it’s important so that the audience stays on the same page as the characters. The film eventually works itself up to an Argo-like climax in which each second becomes critical and even though we know what happened, we are gripped by it.
But Parmanu could have been a tighter film. What is less effective is the attempt at injecting local Rajasthani flavor through music, Ashwath’s family drama and the character of Diana Penty. She is an intelligence officer who gets to say lines like – The eagle has landed. It’s very hard to believe that with her perfectly styled hair and make-up, her character has spent any time in the sand and sun. The writers also don’t flesh out the other members of the team. Some are given cursory defining traits. So one is forgetful and the other suffers from vertigo but none are sharply etched. Of course, they are from different states so you get the great Indian cultural mosaic. Boman Irani has more heft but he plays Himanshu with a determined smirk.
The hardest working man here is John, who is lead and the co-producer. He takes himself out of the comfort zone of the usual bone-crunching action movies that we see him in. It’s nice that Ashwath isn’t scripted as a superman. Instead in the early scenes, we see him as a failure. He is vulnerable. John plays him with a stoic sincerity. Despite the limited expressions, there is an honesty and a believability about him.
Sharma unashamedly plays the patriotic card. Without apology, he yanks our heartstrings and evokes a rush of pride when the bombs finally explode. Larger questions about megaton killing machines go unasked. Parmanu is so simplified that it could have been called Pokhran for dummies. You might question the authenticity and plausibility of what you see onscreen but it delivers on drama.