Perhaps the Indian Army would be well advised to keep recruitment booths outside theaters screening Major, such is the force of its conviction, its rousing, aspirational, thumping celebration of the soldier's sacrifice, of Major Sandeep Unnikrishnan's sacrifice, an army officer who was killed in the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks. It is a bulls-eye precise movie, cranking up emotions when the action tires and injecting a spray of bullets when emotions cloy. Adivi Sesh who wrote the film, also takes up this rose-tinted role — of a charming man with a charmed family (Revathi, Prakash Raj), who, in death, assumes the shape of a mythical beast, the glittering North of the collective Indian moral compass. And therein lies my hesitation, too.
It is certainly worrying that sometimes in cinema, we are not willing to distinguish a biography from a hagiography. Something about the tone of these films, the pitch of its love for its protagonist, the inability to frame their frailties as frailties but as funks, makes it feel like an obituary clogged with superlative adjectives, and like obituaries which don't age well, written in the blinding haze of adulation and mourning, such movies, too, feel like punctures of hope, bright flares that are prone to being dimmed out just as quickly.
These movies ask, of what use is critically examining a personality who gave so much? Of what use is critically examining an institution — the Army — that gave so much?
Let me be the heathen for a moment and do just that, because what the movie leaves behind, refuses to delve into, says as much about the film than what it chooses to depict. On 26/11, the police control room received their first call at 9:48 p.m. from Leopold Cafe. By 11:30 p.m. the Maharashtra Government had reached out to the National Security Guard, where Sandeep Unnikrashnan served. To cobble together the 200 odd commandos in the middle of the night required bringing them from their different locations to the base and making sure the commandos and the equipment could fly with the weight. It couldn't. By the time the logistics — including the planes — were sorted and the commandos were flown in to begin their operations at the Taj, it was 9 a.m. the following day.
But what to do with a film begins to feel less like a biopic and more of an offering?
This lag — which was heavily criticized due to the bureaucratic disorder, leading to the NSG setting up regional hubs in cities to reduce the reaction time — is only hinted at in the lighting of the film, when we see the nighttime carnage, when we see the daylight when the operations take place, and between the scenes we must assume the delay.
This is not a film that wants to ask how we could have saved more lives, but is content showing the lives saved — Sobhita Dhulipala, in a glam-black dress, representing the moisturized, grief-stricken faces of those the major saved. Frustration is not supposed to be felt towards the system but the enemy. It's a neat format, neither showing nor demanding your doubt. It yearns for a mythic status for its protagonist. Fair enough. Sandeep Unnikrishnan's parents were heavily involved in the making of the film, and which parent would be okay with inviting criticism of their dead child or their intentions?
But what to do with a film begins to feel less like a biopic and more of an offering? Take for instance the primal question of why does Sandeep feel this gushing urge of patriotism for our country. Where do we locate the seed of this pride? It is, according to the movie, the theatrics, the melodrama, the histrionic parade of power that he saw as a child during Navy Day, coupled with the desire to wear a crisp, respectable uniform. He fell under the spell of awe. That is, perhaps reason enough.
And just like the film does not make a distinction between passion and duty, it refuses to differentiate the Major's bravery from his saviour complex. (His last words, in the middle of a gun-fight was, "Don't come up, I'll handle it.") The last pose he strikes in this film is him slumped against a pillar, hand with a gun cocked resting on his folded knee. Even in death, his hand never goes limp. A man might die, but a myth folds itself over and over, reincarnating to a beacon of hope, but also a figure of disbelief.
The second half of the film, which takes place entirely inside the Taj, lacks a gritty, immersive cinematic tension. Even as the action scenes fly by in a fog of gunfire, even as the background score tries its best to produce stakes with its rhythmic gunshot sounds, there is no sickening unease or a kind of convulsive tension that Mumbai Diaries 26/11 and The Attacks of 26/11 produced. Almost as though the film wanted to be pleasant to watch even as it showed one of the most unpleasant hours in the history of this country. The tension it produces is entirely cosmetic. A bug — or perhaps feature — that even Goodachari, the director's previous film had, where its attempts at manufacturing tension in action scenes included vigorously shaking the camera. (Another striking parallel between the two movies includes a Prakash Raj father-figure who is reluctant to have his son, again played by Adivi Sesh, to work for the country.)
The sheer scale of Sandeep Unnikrishnan's life demands not just beauty and bombast, but truth, too. But like an impossible triad, Major chose beauty and bombast.
If you are sensing my reluctance to fall under the spell of the movie even as I am swept away by its emotional logic, you are right. Unlike Shershah where the acting was uniformly, excessively reliant on the easy beauty and perfume-like screen presence of its lead pair, here, the beauty is grounded by passion and a natural charm that cannot be performed, cannot be learned. Adivi and Saiee Manjrekar — even though she turns into a weepy wife in the second half for reasons that are unimportant to the film's larger purpose — and Sobhita's glamorous reaction shots cobble together a film that is as glossy as it is emotionally potent.
Even what feels like a hammered approach to establish his love for his mother (Revathi who weeps and screeches grief like no one else does) — like the shot of him lying on her lap — produces this extremely sharp stab of sadness up the nose when, towards the end, we see a faded image of Sandeep on his mother's lap, a replication of which we saw early on in. Submit. Submit. Submit, the movie yells at you as tears slip down. Here is a Malayali man who spent his growing years in Bangalore, his youth in a cantonment in Hyderabad, guns blazing in Kashmir, working in Haryana, and then, finally, shipped off to Mumbai where his life ended in a blaze of heroism. The sheer scale of his life demands not just beauty and bombast, but truth, too. But like an impossible triad, Major chose beauty and bombast, leaving the question of truth to baffle skeptical reviewers like me, scratching our heads out of the theater, deeply moved by the movie and just as deeply doubtful of its charm.