Director: Abhishek Sharma
Cast: John Abraham, Diana Penty, Boman Irani, Vikas Kumar, Aditya Hitkari, Yogendra Tiku, Darshan Pandya
Parmanu: The Story of Pokhran is a clever film, but not always a good one. It is an astoundingly simplified version – sometimes impressively, sometimes patronizingly – of a very complicated historical event. One could go as far to call it a dumb movie about intelligent people. I can’t entirely blame the makers for this. The writers – Saiwyn Quadras and Sanyukta Shaikh Chawla who wrote Neerja, and director Abhishek Sharma (Tere Bin Laden) – did what they had to. They adapted, fictionalized and dramatized the heck out of India’s Pokhran Nuclear Test chapter. In fact, that might just be the problem. It’s hard to make something as political and technical as a country’s nuclear ambitions look engaging without compromising on its inherent gravity. It’s even harder to pass it off as an edge-of-the-seat integrity thriller. ‘Creative license’ is bound to be the film’s most omnipresent character.
In a bid to overcompensate for the nature of the source material – there are no heists, hostages or life-or-death situations as such – they seem to have chosen a genre that services accessibility over durability. I mean, how else do you make engineers and scientists look smarter than they are? You cast Diana Penty alongside them of course, as a reputed intelligence bureau officer. To put things into perspective, the late Dr. Abdul Kalam led this remarkable project in 1998; Parmanu has John Abraham doing the same. It’s a little like Argo, except this film has Ben Affleck playing Tony Stark instead.
It’s hard to make something as political and technical as a country’s nuclear ambitions look engaging without compromising on its inherent gravity
The narrative is not unfamiliar: a disgraced engineer responsible for a failed nuclear mission is handed another chance, assembles an all-star team (a secular one, mind you) as if they were robbing a desert casino, and sets about executing a covert operation in which an American spy satellite is the biggest villain. The hero’s language is patriotism. To make it doubly relevant, the broader ‘human’ narrative is that of an affable loner (India) finally learning to stand up to its big bully (USA). But it is mostly about IAS officer Ashwath Raina (Abraham, also the producer) rising from the ashes of his past to make his country and wife proud.
There is a nice little moment in which Boman Irani, who plays the Principal Secretary to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, makes Ashwath chalk his idea out on a blackboard after three years of self-imposed exile. “Clean the slate,” he declares, after hiring Ashwath to run the new mission. This is why Parmanu, for most part, makes for a strange viewing experience. Seconds later, we see him conceptualize his team through a Mahabharata brainwave – going as far to codename these members after the five Pandavas. Given they must blend into the Rajasthani town as soldiers without inviting too much attention to their presence, mythology might be the most tone-deaf ruse possible in a border-sensitive region.
Penty, unsurprisingly, is Nakul, and at one point unwittingly forms a sub-premise that has Krishna’s wife accusing him of an affair. This might have seemed cheeky on paper, but it’s almost as if the writers willingly dilute their vision when it runs the risk of getting too self-aware.
The most watchable portions are the ones in which action – and manufactured tension – takes precedence over dialogue. The plan itself is surprisingly watchable, especially when the team is in a race against time to prepare the bombs during the satellite’s hour-long ‘blind spots’. The pressure hooks – a sand storm, a Pakistani spy, a faulty generator, a clear night sky, an Argo-ish fax machine, the shameless riff on the Interstellar docking-scene soundtrack – are valiant attempts to keep us invested. Some of this physicality lands, but the running time of more than two hours somewhat renders the desperately Hans-Zimmer-ish ‘pace’ futile. It’s almost corny to see the satellite rotating in space every few seconds, but the director fully commits to the scale of his set piece.
John Abraham delivers his nationalistic monologues with the air of a man who is narrating history instead of creating it
But then the characters speak. Lines like “we need to show the world our power” and something to the tune of “dushman (enemy)” and “neend (sleep)” pepper their distinctly unscientific interactions. Abraham delivers his nationalistic monologues with the air of a man who is narrating history instead of creating it; there is always a sense that he knows how their mission will impact the world even before it does. The Americans look and sound as if Sikander Kher were reprising his outrageous role from the Tere Bin Laden sequel. Ashwath’s 6-year-old son doesn’t grow an inch during the three years they spend in Mussoorie engulfed by his father’s emasculated gloom. This might come across as nitpicking, but in a film that is so eager to prove its worth as a film, such obvious lapses in detail make all the difference.
I’m aware that Hindi cinema is, more often than not, inclined to employ commercial devices to entertain a wider audience. I’m quite certain that the scene in which an undercover CIA agent exclaims, “I love teekha,” while chewing on a spoonful of chaat is a veiled tribute to the global relevance of this ‘masala’ brand of filmmaking. It occurs moments after he manages to secure a vital piece of information from one of the naïve team members. Parmanu, however, is perfectly encapsulated by the very next scene – the poor foreigner is seen stumbling out of his hotel toilet. Irrespective of how productive he has been, some excesses are destined to resist cultural conditioning. The spice is enjoyable, but the stomach needs to be willing.