Director: Vishnu Varadhan
Writer: Sandeep Shrivastava
Cast: Sidharth Malhotra, Kiara Advani, Shiv Panditt, Nikitin Dheer
Cinematographer: Kamaljeet Negi
Editor: A. Sreekar Prasad
Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video
Seconds after Neeraj Chopra won the Javelin gold at the Olympics, inevitable jokes about his "upcoming biopic" flooded the web. Naturally, most of them revolved around actor Akshay Kumar – not least because the gold medalist is a Subedar in the Indian army. But one particular Facebook post broke through the clutter and went viral. The post reads like a biopic meme generator, hitting every beat of the athlete's journey with generic Bollywood precision. It opens with Chopra's throwing arm being identified during an innocuous cricket match ("Oye chottu ball dena!"). Subsequent scenes feature armyman Chopra (Kumar) asking love interest Kiara Advani to wait for him while he focuses on his sport, and even a patriotic Chopra choosing to fight a war against Pakistan ("nothing is more important than defending the country") before overcoming a career-ending injury to defeat an evil German at the Olympics.
This 'screenplay'– ostensibly written by a regular sports and movie buff – might have been hilarious if it wasn't so depressingly accurate. It speaks volumes about the industrial conveyor-belt nature of the average Indian biopic, most of which is evident in Shershaah, a dramatization of the life and career of Kargil war hero Vikram Batra. For the record, a young Batra's bravery is identified during a childhood cricket match ("I will take what is mine"), a college-going Batra asks love interest Kiara Advani to wait for him while he focuses on his nation, and a patriotic Captain Batra fights a war against Pakistan ("no religion is bigger than the country") before overcoming all odds to defeat the evil enemy. Shershaah is essentially the viral Facebook post without the javelin parts. The only difference is it's no parody.
The biographical film – starring Sidharth Malhotra in a role way beyond his depth – lacks all sorts of vision, voice and originality. No scene is allowed to exist in isolation; there is no sense of emotional continuity. Worse, there is no intellectual curiosity about the man himself. The makers reduce him to a reckless wind-up doll; we get zero insight into his personality, other than that he was a charismatic rule-breaker unafraid of death. The filmmaking is as lethargic as the writing. For instance, the late Vikram Batra's entire journey is being narrated by his twin brother, Vishal, at a Ted-talk-style event (as a powerpoint presentation). But we don't see Vishal even once during Vikram's college years and blossoming romance. We see the other siblings, but Vishal's absence is conveniently attributed to his studies in Shimla. The makers would like us to believe that Vishal's face is a big reveal on stage in the end. (I'm not sure why; we already see identical twins in the cricket match). But it seems more likely that the film isn't ambitious enough to support the technical complexities of a double role. Ditto for the scene where little Vikram sees the Doordarshan TV series Param vir Chakra and declares his military calling. It's just there as a flimsy anecdote; there's no real interest in exploring why a son of two teachers thinks the way he does.
The derivative tone of Shershaah overwhelms the real-life story. The pre-army portions – featuring Vikram and his floppy-haired slacking – resemble those of Lakshya, as do the climactic mountain warfare sequences. The chaotic action has the simplistic anatomy of video-game levels. The final act feels like a messy blur. There is no sense of time passing, no accumulation of occasion; one mission simply follows the other, and the media bytes and phone calls and celebrations look like they're happening across one long and unending day. A pre-interval set piece featuring a Bin-Laden-esque villain hiding in a three-storied house looks straight out of Zero Dark Thirty. The moment a sincere junior officer confides in Vikram about his newborn daughter, you know the character is going to die. The unimaginative trope of Lieutenant Vikram being the excitable cub in Kashmir – charming the locals, pissing off his bosses before winning their respect – is rinsed and repeated several times over. The purpose is to rationalize the rage of Vikram when he loses a colleague, but he comes across as little more than an unhinged Sunny-Deol-styled hero who had no business passing the psychological exams.
Worse, there is no intellectual curiosity about the man himself. The makers reduce him to a reckless wind-up doll; we get zero insight into his personality, other than that he was a charismatic rule-breaker unafraid of death.
The performances are questionable at best. The best actor of the lot, Raj Arjun, better known as the father from hell in Secret Superstar, is reduced to a monosyllabic sidekick. The seniors in the army are solidly cast, but none of them are afforded enough impact to justify the end-credits reel of their real-life counterparts. Malhotra and Advani (who plays a Sikh girl) speak terrible Punjabi – with a jarring Hindi twang – in the early Chandigarh parts. At one point, during a tearful goodbye at a bus stop, the film morphs into a Mohit Suri romance, with an Arijit-style ballad suddenly scoring the image of Vikram smearing his blood across her forehead as vermillion. But the bigger problem is the way Malhotra plays Vikram as an officer. Many younger actors seem to have grown up in awe of Shah Rukh Khan's trademark eye-acting. That's fine, but Malhotra overdoes it to an extent where Vikram gaining the admiration of his bosses starts to look like Raj winning over Simran's family members in Punjab. Even a crucial scene – where a fatally wounded Vikram looks at the national flag – assumes the visual language of a dying Devdas watching Paro sprint towards the closing gates of her mansion.
Then there's the elephant in the room. In the current climate, it's tricky to make a physical war movie that understands the difference between patriotism and hyper-nationalism. Vikram Batra's love for his country can't be stereotypically loud, yet it can't afford to be too subtle. A scene towards the end addresses the balance. Before the final mission, he inspires his team with familiar words – "I don't need to give you a rousing speech about deshbhakti…" – on the lines of a wise father explaining patriotism to his daughter in Gunjan Saxena. Suffice to say this is a conscious pattern, because the studio behind both films is the same. But this worked in Gunjan Saxena because the protagonist was a young girl at odds with the hyper-masculinity of her surroundings. In Shershaah, the line sounds reactionary and planted, as though the scene were being woke for the sake of defying cultural discourse. It's a fleeting moment, but it says something about the chest-beating rhetoric of commercial Hindi cinema that even the more level-headed films now treat their politics as more of an external recipe than an internal flavour. After all, going viral is a barometer of success for Facebook posts as well as the tired movies that inspire them.