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
If Captain Vikram Batra had been invented by a Bollywood writer, we might have dismissed him as too good to be true. He was a man of uncommon valour who died at the age of 24 in combat and was posthumously awarded the Param Vir Chakra. A man so unabashedly filmy that when his girlfriend Dimple Cheema brought up marriage, he simply cut his thumb and put blood in the parting of her hair, anointing her his bride. A man who was described by those who knew him as a 'yaaron ka yaar.' A man who immortalized a cola slogan by making it his victory catchphrase – Yeh Dil Maange More. This was a life made for the movies.
So why isn't Shershaah more rousing, more potent, more gutting? Perhaps because director Vishnu Varadhan and writer Sandeep Shrivastava choose to recount Batra's life – snatches of childhood, his college romance, his first stint as a newbie lieutenant in Sopore – instead of his finest hour – the Kargil war in 1999. The screenplay is set up as a Ted-style talk that Vikram's identical twin brother Vishal is delivering. The film then flashes back to the stubborn courage that Vikram displayed even as a young boy. There are flashbacks within flashbacks as Vikram recounts his love story. Vishal's voice comes in occasionally for exposition. The entire first hour is a build-up to Kargil.
This clunky structure doesn't allow the film to accrue tension or exert a grip. It doesn't help that the romance between Vikram and Dimple, played by Kiara Advani, is rendered in a generic way. This was a bond so intense that after Vikram's death, Dimple chose not to marry. But it is portrayed here in the standard Bollywood fashion with the two exchanging flirtatious banter in Punjabi-inflected Hindi that comes and goes and giving each other swoony looks as 'Raataan Lambiyan' by Tanishk Bagchi plays in the background. One scene in which Dimple rebels against her father, refusing to marry anyone but Vikram, gives the character a burst of life but we have little insight into either what makes her tick or the depth of this relationship.
The film comes to life in the second hour once the battle begins. The Kargil War took place at an altitude of 17,000 feet. The Shershaah crew didn't make it to those heights but much of the film is shot on location and the rigorous work shows in the combat sequences. Vishnu and DOP Kamaljeet Negi use handheld cameras to give us a sense of the chaos of war, the swirling dust and explosives, blood and broken bodies and despite the horror, that sense of purpose and adrenalin that enabled ordinary men to be heroes.
This could have been an opportunity for shrill chest-thumping and Pakistan bashing but mercifully, Vishnu and Sandeep offer a more restrained patriotism. Of course, the enemy soldiers are simply cannon fodder. There is a close-up of the Pakistani flag lying on the ground as Indian soldiers leap over it. The screenplay also makes place for Vikram to deliver a whistle-worthy dialogue before shooting a soldier to death but naked aggression and villainizing is avoided. The film also attempts to show the plight of the Kashmiri people, caught between the army – represented by a few good men – and the militants who are brutal and murderous. Which is of course an overly simplistic take on a complex geopolitical tragedy that continues to unfold. The intentions are laudable but it feels tokenistic because the writing isn't detailed enough.
What's also missing is a sense of the larger picture. The Kargil War was India's first televised battle. It brought the terror of combat into our homes – I still remember watching Barkha Dutt bravely giving us news from the front lines while explosives landed behind her. But the film doesn't zoom out and offer context on the politics of the time, which weakens the impact.
The screenplay is designed to consistently reconfirm Vikram as a braveheart who doesn't have a cautious bone in his body. The other soldiers often remark on his unstinting courage and even actively dissuade him from taking the risks that he does. Vikram's commanding officer wonders why his brother didn't also join the army because then there would have been "two daredevil Batra brothers serving the country." Key moments from Vikram's life are repeated at the end, almost as if the makers don't trust the viewers to remember that Vikram was a hero. The beats are so obvious that when a soldier longingly looks at the photo of his six-month-old daughter and talks about holding her for the first time, you know that he's going to die.
To get a sense of the pathos of men killing each other and the sacrifices that they and their families make, find a song called 'Hoke Majboor Mujhe Usne Bhulaya Hoga' from Haqeeqat, released in 1964 and arguably the best war film made in this country. A group of fatigued soldiers sing about their loved ones – their faces haunted by what they have endured. It's superb.
Interestingly, Shershaah also features a scene in which we see the cost of war – the soldiers sit, weeping for a fallen comrade. And Vikram declares through his tears: Yeh war badi kutti cheez hai yaar. Which is a sobering and necessary counterpoint. Vishnu also nails the battle for Point 4875 in which Vikram lost his life. The lengthy action sequence is staged and edited by A. Sreekar Prasad with palpable tension. When Vikram finally falls, you feel the blow. And Sidharth Malhotra playing Vikram summons the right emotions and expressions for the moment. Sidharth doesn't have the actorly heft yet to match what Vicky Kaushal did in Uri but he pulls off this role with a combination of sincerity and charm. There is an easy amiability about him which offsets the bloodshed around him. I also enjoyed Shiv Panditt's performance as Jimmy and Raj Arjun as Raghunath – both part of Vikram's battalion.
Ultimately, Shershaah plays it too safe. The film doesn't have the daring of its subject. But Vikram Batra's story is so stirring that it rises above this. When Shershaah ends with footage of the real Vikram laughing and talking about battle, you inevitably get goose flesh.
You can watch Shershaah on Amazon Prime Video.