Videep (Amit Sadh), from the Para (Special Forces), plotting a military attack, is deep in the throes of a Google-search, smirking, noting latitude and longitude coordinates on the board. He’s feeling hot, so now he removes his shirt, and the camera stares for a bit at his sculpted abs. It isn’t enough to cheer blindly for the military, we must also wag our lusting tongues. He’s the hero of this 9-part series, recreating the impetus for and the operation of the surgical strike that took place in September 2016 in Uri. (The strike itself is of a nebulous nature, with Pakistani and Indian sources giving different versions of the same tale.) Videep, introduced only at the end of the fourth episode, curates his dream-team, and off they set across the border to wreak havoc on Pakistan. His hero-hood comes across as arrogance, and his stiffness as indifference, though we are spared a rousing “How’s the Josh?” refrain.
When it is the military, the show embraces hyperbole, when it is the people under the military rule, it’s a depiction. There’s no scope for the question of what does it feel like to live in the most densely militarized zone.
It all starts with the Pakistani ambush on an Indian military base in Uri, killing 19 of our soldiers. It was a cowardly attack, demanding condemnation. The first two episodes build up to this moment, creating friendships and backstories that would make the loss of life more human, and less statistical. The reaction to this attack is retribution. Avrodh, based on India’s Most Fearless, a book by Shiv Aroor and Rahul Singh, is a rationalization of this retribution. The language chooses violence as the only inevitable solution, and those who oppose it are characterized as limp-minded annoyances. Here, human life is a commodity, willingly sacrificed at the altar of the Nation (an idea), and retribution involves sending Indians (flesh-and-blood humans), across the border at harm’s way to throw grenades and bludgeon the enemy.
So to make this act, of deliberately putting human lives at risk, you make the enemy seem absolutely sinister. Here, he is Abu Hafez (Anil George), with his rosary and ill-intentions, sending young children strapped with bomb vests, promising them heaven-with-a-capital-h. In one scene he asks one of the new recruits to gun down his own mother who is standing between him and shahadat. A brute who must be brought down.
Then there is the media. The only journalist with apparent gumption, Namrata Joshi’s (Madhurima Tuli) spine becomes a hindrance. Her arc through this series shows how one of the pillars of democracy, the media, must be made into a caricature in order to justify the violence. This is a spoiler of sorts, but towards the end, at her book launch praising paeans towards the military, there’s a bit of an ironic moment when she foregrounds The Ministry Of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy, a book that delved into the military excesses- sexual and otherwise, on people in Kashmir and Dantewada. (There is no mention, even cursorily, of military violence on civilian life in this series other than a passing remark on the Amnesty Human Rights Report.) It’s a delicious irony I don’t think the makers intended, but at least there is some counter to the brazen propaganda, even if it is in the form of a blurry background. Also, the ending is a clear vindication of the government position that the media is a nuisance and must toe the line for both their and the country’s progress.
In the very beginning, we see a military ambush and we are shown women, walking dogs or just minding their work at home. The storm of boots makes them run back and close doors as the army men point guns at them, telling them to take shelter for a shootout is imminent; this kind of life is routine, and is depicted well, though of course there is no moralizing here. When it is the military, the show embraces hyperbole, when it is the people under the military rule, it’s a depiction. There’s no scope for the question of what does it feel like to live in the most densely militarized zone.
Aesthetically, the series is gorgeously produced (on the heels of SonyLIV’s other show Undekhi also set in the mountains), the landscapes are believably haunted by decades of warfare, the tension is tight, and it is not entirely unbelievable that people would want to root for striking dead the enemy, seeing how they proliferate and agonize. (Abu Hafez intends to not just take control over Kashmir but Rajasthan and even Gujarat, and so this strike is given a veneer of immediacy.)
I loved the fact that one of the conversations that happen between top officials of the cabinet in Delhi, is backgrounded by Manipuri dancers; this dance form has rarely, if ever, been represented in Hindi cinema, and I hope we get to see more of its fluid grace. (It’s also a nice touch given they are discussing military matters, while enjoying art from the state that is under the bloody talons of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. Again, unlikely that this was intended)
Veterans like Neeraj Kabi, Ananth Narayan Mahadevan, and Vikram Gokhle are reduced to caricatures of Indian politicians, Gokhle playing the Prime Minister (who in one scene effectively articulates that the Uri surgical strike is not about consequence but optics, to show the world where the muscle is; at least he’s being honest about how much he values human life.)
Now while largely engaging, and adequately framed, the problem with propaganda art like Avrodh, is that it never moves the needle, only solidifies pre-existing convictions, rendering everything else a caricature. Like Meena Kandasamy wrote in her recent article about the LTTE in the White Review, “When people are punished for their beliefs, it only ends up reinforcing them.” India has produced a generation of young people in Kashmir growing up to hate the nation that strips them off dignity and the internet in a finger-snap. What does this show mean for them, one might ask? Not that they have the 4G to see it, anyway.