Director: Aditya Dhar
Cast: Vicky Kaushal, Yami Gautam, Paresh Rawal, Kirti Kulhari
Uri: The Surgical Strike is an unabashed love letter to the Indian army. If you want nuance or insight into the hearts and minds of brave men and women who willingly put themselves in the line of fire, you won’t find it here. Writer-director Aditya Dhar positions soldiers as superheroes who might grieve but they never doubt or question their place in an increasingly complicated and polarized world. Unlike Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, which clearly was an inspiration, there is no room here for moral ambiguity. In Uri, we get men on a mission. They are propelled by patriotic fervour and aided by fulsome background music. So when Special Forces para commando Major Vihaan Shergill asks, “How’s the josh?” the answer, for both his team and us viewers, has to be: High.
Uri is based on the Indian Army’s 2016 surgical strikes on terror launch pads in Pakistan. The strikes were a retaliation for the Uri attacks, in which 19 army personnel were killed, some while they were sleeping. This is a fictionalized version of the events. Aditya wants to push our emotional and desh bhakti buttons forcefully. So Vihaan can’t just be doing his job when he goes on this mission. He also has to be avenging a family tragedy. It’s personal. And when Vihaan says that he wants to get off the field to spend more time with his mother who is suffering from Alzheimer’s, the prime minister himself reminds Vihaan that desh bhi toh maa hai. Rajit Kapur plays, with little flair I should add, PM Narendra Modi. The PM seems to be around only to ask a few questions and give reaction shots. The real hero is Govind Sir played by Paresh Rawal, who is modelled on National Security Advisor Ajit Doval. Govind Sir forcefully declares that India is now a ‘Naya Hindustan’, ye ghar main ghusega bhi aur marega bhi.
The film alternates between fact and fiction, between gritty re-creations of combat and Top Gun-style, slow-motion shots of soldiers getting out of helicopters. For the first half, Aditya manages this tight-rope walk efficiently, aided by the strong work of DOP Mitesh Mirchandani. The story-telling has scale and the narrative beats are predictable but satisfying. The terrorist strike in Uri is choreographed with precision – you feel thrown into the middle of a battle. There is pulse-quickening suspense and shock. Vicky Kaushal also makes for a terrific army man. He’s physically much larger here and exudes the strength that the character requires but he also has the necessary vulnerability. Watch as he weeps quietly at a funeral – his uniform is crisp and his spine, straight but his cheeks are soaked. The women – Kirti Kulhari and Yami Gautam – are saddled with inconsequential characters but Mohit Raina, who also plays a para-commando, is solid.
Ultimately though, this dance between realistic terrorist drama and rousing action thriller proves to be too much. The film, as the makers tell us, is based on facts which are in the public domain. I don’t know how much of what we see actually happened but a lot seems suspiciously simplistic – an intern at the Defence Research and Development Organization plays a key role in the operation, no one on the Pakistan side can shoot straight and incredibly, at a crucial juncture, a character swoops down to the rescue. The climax is straight out of Zero Dark Thirty with soldiers in night goggles systematically going from one room to the next. But here too, Aditya can’t resist a bit of straight-up, old fashioned herogiri and Vihaan must get into hand-to-hand combat.
The film is divided into chapters. As we move toward the climax, the action cuts between key locations like the operations room, interrogation center, meeting rooms in Pakistan. We also get a countdown. All of which is designed to create a sense of urgency but by this time, the narrative has lost its grip. I think a shorter running time would have served the story better.