Director: Aditya Dhar
Cast: Vicky Kaushal, Yami Gautam, Paresh Rawal, Kirti Kulhari
For now, let’s pretend that Uri: The Surgical Strike – a war movie that ends with an image of a white-bearded Indian Prime Minister flashing a quiet victory grin – exists independently, without agenda. Let’s pretend that it is not based on true events that may or may not have happened, depending on where you live. Let’s pretend that it’s just a harmless coincidence that the other Hindi film this week – a legacy drama that ‘examines’ the emasculation of the opposition leader that preceded this one – is called The Accidental Prime Minister. Most of all, let’s pretend that these are the first two big releases of a year that accommodates the nation’s general elections.
I know this is a lot of pretending, but here’s what the makers will ask you: What is cinema if not the art of pretending? And what is politics if not the commerce of pretence?
Cinema, of course, is also about imagination. So let’s imagine Uri is a superhero-origin movie. The kind where one muscular man can single-handedly execute an improbable mission. Major Vihaan Shergill (Vicky Kaushal) is one – except he isn’t in a Baaghi 2 or Gadar, but in a (relatively) grounded action thriller with impressively shot combat sequences. Debutant director Aditya Dhar combines well with Neerja cinematographer Mitesh Mirchandani to Bollywood-ize the dim-lit shaky-cam trope; the last thirty minutes are a lesson in this style, complete with a punk-pop score, night-vision technique and dynamic spatial navigation.
The setup, for instance, supports the genre. Through a chaotic Manipuri-terrorist-camp onslaught, Vihaan is established as a star leader who prides himself on zero team casualties. His old mother, though, is in an advanced stage of Alzheimer’s disease. He requests a desk job in one of those sterile-looking Defense offices so that he can care for her. His sister is happily married and newly pregnant. As per movie custom, the sight of a happy family is a precursor to certain doom. On cue, Vihaan’s jovial brother-in-law, a fellow soldier, dies during the 2016 Uri attack. That is: Vihaan suffers a personal tragedy. His bosses, including Paresh Rawal as National Security Advisor Ajit Doval (but more as Paresh Rawal), put him in charge of India’s retaliation: a “Surgical Strike” in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir within ten days.
This is far from advisable – bereaved soldiers gunning for revenge are hardly considered mentally able to lead an elaborately planned military mission. Vihaan goes a step further and recruits commandos that are similarly bereaved; Kirti Kulhari plays a widowed Air Force pilot in search of redemption. The private and patriotic merge into one emotion; avenging her husband, for her, is no different from avenging her country.
Debutant director Aditya Dhar combines well with Neerja cinematographer Mitesh Mirchandani to Bollywood-ize the dim-lit shaky-cam trope; the last thirty minutes are a lesson in this style, complete with a punk-pop score, night-vision technique and dynamic spatial navigation.
This isn’t the first time the movies have exploited this psychology. In First Man, Damien Chazelle’s Neil Armstrong biopic, the NASA bosses see a something extra in the astronaut precisely because he has endured a personal tragedy. They harness his grief and resilience to advance the interests of the country. A haunted Armstrong, on his part, uses the moon landing – and the foolproof air of patriotism – to achieve closure for himself. Everyone gains from this arrangement, but not once does the film pretend that Armstrong is doing it for America. He is driven by personal history, even as his organization is driven by human history. Kaushal is a fine actor with a penchant for expressive silences (the hallmark of army men); you can sense, but not hear, the nationalism in his character. In an excellently performed scene, Vihaan, in uniform, while delivering full honours, breaks down internally during his brother-in-law’s military funeral. This moment made a part of me want to intellectualize his personality: Perhaps he, too, is using his profession to achieve the only kind of closure he knows. Maybe his patriotism (“The new India has no qualms entering, and defeating, an enemy country” – now imagine this in Ravi Shastri’s voice) is a front for a more intimate mission. Or maybe, like the protagonist of a Kathryn Bigelow film, he goes on a rampage only to realize the mental cost of war.
Unfortunately, these are only scenarios that could have been. The director knows his craft. It’s his politics that dilute the language of Uri’s storytelling. Even though his protagonist (and lead actor) suggests a level of mental complexity, his narrative refuses to oblige. The system, the government, is revealed as a smooth entity from a flashy heist movie (at one point, Paresh Rawal hires a hoodie-wearing tech intern as a genius bird-drone supplier) rather than background noise; they are hell-bent on proving that this cannot be Vihaan’s story alone. He is no pawn; they are no puppeteers. Unlike an Argo, patriotism for Vihaan is a magical cure, and not an inevitable consequence. He isn’t offered the bandwidth of being a ponderous hero – at all stages, the tense control room (manifested in the form of the token female agent, Yami Gautam) and pensive politicians are shown to be an integral part of the plan. Not to mention the obvious caricaturing of the other side: Rakesh Bedi appears as an Indian mole in the Pakistani system who suffers from chronic acidity, while another ISI chief is lecherous and hopelessly vulnerable to female attention.
Then there’s the very Indian symbolism. The two family members Vihaan sets out to avenge are women: the gender of his country. The Alzheimer’s acquires context: His real mother might forget him, so he sets about ensuring that nobody forgets his Bharat Mata. He loudly reminds the PoK terrorists, even as he is butchering them, of their mistake of killing his Uri brothers. He didn’t need to; Kaushal’s expressive silence could have spoken volumes. His super-heroic resolve is intercut with important faces in Delhi [“hum jeet gaye” (we won) is the exquisitely worded cry], lest we forget that the Surgical Strike happened exactly within the hierarchical scheme of order. His final reaction – that of generic army cheer – further solidifies the film’s obsession with firm statement rather than character-driven introspection. Eventually, the nation steals – and becomes – his story.
All of which goes to show that there is no such thing as a “well-made propaganda” film. Trying to judge a ‘movie on craft alone’ is like judging an athlete solely on talent and not mental fortitude. Or a social-message drama bereft of its social commentary. You cannot disregard a film’s intent just because it is a visual medium. A viewer’s political views have nothing to do with a film’s positioning; the stance, however problematic, is useless if the narrative is altered to accommodate it rather than vice versa. Uri, in fact, becomes a cautionary tale of how even an original filmmaking voice can mean little if confined to a time of strategic jingoism. All its hero had to do was pretend. All its director had to do was imagine…harder.