At least video games let you skip the cut-scenes. That's a luxury Aditya Dhar's debut feature, Uri: The Surgical Strike, doesn't allow.
Certainly, the film boasts some admirable action in the opening, middle and closing sequences: the explosions and muzzle flashes look real, the sounds of shelling and recoil pierce the eardrum, and the sight of Indian commandos flicking on their night-visions in a dense, dark forest — like the ember-eyed ghosts from Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives — is oddly becalming. How I wish this military shooter of a film was all action, all the time.
Sadly, it's not. And you must sit through long stretches of grim exposition before getting down to the cool hacking-and-slashing (I play up the film’s violence only because it seems to be the centerpiece here, everything else being as predictable and manipulative as the many chest-out war weepies we’ve endured through the years).
This is a film based on the 2016 Uri attacks in Jammu and Kashmir, where 19 Indian soldiers were killed in a pre-dawn ambush by Pakistani militants from across the LOC. It’s also a film, as claimed in the opening disclaimer and later through dialogue, about 'a new India'. I wonder what exactly is implied by this delicate phrasing: is this a film about the new government, which shies not from military retaliation against the neighbouring state? Is it a film about the new youth — represented by the relative young-ness of the leading cast — and how valiantly they deploy themselves in service of the nation? Or is it a film (if you spare me a more oblique reading) about new Indian cinema, wherein artistry, budget and sophistication can not only co-exist with blatant propaganda but also serve it better?
The political co-ordinates of Uri: The Surgical Strike need no encoding. There’s an actor famous for playing a Bengali sleuth on TV now playing the Prime Minister. There’s Paresh Rawal pulling an Ajit Doval impersonation (the actor looks constantly distressed, worrisome almost, as though tipped off about Vivek Oberoi sweeping his Modi biopic). There are other hilariously cast actors portraying various cabinet ministers, while the main heroism and rabble-rousing is shouldered upon Vicky Kaushal — a rising mainstream star endowed with a menacing brawn and dropped off into Sunny Deol territory.
Vicky’s character, major Vihaan Singh Shergill, is the kind of soldier who values the ‘element of surprise’. In one of the opening sequences, which takes place along the Indo-Myanmar border in 2015, he calls attack on terror cells in the cover of the night, despite being outnumbered, instead of waiting around for morning reinforcement. We see his troops communicate via sign language and spread into formations — some assault, some recon — while Shergill takes charge out front.
It all seems well-researched and military-like, when suddenly Shergill is knocked out in an oncoming grenade attack. Dazed, he gets up from the ground, leaves his rifle behind, and performs a melee attack on a lone militant, beating him bloody with his bare hands. The whole scene goes against the established tone of tactical efficiency, and exists solely to foreground the machismo and fury of the lead character, as he finishes off the combatant and walks off in a blaze of smoke and fire.
That’s the film for you, decking up frippery in pretend realism, hoping for a sell. After the North-eastern skirmish, Shergill takes up a desk job in the Delhi base to stay closer to his mother, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s. There’s an entire Ranbir Kapoor-suited-‘follow-your-heart’ sequence where Vicky is shown getting bored in his new profile, loitering around coffee machines and unwrapping cold sandwich, waiting for something terrible to happen to get back into action.
Meanwhile, Yami Gautam appears as a “good” intelligence officer who is also a “bad” undercover nurse (she insists the two skill-sets are different) and Kirti Kulhari plays a suspended air force pilot with an undercooked backstory. Despite Vicky’s boots-on –the-ground ruggedness, the show is mostly stolen by feature film debutant Mohit Raina, who brings an easy charm to a brief but memorable part.
This two-hour-plus film, like I said, takes too long to get down to business. The titular surgical strike is shot impressively with an attentive shifting of scale — from sneaky stealth manoeuvres to large-canvas gun battles — but there's always a convenient clipping of logic.
The climactic boss fight drags on well beyond the stated escape time of two minutes, and bullets from an enemy chopper magically miss the fleeing soldiers (Of course, this can be pinned on the Pakistani army's sheer incompetence, and that's pretty much the feeling the screenwriters want you to run with, but I wish the stakes were slightly higher).
Uri: The Surgical Strike plays out in the precarious sub-genre of the 'well-made' propaganda. The ambitious production design and consistent visual flair come scarily close to masking out the timely histrionics. The film is well-executed, if not well-intended. In 2019 it’s either this or the unbearable tackiness of certain other offerings. It’s time to make a pick, new India.
Director: Aditya Dhar
Cast: Vicky Kaushal, Paresh Rawal, Yami Gautam, Mohit Raina