There are so many skillful elements to Aditya Dhar’s Uri – The Surgical Strike that it makes you wish the filmmaking wasn’t catering to a certain political ideology during some of the film’s most crucial moments.
Set out to be a ‘tribute’ to the bravery of the armed forces, the film reaches its peak during a funeral service at Delhi’s Amar Jawan Jyoti. The daughter of a slain soldier salutes the coffin, and breaks into an impromptu war cry, which is then echoed by the surviving members of her late father’s battalion. Including the little girl’s uncle (Vicky Kaushal). The war cry is referenced earlier, under less tragic circumstances, and this feels like a pure ‘Hindi film’ callback that works splendidly, in spite of the visible manipulation. The audience nearly buys into the director’s ‘tribute’, until the scene cuts to a PM Modi lookalike (Rajit Kapur) even before we’re allowed to be fully engulfed by the moment.
And suddenly all that ‘pride’ is punctured by doubt. The lookalikes of PM Narendra Modi, Rajnath Singh (Union Home Minister), Manohar Parrikar (former Defence Minister) and Ajit Doval (National Security Advisor) collectively brainstorm in a situation room about how they should respond to an intruders’ attack in Uri. Paresh Rawal, playing the Doval lookalike, carefully enunciates the word ‘surgical strike’ with the concentration of a toddler.
In a film bereft of any memorable character, or arcs, and populated with faceless enemies, the only thing that has character is how the words ‘surgical strike’ are said over the course of the film. It’s first said in a hushed manner, as if it is the secret ingredient for Po’s chicken noodle soup. It’s later said with pride, like it is an invention of the ruling party. There’s no proof of that. This is exactly the point when this ‘tribute’ to the brave martyrs killed in Uri, begins to fizzle out.
By now, we have more than a few reasons to denounce this film as shameless propaganda. But can one overlook the new-age sensibility that Dhar brings to the Bollywood war film? Or his ability to shoot the war scenes with the sleekness of the Counter Strike game? Plenty of effort and time has been spent in getting the detailing right for an actor’s body language during the combat scenes and how they wield weapons.
Uri – The Surgical Strike is a stunning film to look at. That, coupled with Biswadeep Chatterjee’s sound mix comprising the raining heavy artillery, the ricochet bullets, the broken bones during the hand-to-hand confrontations – helps transport us behind enemy lines. Shashwat Sachdev’s heavy-metal score mirrors the pure rage in these soldiers while enduring the inhumanity of war, giving us a glimpse of the naya bharat that Paresh Rawal’s character talks about at one point.
But, also how does one interpret a casual reference to the 72 virgins (edited out of the final film), in a world that is more Islamophobic than it has ever been recently? How does one ignore the fact that the film’s characters use ‘Pakistanis’ and ‘terrorists’ interchangeably? How does one look at a film championing the Indian army in a world where ‘Siachen Mein Humaare Jawaan Lad Rahe Hai‘ has become a punchline for many politicians?
Which brings us to our leading man, Vicky Kaushal, coming off a phenomenal 2018. Playing the role of Vihaan Shergill, Kaushal fully submits to the character and the film. Literally in command of everyone in his surrounding, Kaushal uses his buffed physicality to the hilt. He roars through a jingoistic pep talk with undeniable conviction. Embracing the film to a fault, Kaushal’s efforts are never reciprocated at any point. He’s left with a shell of a character who barks orders, flashes a wide smile during practiced jokes to cut through tense moments, sheds a single tear for his slain brother-in-law, and expresses shock at his mother’s disease (even though they were having a heart-to-heart about it, only a minute ago).
Uri – The Surgical Strike is a film that meanders between finding metaphors between an Alzheimer-afflicted Maa and Bharat Mata. And it also casually mentions the banning of ‘Pakistani artists’ by India (which became a HUGE talking point); at this point it would be fair to question if the film is self-aware enough to mine a joke out of it.
Looking at it purely as an action film, Uri – The Surgical Strike, should have been a game-changer for Bollywood. But the politics it chooses to depict, also makes it a shameless tool for propaganda in the hands of significantly more powerful politicians. It doesn’t matter if Vicky Kaushal turns in the most authentic performance of an army-man in the last decade, he’s still a pawn in this film designed specifically to adorn medals on that famous 56-inch chest.