Nowadays, the prospect of watching (another) patriotic film made by Bollywood seems like a daunting one. My skepticism for these types of movies churned out very regularly in India (almost all Akshay Kumar vehicles in the past five years) stems not from the fact that I do not share the same respect, and pride that a majority of the public who loves these films does towards our country. It’s because a vast majority of these films are adamant on forcing their one-dimensional concept of jingoism to the audience, not patriotism. So, when Aditya Dhar’s first feature’s trailers and promotional poster openly declared “Yeh Naya Hindustan Hai: Yeh Ghar Mein Ghusega Bhi Aur Maarega Bhi” (This is a New India: It will attack its enemy by hook or by crook), I feared the worst. And, while Dhar’s film very much sticks to this simplistic ideology and replaces Mahatma Gandhi’s concept, “An eye for an eye, makes the whole world blind” with the new mantra of the Prime Minister, (played without a hint of artifice by Rajit Kapur) “Eyes for Eyes, make the whole world a better place,” it almost executes it with enough commitment that I bought it as patriotism, and not jingoism.
“Uri: The Surgical Strike” divides itself into five different chapters, with the first three chapters contextualizing, and detailing the Uri strikes that caused the Indian Army to retaliate to it. These chapters delve into the lives of various officers involved in the surgical strike, primarily that of Major Vihan Singh Shergill (played with a great deal of conviction by Vicky Kaushal who grounds this character by imbuing him with the rage and passion required for this part). Detailing the reasons for officer’s involvement in the operation, the director then focuses entirely on the planning of the strike in its fourth chapter, before concluding with showing how the Indian Army conducted its surgical attack on the Pakistan Occupied Kashmiri region.
Dhar’s debut feature pulsates with the same “HIGH ENERGY” that Shergill repeatedly commands his officers to have in some of its contextualization chapters and its final episode, when it’s on the field, doing the duty of capturing the action, which provides some of the best action scenes I have seen in a Hindi film. The director expertly manages to communicate the visceral and immersive feeling of being in the middle of a war without compensating on coherence. In a sense, he does something similar to what Ridley Scott managed to achieve in “Black Hawk Down.” Using a combination of hand-held camerawork for the hand-to-hand combat scenes, and static wide and aerial shots for machinery combat, Dhar, along with cinematographer Mitesh Mirchandani creates a gritty, somewhat messy feeling of combat without ever making it feel like a nauseating experience. The mostly bombastic background score by Shashwat Sachdev, which owes a massive debt to both Hans Zimmer scores, and Jóhann Jóhannson’s music from Denis Villeneuve’s “Sicario,” too effectively underscores the tension in these scenes, building up to provide some explosive, crowd-pleasing moments, especially towards the end of the film.
It’s the scenes inside the rooms, particularly the exposition and recruitment scenes in the film’s fourth chapter that push the film awkwardly towards resembling a bad Neeraj Pandey film, as opposed to what otherwise seemed like a competent action thriller in the same vein as Shoojit Sircar’s “Madras Cafe.” The second chapter of the film hints at these issues, as Dhar finds it hard in that segment to parallelly establish Shergill’s personal life, and show the political background noise escalating in India in 2016. The portrayal of Shergill’s family, and the central performance from Kaushal however, feel real enough here to forgive the clunkiness of the sections with Govind (Paresh Rawal on auto-pilot) breaking his phone everytime he gets angry. But, the fourth chapter, unfortunately, doubles down on these office scenes, with Dhar perhaps committing the biggest crime in even attempting to give the Pakistani officials some form of characterizations. I, honestly, could do with absolutely no attempt at a portrayal of the Pakistani people here, as opposed to the infantile depictions that the filmmaker attempts to give them. Not only does this poor characterization of the villains (the first person in the ISI office is introduced having gas in a dryly comic scene!) make the film’s shout for the need for revenge weaker, it also hampers the serious tone of the film.
Despite these very noticeable, almost predictable problems in the film’s second half, I almost feel like I was convinced by the movie because it took enough time in its first half to establish the reasons for the characters to have the anger and passion for revenge they have towards the Pakistanis in the film. But, perhaps some viewers do not need to first be convinced about the film’s ideology like I needed to. They may be going in with that very same ideology that the Prime Minister in the film purports, giving them easier access to enjoying the visceral thrills of “Uri: The Surgical Strike” than me.