Cast: Vicky Kaushal, Paresh Rawal, Yami Gautam, Kirti Kulhari, Mohit Raina, Yogesh Soman, Akashdeep Arora
Director: Aditya Dhar
For reasons that would be obvious to all non-bhakts in the country, I was all set to hate Uri: The Surgical Strike.
But I couldn't. Not entirely.
The credit for this goes to writer-director Aditya Dhar, its leading light Vicky Kaushal and the action and sound design departments. I was riveted and impressed with much of Uri’s human drama and action, despite balking at its craven desire to toady up to a government that has, shamelessly and very cynically, used a standard military op to burnish its claims of being more-patriotic-than-all-other governments.
Uri is split at two levels. At one it tries to humanise and make us see the men behind the vardi by taking us into their homes where a mother suffers from Alzheimer’s, a little niece loves her mamu, a sister talks of the barbecue party being planned in her garden, an officer gets dumped.
The problem is that fused with this story is the marketing and propaganda of the Modi government as one that’s decisive and has a 56-inch chest.
It’s true that we don’t make heroes out of our jawans. The last memorable films about the armed forces were Border, Shaheed, Hum Dono, Prem Pujari (1970), Shaurya and Prahaar. The iconic stature of many of these films is due to the fact that they focused on the humanity, tragedy of war and acknowledge the devastation it leads to.
Uri is technically savvy, and through its long, taut action sequences, it makes patriotism, militant desh seva and balidan, sexy and honourable. In this age of games and gizmos perhaps that’s understandable. Action, with a mounting body count, is considered sexy.
My objection is to the martyrdom of armymen being used to bolster the patriotism of those who are happy to use the blood and tragedy of solders and tears of their families for their own pomp and show, and a few votes more.
Uri, which claims to be based on true events, is split in chapters, chronological ones, beginning in June 2015 in Manipur and ending in September 29, 2016, in PoK.
But it cherry picks facts carefully, to propagate the myth that the Modi government seeks to keep alive till India queues up outside VVAPAT machine booths.
The first chapter, titled Seven Sisters, is about the attack on an Army convoy in Manipur’s Chandel district - specifically on the Dogra regiment, and very specifically on men who are devoted to serving the nation and yet make light of their sacrifice by singing songs while terrorists lay a deadly ambush.
This tragic killing of Indian soldiers is responded to, with the full force of an angry government and charged-up and determined officers of the Special Forces.
A counter attack is mounted on terror camps on the Indo-Myanmar border. Bearded commandos, with their automatic weapons and night vision goggles, para-drop close to where all the militants of Nagaland and Manipur are gathered for some sort of annual terror conference whose agenda is not shared with us.
What we are told is that amongst the terrorists is NSGN’s Kelang. Read, NSCN, Khaplang.
Bullets fly thain-thain, bazookas blow up this bunker and that militant, and tension keeps mounting till our hero, Major Vihan Singh Shergill (Vicky Kaushal), kills the big terrorist with his bare hands, squeezing life out of him, quite literally.
This hand-to-hand combat begins like a bout choreographed for the Olympics with sharp, neat karate chops and wrestling manoeuvres.
All this, however, can’t hide the truth - Khaplang died of a heart attack in 2017, and not by a bullet issued to an Indian soldier.
Here on the film is in a loop - it travels across the country, to wherever the nation is being attacked by dushmans inside and from outside.
All this is cause of concern in the War Room on Rainina Hill where Modiji (Rajit Kapoor), Govind (Ajit Doval played by Paresh Rawal), the patriarchs of the nation, are anguished.
Manohar Parrikar, the defence minister, walks around looking preoccupied by other things.
Soon, in a scene where Vihan meets Modiji, it’s the concerns of the PM - only about Ma and motherland - that are conveyed.
Vihan, who has been contemplating retiring from the force to take care of his mother, is given a nurse, Jasmine Almeida (Yami Gautam), and a desk job in Delhi.
At the Army headquarters, even as files pile up on his desk, he is distracted by an Indian Air Force lady officer.
He keeps staring at her till she tells him of her martyred husband, Jaskirat Ji.
Whatever soft feeling were brewing die an instant death because a brother officer’s wife is looking for a mauka to show her own desh bhakti.
Soon there’s an attack in Punjab and another one in Pathankot. By this time, with men going thain-thain at each other, I was zoning out.
There’s little drama here. No politics, no context. Just bullets and dead bodies.
But then comes the Uri attack, and the film rises again, drawing power from real life. Dramatising what really happened, the film creates a very powerful and poignant moment when an officer we had grown to like is slain.
And as the coffins are laid out, and officers arebeing given their final send off, by the nation and a family bereft, blood boils in the War Room.
Govind talks of Uri ka badla. Of Israel’s mission Wrath of God at the Munich Olympics, and suggests a surgical strike on the terror camps on the other side of LoC.
“Yeh naya Hindustan hai. Yeh ghar mein ghusega bhi, marega bhi.”
There are briefings, training, tour of the rather useless DRDO where the only item of any use and interest is the cute drone, Garuda, developed by intern, Ishaan (Akash Deep Arora), in his free time.
The satellite services of ISRO are requested — they must capture the terror camps and send the feed directly to Raisina Hill.
After interval we visit Pakistan for a bit. Here burping officers secretly do the honourable thing, i.e. leak info to India, while the bad guys, who drink and are mildly lecherous, scream, “India ne naak mein dum kar diya hai”.
Simultaneously, text on the screen keeps reminding us… 5 days to go… 3 days to go for Surgical Strikes…
Uri’s plot is classic, standard, but clever. It’s full of tense moments, rising and dipping, and pausing at a last-minute crisis, complication to up all heart beats. But also to convey the mettle of our men, and a nation’s resolve.
It’s personal. Not just for them. But also for us.
Though we know the outcome, all this creates unbearable tension before the final, big catharsis, when Major Vihan brings back all men of Bravo, Charlie, Delta units alive, as promised.
Uri has several long stretches where there’s much violence but the human drama is dull. But in the film’s last sequence, where for a long time not a single word is uttered, there’s no dialogue, the film belongs entirely to the actors, the action director and the sound design team, and it’s here that the tension was gripping. It seeped into my body as I sat up listening to each footstep, the movement of the gravel, marvelling and mighty impressed.
The entire sequence of the surgical strike, especially at the second terror base, is technically superb, simply excellent.
There are men and women in Bollywood who are always very keen to pander, to be of service to the government, to get close to the powers that be.
So when a government, like the incumbent, sends out the message that it’ll reward those who stand with it, whether that means holding up a laterine, waving a sanitary pad or hand-on-heart and screaming Hindu Hain Hum… the queue starts to grow.
Now, with Uri, somewhere behind Akshay Kumar, but perhaps before Ajay Devgn and Madhur Bhandarkar, stands director Aditya Dhar and producer Ronnie Screwvala.
Their film is well directed. It’ll do very well and spur recruitment to the Armed Forces.
I believe the rewards will be fast and fabulous.
Rajit Kapoor’s Modi is a vapid caricature, wearing just the costume and a worried look. But Paresh Rawal is good, as is cute Akash Deep Arora and his Garud.
But Uri really belongs to and is held together by Vicky Kaushal with a scream and a tear.
Kaushal is a very fine actor with a dazzling range. Here, cast as protector, defender, destroyer, he is precise, sharp, exceptional, and makes it all look easy.
Kaushal carries the film almost single-handedly, raising the tempo and temperature, making us cry and, sometimes, smile.
We are putty in his hands. Happy putty. Safe putty.