Courage Under Fire:
As far as Indian war films go—and there are not that many– there has been a set template; a lot of chest-thumping jingoism, not enough about the human cost of war. In an atmosphere of heightened nationalism, it is not surprising that two films releasing around Independence Day this year are about war.
Shershaah directed by Vishnuvardhan and written by Sandeep Shrivastava, is the biopic of Captain Vikram Batra, whose extraordinary valour helped India win the Kargil War of 1999, for which he was posthumously awarded the Param Veer Chakra.
The story gets a proper Bollywood-ised treatment, particularly the parts in which he romances his college mate Dimple Cheema (Kiara Advani)—riding around on a bike with romantic music on the soundtrack, opposition from her father, the cutting of his finger to fill her maang. Maybe it did happen like that, in the strange way that life often imitates films.
Right from childhood, Vikram displays signs of aggression—like beating up a boy who refused to return his ball, “because I cannot tolerate anyone taking what belongs to me.” He then takes to wearing an army uniform at all times. Ordinarily, this behavior should have alarmed his parents, but it is seen as a sign of patriotism.
When he grows up, Vikram (Sidharth Malhotra) joins the army, and lands up on his first posting in Kashmir, with the 13th Battalion, Jammu and Kashmir Rifles, thankfully skipping the clichéd training sequences.
There are the usual scenes of camaraderie between the other soldiers, the difference between them and Vikram is that he makes friends with the locals. During terrorist ambushes, a tough mountain battle to reclaim territory captured by the Pakistani army, Vikram is fearless, leading from the front, prompting one of his men to exclaim, “What are you made of!” He is promoted, and TV coverage turns him into a hero in his home town of Palampur as well as the rest of the country. At the end, when footage of the real Vikram Batra is screened, saying the words his film avatar speaks, it is a powerful moment that the entire film is unable to replicate.
The story is well known—in the film it is narrated by his twin brother– 25-year-old Batra gave up his life during a crucial mission that helped India put an end to the Kargil War –a fictionalized version of which was seen in the 2004 film Lakshya.
The battle scenes are shot very well and it must have been physically demanding for the actors to shoot on rough terrain. The film has some fine moments, but is mostly flat without any emotional hooks or even a rousing song, that earlier war films like Haqeeqat or Border were able to accomplish, or even the recent Uri: The Surgical Strike.
Sidharth Malhotra manages a competent performance and Kiara Advani is her usual chirpy self. Shershaah—which was Vikram Batra’s code name for wireless communication—is a tribute to the brave men who guard our borders, but it could have been a better film.
Title cards at the end detailing where the real soldiers are now, also reveal that Dimple Cheema remained unmarried. But who will tell of the tragedies of those left behind?
(This review first appeared in www.seniorstoday.in )