Abhishek Dudhaiya's Bhuj: The Pride of India is patriotic before it even begins. The standard disclaimer about the film being a work of fiction ends with an enthusiastic ‘Jai Hind’. Where do you go from there? The answer is more nationalism, militarism, majoritarianism and religion.
After Pakistani fighter jets bombard an Indian airbase in Bhuj, the chances of keeping the west of the country intact hang by a slim thread in December 1971. The base—a strategically vital one—is destroyed, 40 men are dead and Pakistani forces are advancing. Squadron leader Vijay Karnik (Ajay Devgn) must hold off the enemy till reinforcements arrive, and rebuild the base so that aircraft landings are possible. He’s assisted in the former by officer RK Nair (Sharad Kelkar) and army scout Ranchordas Pagi (Sanjay Dutt), and in the latter by the women villagers of Kutch, led by Sunderben (Sonakshi Sinha). These events actually took place, though Bhuj’s hysterical tone will make you doubt every detail.
Consider two scenes. Heena (Nora Fatehi), an Indian spy in Pakistan, is caught and buried upto to her waist in sand. As she shouts ‘Jai Hind’ with her dying breath before being bludgeoned with a rock, men in the background flagellate themselves, chanting ‘Ya Hussain’. This is supposed to be a military execution—why is matam happening?
Ten minutes before that, there's a scene with Karnik trading disses on the phone with a Pakistan officer, who tells him he’s crossing all limits. Karnik replies: “We’re the sons of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, who brought the Mughals to their knees.” Where did the Mughals come from? The same place that matam did—the desire to show Muslims as wild invaders with evil designs on India.
The problem is, once you have scenes like this, everything starts to look suspect. The only mention of Nair’s wife is the narrator describing her as a “differently-abled Muslim girl”—a curiously specific description, considering we’re told her name and therefore know she’s Muslim. And is the traitorous soldier who tries to prevent flight lieutenant Vikram Singh (Ammy Virk) from defending the base implied to be Muslim? (There’s a crack about ittar.)
Stacked against this is a barrage of Hindu iconography. What’s alarming is the way this religious symbolism is tied with patriotism and militarism (like it was in Manikarnika). Sunderben’s first scene shows her killing a leopard with a sickle—there’s a calf in peril—and then addressing the village, quoting Krishna as saying it’s fine to kill for a higher purpose (like the army). Later, she sings to Ganesha and the whole base joins in the prayers. There’s a Raavan-burning, with Sunderben firing the flaming arrow. Pagi invokes the goddess Karni. There’s another song, with more Ganesha idols, as Nair and Pagi fight off enemy battalions.
If Bhuj wasn’t slanted in worrying ways, it would just be laughable. When told it’s unwise to have a plane slam its front wheels onto the back of the truck he’ll be driving, Karnik smiles and says: “A Maratha only knows two things: to kill or be killed”. This insistence on Karnik’s Maratha warrior roots feels like a meta-reference to Tanhaji, where Devgn played Shivaji’s general. Nair telling his troops that if their heads are severed their bodies will continue fighting brings to mind Padmaavat, where a headless Rajput warrior is actually shown doing this.
Not one performer escapes with dignity intact, Virk and Fatehi especially wooden. The VFX work is dicey; so are the bombastic, choppy action sequences. The writing is half exposition, half simple-minded appeals to national duty. The Indian soldiers are good fathers, good husbands, good sons. The Pakistanis are degenerates and clowns; there’s a scene with three officers in a projection room smoking cigars and laughing like 1940s villains. Devgn’s big speech resembles morose slam poetry. “Maut se panga hum lenge”—the film’s equivalent of “How’s the josh?”—sounds like a rejected Thums Up tagline.
In Shershaah, the other war film released this week, and in Bhuj, the protagonists say that they'll either raise the Tricolour or come back wrapped in it. Shershaah has its limitations, but by any measure it's the superior of the two films. Bhuj comes wrapped in the flag, and is dead on arrival.
Bhuj: The Pride of India is streaming on Disney+ Hotstar.