Patriotism is rarely subtle in reality, and almost never onscreen. The makers of Shershaah must show that, even as a schoolboy, Vikram Batra loved his country and wanted to serve in the army. Their first idea is good: he watches the Doordarshan war series Param Vir Chakra on a neighbour’s TV, peering through the bars of a window. The next scene, however, made me laugh out loud: a beaming young Batra in Indian army clothes, surrounded by classmates in white school uniforms, saluting the flag on Independence Day. In schools other than the ones that exist in the heads of Bollywood screenwriters, any kid trying this would be laughed out of town.
It’s a fairly straight line from here to an adult Batra, by now a captain in the Indian army, stationed in Kargil, yelling “Ho tayyaar? Karoge vaar? (Are you ready? Will you attack?)” It’s an obvious bid for a catchphrase like Uri’s “How’s the josh?”, which was adopted by everyone from BJP ministers to startup CEOs when the film became a hit in 2019. One can only hope “karoge vaar”—aggressively worded and wrapped in national fervour—doesn’t catch on similarly.
Also read: ‘Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl’ review: Earthbound despite dreams of flight
Vikram Batra was a real-life war hero, who lost his life attempting to capture a strategic post in the 1999 Kargil War with Pakistan (‘Shershaah’ was his codename). The Batra of the film—played with bland eagerness by Sidharth Malhotra—is a young man who can’t stop running his mouth but is uncommonly good at his job. His first posting is in Kashmir, where the army is tasked with keeping an eye on surrendered terrorists, engaging active ones and cultivating informers. Director Vishnuvardhan and writer Sandeep Srivastava waste no time establishing him as a model soldier: he fends off an attack by militants at a checkpoint, earns the respect of his commanding officer (in spite of disobeying his commands), and his fellow soldiers tell Vikram they want to be led into battle by him.
Shershaah doesn’t exactly sidestep the perennial mistrust of the Indian army in Kashmir; instead, it makes Batra an idealized armyman, who address locals as ‘khaalu’ and is offered orchard apples and kahwa by them. The labelling of Kashmiri Muslims as terrorist-sympathisers is left to his peers. “Poison mixes with kahwa quickly too,” his superior tells him—a statement that seems closer to the uncomfortable truths of the region than a young Kashmiri man telling his father, “I’d rather die helping the army than die helping terrorists”.
Dharma Productions was responsible for Gunjan Saxena, a 2020 film about another Kargil war hero, which undercut traditional ideas of patriotic duty in the armed forces through a thoughtful conversation between the protagonist and her father. Shershaah, also by Dharma, has no such nuance. Batra, basking after a successful raid on a militant stronghold, declares that when you’re a soldier you “live by chance, love by choice and kill by profession”. The middle third of that pronouncement is realised in the sweet but stilted courtship of Batra and college mate Dimple (Kiara Advani). Their conversations are mostly in Hindi with a dusting of Punjabi (they're in Chandigarh, she's Sikh), which just distributes the awkwardness over two langauges.
It may not have the clinical edge of Uri, but Shershaah is best when it’s an action film. The shelling of the Indian camp is quick and brutal, an excellent setup to the climactic series of heroics. The characterisation is not far from propaganda: the Pakistan army tortures Indian POWs, while their dead get a respectful burial from India’s side; Indian combatants are continually accusing the Pakistanis of attacking by stealth, even though they're trying to catch them unawares too. Nevertheless, a good half hour at the end is nonstop combat, much of it graphic and realistic.
In the closing scenes, there are a couple of brief flashbacks as friends and family at Batra’s funeral recall moments from his life. One scene I thought would be revisited but wasn’t is the one where schoolboy Vikram fights an older kid who won’t return his ball. “No one can snatch what's mine,” he tells his father later. The ball is Kargil’s heights, the bully is Pakistan, Vikram is Vikram, and the metaphor—such as it is—is an indication of just how simplistic mainstream Hindi film can be in 2021.
Shershaah is streaming on Amazon Prime.
Also read: Beams and balancing acts in 'Something Different'