'Shershaah' review: Casualty of war
The affable and brave personality like Captain Batra becomes a mode to peddle patriotism in much the same facile way in which the country itself has lately come to understand nationalism
If you are a movie buff, you may often find yourself poised in a space between the real and the reel, wherein you don’t just see life getting reflected on screen but, quite as often, apprehend reality through the prism of films. Significant people, relationships, situations, and emotions end up finding equivalence in archetypal cinematic moments. So, while watching Vishnuvardhan’s Shershaah, the recreation of the Kargil War—a slice of recent history that came to our drawing rooms and which we were willy-nilly implanted and invested in, courtesy television news—I couldn’t help being drawn to the “filmi-ness” underscoring the real.
Take Naib Subedar Bansi Lal Sharma (Anil Charanjeett). Irrespective of whether you are aware of the war and its heroes or not, within the narrative of the film he is made to stand out as one of the characters who is bound to die. It is implicit in the build up to the tragic moment—complete with the photo of his six-month-old daughter and the talk of an FD (fixed deposit).
In fact, Naib Subedar’s death also portends the eventual demise of Param Vir Chakra awardee Captain (then Lieutenant) Vikram Batra (Sidharth Malhotra), in a sentimental exchange he has with Captain Sanjeev Jamwal (Shiv Pandit). “Wo goli meri thi (that bullet was meant for me),” Captain Batra says of the bullet that killed the Naib Subedar, while Captain Jamwal counters him by saying that it wasn’t, and that the bullet meant for him will eventually find a way to him in the future.
You can hear the intimations of mortality again when Captain Batra talks to his childhood friend Sunny (Sahil Vaid) about returning home from war either after hoisting the tricolour or wrapped up in it. The death of the “dhaal (shield)” of the battalion, Major Ajay Singh Jasrotia aka Jassi (Nikitin Dheer), with a shrapnel stuck on his spine, felt similarly set up as an emotional high in the film.
Point here is not about doubting the authenticity of these moments. Apparently, the talk of the bullet did take place but in Captain Batra’s telephonic conversation with his elder sister. Similarly, the tricolour conversation appears to have transpired with his fiancée Dimple Cheema. It is not about “what” but “how” it is portrayed and presented.
For a film that claims to be a biographical film on Captain Batra and simultaneously also offers disclaimers about fictionalizing for dramatic necessities, Shershaah comes with full support and validation of the family and army. That still doesn’t take away from the fact that the tone and tenor of Shershaah lack nuance, remain patently clunky (despite a few well-staged combat scenes of high-altitude warfare), eminently populist and full of cliches so typical of the standard Indian war films—from the emotional bro codes and camaraderie of the soldiers to the expectedly adverse portrayal of the enemy. So done to death that they don’t even irritate you but come across as plain tedious and boring.
Your dil might maange more, but Shershaah doesn’t give you anything further about Captain Batra than what you’d have seen back then in the first “live”, televised war of South Asia or beyond what can be read in the Wikipedia entries. From his code name “Shershaah” intercepted by Pakistan forces, to his success signal “Ye dil maange more”; the war cry of “Durge Mata Ki Jai” to the capture of Point 4875 and 5140—it has all been in the public realm, led by the famous Barkha Dutt interview that caught the fancy of the riveted couch potatoes.
All that’s fresh here, perhaps, is a rather tacky recreation of childhood and a half-hearted glance at the romance with Dimple Cheema (Kiara Advani). Even though the Punjabi accent keeps slipping, the rough and rustic love between the two is winsome. However, just as in reality, Dimple stays on the periphery of the tale, perhaps volitionally.
Meanwhile, Captain Batra, the affable, brash, devil-may-care and charismatic individual, becomes a mode to peddle war, heroism and patriotism in much the same facile way in which the country itself has lately come to understand nationalism. Fauji (armyman), vardi (uniform), desh (nation) is all, no questions asked.
Pakistan is understandably painted as the bad guy for being sneaky and attacking by stealth, but the extent of the large-scale infiltration is just hinted at and passed by. Pakistani armed leadership—a fleeting glimpse of chief of army Pervez Musharraf—violates Geneva Treaty and Shimla agreement and orders that their guns would fire in the high ranges as soon as the snow melts. Not only will they talk of the urgency to bring Kashmir under Pakistan control and capture the Srinagar-Leh highway, but like filmi villains call for killing the soldiers in a manner that Indians won’t be able to bear looking at the corpses.
On the other hand, the then Indian PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee is a portrait of dignity and composure while talking of India being a pacifist at heart but ready to display its might and valor when the situation so demands. Our jawans might call the Pakistani soldiers “castrated goats” but are humanitarian enough to bury them with Islamic rights and rituals when Pakistan itself refuses to take their bodies home.
All this may well be acceptable in the “them” vs “us” narratives that the war films are usually all about. However, the less said about the insidious portrayal of Kashmir the better. It stokes all the possible fires of prevalent misperception. Purportedly it’s the land where army has to either keep an eye on surrendered terrorists or neutralize the active ones. Where people, supposedly, are bhed ki shakal mein bhediye (sheep in wolves clothings). It’s a slippery valley where a misstep can lead you straight to Pakistan (referring, of course, to the training camps on the other side). Where kahwa offered to you could well be laced with poison. Where one must not get emotionally close to people lest they strangle you. The othering of Kashmiris couldn’t have been more in your face. Only once do you hear a Kashmiri talking his woes—about how the peacekeeping efforts have turned the paradise into hell. Almost immediately after that an encounter with terrorist follows in which the army comes out shining bright. So, who gets the moral upperhand?
A kid is shown telling the armed forces to get out of Kashmir, while its officers are sensitive enough to take care of the informers and their families who have put their own lives at stake. Is it just my eyes or does the terrorist head Haider look oddly like Mirwaiz Umar Farooq?
Again, it’s not about the veracity of what happened or whether the film is judgmental or not. It is about how the disingenuous messaging is slipped in ever so subtly and a demonizing narrative built stealthily. The separatist movement is seen divested of any usool (principles) and termed “paise ki jihad”. So, the good Kashmiri Arsalan will righteously talk about how it is better to die helping the Indian army than the terrorists.
Forget the politics, the film even lacks the basic thrills and emotions to keep one engaged. The profound wisdom and deep philosophy and dilemmas and ambiguities endemic to the conflict zones, which we see shine through every so often in the war films abroad, are too precious to ask from Shershaah that plays it way too pat and flat.
The role of a lifetime for Sidharth Malhotra? Well, not quite. And for no fault of his own at that. I would go back to watching him in Kapoor and Sons instead.