Cast: Vicky Kaushal, Paresh Rawal, Yami Gautam, Mohit Raina, Kirti Kulhari, Rajit KapoorDirector: Aditya Dhar
One of the most powerful scenes in the Oscar-winning war film The Hurt Locker sees Jeremy Renner’s character, a bomb-disposal expert who has returned to civilian life after an intense combat experience, standing in front of a supermarket aisle that’s stocked with dozens of different breakfast cereals, lost, confused, unable to make a choice. Not long after, he returns to Iraq, embracing all the precarious challenges of the job because evidently nothing else gives him the same sense of purpose. That is where he belongs.
In Uri: The Surgical Strike a Special Forces para commando who has retired from the frontline and taken a desk job finds himself similarly conflicted. This is not what he was made for. He jumps back into the action after he loses a family member in a terrorist strike. Revenge is the trigger.
Broadly speaking, Hindi films are about emotion and not nuance. It’s just their grammar, and not necessarily a shortcoming. But Uri: The Surgical Strike is fashioned as a different kind of Bollywood war film, one whose ambitions are closer to Zero Dark Thirty than Border. The film recalls the retaliatory strikes undertaken by the Indian Army on terrorist launch pads in Pakistan, and if pruned judiciously it might’ve worked as a crisp, gritty procedural.
Crucially the first hour is a slog. After an action-packed prologue establishes the leadership capabilities and derring-do of Major Vihaan Shergill, the filmmakers spend too much time focusing on his life beyond the uniform. All the usual tropes are at play: ailing parent, widowed sister, orphaned niece.
Vicky Kaushal is in especially good form as the protagonist, looking every bit the army man. He brings both the bulked-up physicality and the sort of steely determination that the part requires. Because this is a Bollywood film, it’s not merely enough that Major Shergill has the tactical skills to execute these sensitive operations. No! He must also get down for some gool ol’ fashioned herogiri, crunching bones and crushing limbs with his bare hands.
Sadly, no other character in the film is deemed worthy of respectable screen time or even to be adequately developed. Yami Gautam plays an intelligence officer, and Kirti Kulhari a skilled pilot. The casting of female actors in these parts amounts to mere tokenism, given how little they have to do. Mohit Raina, also playing a para military commando, gets a few moments to shine.
For the most part the film avoids the chest-thumping jingoism that is the hallmark of our patriotic films, but it cannot resist the occasional rousing dialogue. Writer-director Aditya Dhar knows what buttons to push. “Unhe Kashmir chahiye, aur hume unka sar,” a soldier bellows to his troops. When Major Shergill seeks retirement from active field duty so he can be closer to his sick mother, Prime Minister Narendra Modi (Rajit Kapoor), no less, reminds him that “desh bhi toh maa hai”. In another instance, Paresh Rawal, playing a character clearly modeled on National Security Advisor Ajit Doval declares: “Yeh Hindustan ab chup nahin baithega. Yeh naya Hindustan hai. Yeh ghar main ghusega bhi aur maarega bhi.”
The film hits its stride when it focuses on process – the planning and the execution of the surgical strike. Scenes of interrogation, waterboarding, war-room deliberations, and the recruitment of a young tech nerd with a breakthrough invention build up nicely to the actual strike. As soldiers in night-vision goggles penetrate safe houses and terror targets, you can feel a growing sense of suspense and tension, despite already knowing the outcome. This is largely a result of the terrific cinematography by Mitesh Mirchandani.
Ultimately there’s a lot to admire here, but because it can’t shake off its unmistakably filmi sensibility – which is inherently at odds with the no-nonsense tone it aspires for – it proves thrilling only in parts. The film is too long at nearly 2 hours and 20 minutes and as a result it runs but never flies.
I’m going with three out of five for Uri: The Surgical Strike.
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