Saturday, February 16, 2019

Uri: The Surgical Strike: Review

The disclaimer at the start of Uri: The Surgical Strike closes with “…a tribute to armed forces, and a new India". What this new India stands for is made clear later in the film, after terrorists have launched a surprise attack on an Indian army camp at Uri in Jammu and Kashmir. Govind (Paresh Rawal) – a possible stand-in for National Security Advisor Ajit Doval – suggests a retaliatory “surgical" strike, comparing it to Israel’s covert operation to eliminate those responsible for the 1972 Munich Olympics killings. “Yeh naya Hindustan hai," he says. “Yeh ghar mein ghusega bhi, aur maarega bhi (This is the new India. It’ll enter your home, and it’ll kill you too)."

Aditya Dhar’s film, based on actual events from 2016, opens with two setpieces in quick succession.An Indian army convoy is ambushed in Manipur; there’s a gunfight and a truck is blown up. After that, we see Major Vihaan Shergill (Vicky Kaushal) lead an attack on a camp on the Indo-Myanmar border, where a large group of terrorists is gathered. Dhar pulls striking images out of the chaos: a rocket scorching a path through dense foliage, Vihaan walking into fire like some mythic hero. This is the sort of quick, abrasive, coherent action filmmaking that few Hindi films are interested in, let alone pull off, and it’s no surprise that the cinematographer is Mitesh Mirchandani, who worked wonders in Neerja.

These sequences represent the film in microcosm: an attack on India, and India’s immediate response. But there’s a notable difference between the two. The first attack isn’t scored; we only hear the bullets and the yells of the soldiers. The second is accompanied by thumping music. What we’re being told is: stay with the pain of our soldiers when they’re under attack, but enjoy yourself when they’re on the offensive. War isn’t terrible. Only defeat is.

Raazi, a spy thriller released last year, was peacetime filmmaking: character-driven, invested in the subtleties of language, willing to admit that there can be good people on both sides of a cross- border conflict. Uri is wartime filmmaking: taut, clipped, muscular, regimented. Even the household conversations have a militaristic sound to them. Vihaan’s mother’s Alzheimer’s is “aggressively spreading". His sister corrects her daughter’s homework, telling her it’s “more peaceful", not “peacefuler". The child’s father, Karan (Mohit Raina) – Vihaan’s brother-in-law – is killed in the Uri attack. Standing over his body, crying, rain pouring down, she yells out a war cry he taught her. It’s completed by the jawans, and her grief is weaponised.

The Uri attack is again brilliantly executed – the shot that tracks Karan as he races across the camp belongs in a Katherine Bigelow movie. Yet, it also becomes increasingly clear that whenever the film moves away from the battlefield, it doesn’t have the same edge. Dhar’s writing is fine for military speech, but flat in conversations which don’t consist of barked commands. None of the characters have any definition beyond their job – they’re just military men and women or relatives. Vicky Kaushal is a fetching stoic lead, but Vihaan is so close to perfect he’s scarcely real.

Uri resembles Zero Dark Thirty in its factual build-up to the Indian strike, but because the terrorist attack only comes halfway through, the film then has to rush through scenes of surveillance, intel- gathering, spy work and training. Suddenly, we’re checking in with the Indian Space Research Organisation, the Defence Research and Development Organization, a belching Indian mole in Pakistan. The interrogation scene is over in a flash – two suspects tortured, the desired information elicited. This, too, has the suggestion of a new India: individuals and institutions doing whatever it takes to get the job done. Though he isn’t identified by name, Prime Minister Modi (Rajit Kapur in spectacles and a white beard) appears in several scenes as a hands-on commander. A surgical prime minister, and an accidental one, in theatres this week. In an election year, this is the kind of gift money can’t buy.

Vihaan, who’d quit active military duty after the Myanmar border mission to look after his mother (you better believe someone compares serving one’s mother and one’s motherland), returns to lead the surgical strikes. “Is your blood boiling for revenge?" he thunders at his men. Uri doesn’t seem to consider that his brother-in-law’s death might have some effect on Vihaan’s judgment as a leader.Instead, the film conflates desire for retribution on an individual and a national level. So confident is Dhar in the power of patriotic revenge as a narrative hook that he barely creates a villain (the closest the film comes to caricature is casting someone with a hooked nose and flowing hair as the leader of the Uri attack).

The final assault, conducted in the dead of night on Pakistani soil, is a serrated knife of a set piece.Yet, as one terrorist after another is shot, stabbed or blown up, you have to ask yourself what the film hopes this is inducing in the viewer. Boiling blood? Patriotic tingles? I found the first-person shooter efficiency exhausting after a while. As I write this review, I see that Yami Gautam, who plays an intelligence agent in the film, has done a promotional video as her character, in which she asks viewers to help her “interrogate a terrorist" on Google Assistant. They’re advised to say things like “beat him", “punch him" and “cut off finger". More than anything in Uri, this is the new India.

This review appeared in Mint.

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