Cast: Sidharth Malhotra, Kiara Advani, Shiv Pandit, Nikitin Dheer, Shataf Figar
Direction: Vishnu Vardhan
Streaming on Amazon Prime
The best thing about Shershaah is that it does not star Hindutva’s ubiquitous lickspittle Akshay Kumar. And that’s reason enough to pop a bottle of champagne and raise a glass to the house of Karan Johar.
In his presence and under his aegis, Shershaah -- which tells the story of Captain Vikram Batra, the 24-year-old soldier and brave heart who died fighting Pakistani soldiers in Kargil -- would have just been about him and his insufferable I-come-first-in-lehraoing-the-BJP-flag preening.
Without him Shershaah is as expected -- mostly inane and mediocre, rising only when it goes to fight. While the film avoids overt chest-thumping, it conspicuously does what it is supposed to: Othering Muslims.
Shershaah, directed by Vishnu Vardhan, opens with the war cry of Capt. Vikram Batra's regiment, 13 J&K Rifles — “Durga Mata Ki Jai”. This is followed by the deafening sound of bullets. “One more bunker, boys,” says Dharma Production’s favourite boy, Sidharth Malhotra, who plays Capt. Batra.
Bollywood tells many stories, but all of them, especially biopics, are presented in the way that the good people of "For Dummies" book series explain stuff.
Everything is whittled down to the simplest, silliest, brief facts, allowing no depth, nuance or digression lest we, the nincompoops, get our bhejas fried.
In Bollywood this means that a human being and his or her life is reduced to a sequential string of mundane events requiring songs to keep us entertained. These stories are populated by the usual characters -- mummy, daddy, bhai, behen, dost, boss -- but all are like trees and bushes in a landscape, existing just to fill up the frame.
In Shershaah, Capt. Batra’s journey — from childhood in Palampur to a college in Chandigarh, from IMA to his posting in Sopore and, eventually, Kargil -- is narrated by his twin, identical brother. Inexplicably, he is giving a PPT presentation to an auditorium full of people on “My brother, My pride”.
To establish how special and dogged Vikram always was, we get one scene from his childhood when, even during a game of bat and ball, he said, “Meri cheez mere se koi nahin cheen sakta.” Then the film moves on to establish what a dashing lover he was.
In a Chandigarh college, young Vikram hovers around Dimple (Kiara Advani), a girl with lovely eyes and silver earrings, till she allows a romance to commence over PCO-calling-landline. These bits are dull and are carried mostly by Ms Advani’s spunk and glow.
Then the “Palampur ka seedha saadha ladka” joins the Army and is posted in J&K where it is again established that he was different.
Unlike all the other soldiers who are vary of Kashmiris, Vikram makes friends with them, calling them "khala", "mamu", "chacha". But the irony that he is in uniform and carrying an automatic weapon is lost on the film, as is the fact that what they are peddling as a soldier's friendly banter is not just patronising, but dehumanising.
In one scene, where Batra and others are trying to ambush a big terrorist, Haider (Shataf Figar), there is a chance to capture him alive. But because Haider taunts Batra, the fauji shoots him and then poses like Rambo.
This is a troubling scene but no one around him seems to think so. In fact, he is given shabashi by Army biggies and soon, after the abduction and killing of Lt. Saurabh Kalia and five other soldiers, is sent off to fight the Pakistanis.
The story of Capt. Vikram Batra lives in a sad corner of many Indian hearts. It’s a story of inconsolable loss wrecked by war. It needs no added drama.
Shershaah, written by Sandeep Srivastava, tells us nothing more than what we already know about Capt. Batra. But, instead of humanising the man and his story, the film’s trite, lazy writing drags this exceptional story down to the level of, “Ek desh bhakt hero tha, ek sweet si heroine thi… Phir jang chid gayi…”
Shershaah essentially rides on our rage and grief at losing 527 soldiers in a needless battle. And specifically on our emotions attached to Capt. Batra, a boy who came into our lives posthumously with his unforgettable victory signal, “Yeh dil mange more”, as he sacrificed himself, going well beyond the call of duty.
Shershaah is not overtly jingoistic. But it's slant is apparent. All Armymen are honourable while the Kashmiris are split between being terrorist sympathisers or being anti-Army. And the one victim we meet is treated as an "intelligence asset".
The film mentions JKLF but not Army atrocities. It shows Kashmiris’ distrust of the Army, but doesn’t tell us why. Thus, treating Kashmiri Muslims as part of the problem and the Army protecting a piece of precious real estate, not the people.
Sidharth Malhotra is an adequate actor who gave a fabulous performance in the 2016 Kapoor & Sons. But here, perhaps restricted by a rather dull script and dialogue, he smiles a lot and puts on charm, but little else. His best scenes are also the film’s best scenes — when Vikram the commando-soldier is on a mission to recapture parts of Indian territory.
Shershaah is quite dumb and annoying when it lingers in the plains, but rises in tension and drama as it climbs the dizzying heights of Kargil. The film’s long battle sequences are very well done and very sad.
In its opening credits, Shershaah thanks the Indian Army and several Army officers. Clearly, they are better directors than our Bollywood lot....