“Uri: The Surgical Strike”… Not so much a war movie as a ‘Hukumat’-style revenge drama, but it works

Posted on January 17, 2019


Spoilers ahead…

Like the prelude to an orchestral score, the opening stretch of Aditya Dhar’s Uri: The Surgical Strike, lays out a leitmotif. It’s 2015. Soldiers of the Indian Army are travelling in a bus in the Northeast, when they hear an explosion. It appears to be a tyre, but it’s an ambush. Bullets and bombs erupt out of nowhere. The sound designer (Bishwadeep Chatterjee), editor (Shivkumar V Panicker) and cinematographer (Mitesh Mirchandani) turn this shootout into an action symphony. Their work is even better when, a few days later, Major Vihaan Singh Shergill (Vicky Kaushal) and his cohorts ambush a militant hideout, in retaliation (or revenge). Close combat has rarely produced an image as searing as the one where the silhouettes of Vihaan and an opponent are framed against bright-orange flames in the distance. It’s visceral. It’s war porn.

It’s how the rest of the film unfolds: another attack (one year later, at Uri), followed by another instance of retaliation/revenge by Vihaan and his cohorts. The difference is that everything is amped up to Wagnerian proportions, including the humanising of the key players (in the Northeast, it was just a couple of minutes inside the bus, and now, it takes up the entire first half). We meet Vihaan’s sister, brother-in-law (who’s an army man as well), their adorable little daughter, and most importantly, his Alzheimer’s-afflicted mother (Swaroop Sampat). Early on, when Vihaan announces he’s planning to retire, to care for his mother, he’s told, “Achche bete ho jo maa ka khayal rakhte ho. Par desh bhi to maa hai.” (The country is your mother, too. You need to take care of her, too.) Like Simmba, Uri says that the more personal it is, the greater the likelihood of people being stirred into action. If Simmba is content to let things lie until his ‘sister’ is raped, Vihaan is content to stay away from the army till his brother-in-law, Karan (Mohit Raina), is killed. The bloodlust comes from the proximity of the blood being spilt.

In other words, like Simmba, Uri is an update of an old formula. After the Uri attack, a snaky Paresh Rawal, who plays an Ajit Doval-like security adviser, recalls how Mossad hunted down the Palestinian terrorists who murdered Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972. Steven Spielberg’s Munich brought this bloody slice of history to life — but Uri is far simpler, far more direct in its appeal to our heart and that primal part of the body that’s roused during gladiatorial spectacles. It’s more along the lines of Hukumat, the Anil Sharma blockbuster where the Dharmendra character waged war against a terrorist who killed at will (the victims included members of his family). That’s not a diss. It is what it is. Ghazi was a purer “war movie,” in the sense that the interpersonal dynamics hinged on what was happening in that submarine. Despite its wartime trappings, Uri is more of a comforting “revenge movie”, the cinematic equivalent of an India-Pakistan cricket match.

The “let’s get the bastards” sensibility runs through the chapter titles (“Bleed India with a Thousand Cuts”) and the other characters, too, like the use-any-means interrogator played by Yami Gautam, and the army pilot played by Kirti Kulhari. (It’s personal for her because she lost her husband.) As for the people under Vihaan, they aren’t fleshed out with minor, easily-remembered traits like the characters in a JP Dutta movie, traits that will help us remember them when they die. There’s no need, I guess, because they aren’t individuals but a collective, the battering ram that is the new India, whose youth power is singled out in the super-clever youngster who develops a drone that looks like a bird. And what does a similarly aged Pakistani youngster do when he stumbles on the bird-drone after it crash-lands outside his home? He thinks it’s a toy. He isn’t as super-clever. The rah-rah-ness runs across generations.

Aditya Dhar is a far better filmmaker than Anil Sharma, and there’s something dignified about the emotional portions of Uri. He pulls off a Gulzarian bit when Karan’s wife, after his death, tells Vihaan she can’t bring herself to launder his shirt or donate them. She wants to hang on to the smell of him. At the funeral, Vihaan weeps and so do we. Vicky Kaushal, shedding a tear through gritted teeth and military reserve, is very effective – it’s a powerfully melodramatic stretch. As a counter, there’s a muscular topicality that bolsters the proceedings like a steel spine. The Paresh Rawal character remarks, “Yeh naya Hindustan hai. Yeh Hindustan ghar mein ghusega. Aur maarega bhi.” (This is a new India. It won’t hesitate to kill.) He uses the word “sahansheelta” (tolerance) to describe the earlier India, and I was surprised at how namby-pamby the word sounds today, in a country  that has moved on from Gavaskar’s gentlemanliness to Kohli’s aggression. It’s a new India, all right.

Copyright ©2019 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

Posted in: Cinema: Hindi