‘Uri: The Surgical Strike’ Asks ‘How’s the Josh’, I Say ‘High Sir’
How much nationalism is too much nationalism?
We need to ask this question today more than ever. Especially after watching a film that falls in the category of ‘militainment’. This particular film makes for a rather uncomfortable case study. The hullaballoo over the ‘surgical strikes’ – a much abused phrase now synonymous with the Indian Army’s cross-border operation undertaken on 29 September 2016 – makes it difficult to not see it as another element of nationalism blitzkrieg.
Uri: The Surgical Strike, however, is an oddball in an increasingly polarised socio-political and cultural stratosphere, that in no time, trickles down to the grassroots.
How can a war film be made without a liberal dose of jingoism? How can the most politicised military operation of our times be cinematically depicted minus a ballistic rhetoric on what a nationalist government ought to do? Most importantly, how can a film based on real events, involving real people, resist the urge to turn the latter into caricatures?
Uri accomplishes all that and more.
Why Make A Film On ‘Surgical Strike’?
Military conquests, or debacles, impact the flow of cultural and literary productions in a country. Wars, after all, have consequences. Take it or leave it. In any functional democracy, public opinion on military is almost always divided. Military as a glorious epitome of nationalism and military as the draconian face of the establishment: these two standpoints flank a variety of attitudes. Military is also treated as a necessary evil and sometimes it’s ignored completely. All legitimate in a functional democracy.
In democracies where military can’t be wistfully wished away, a certain semblance of consent about supporting it is important. Popular culture offerings are an effective way of what Noam Chomsky calls “manufacturing of consent”. This is what the immensely popular Netflix series Fauda did for Israel. Mastering the game it learnt from the US, Israel has successfully brought its military to the mainstream discourse of nation-building.
Uri, perhaps, started out as a similar project. Or maybe we all feel compelled to perceive it such. After all, a constant drip of military values, is bound to engender anti-militaristic attitudes, too. Gal Levy and Orna Sasson-Levy note in Israel that "the fusion between the state's political ideology and formal education begins in pre-school settings, where Israeli children are exposed to themes of persecution, heroism, and war". As a result, "an anti-militaristic attitude has arisen, not only in academia but throughout society". The more we hear the ‘boots’ around us, the more we hate them.
The Indian War Film Comes of Age with Uri
The most endearing part of the film is perhaps the disclaimer in the beginning where the filmmakers acknowledge that they have tried their best to represent the uniforms and the insignia correctly. Now this is a surgical strike on lethargy and ineptitude in research that plagues the mainstream cinema in India.
Another point Uri scores is for its genuine attempt at not leaving any loose ends. When you see Major Vihaan Singh Shergill’s (Vicky Kaushal) masterful unarmed tackling of a terrorist right in the beginning of the film, you are impressed but also skeptical, “Here comes the sarv gun sampann fauji of the Indian films who never takes his uniform off.” Before you begin to dislike the character, it is revealed in a cute conversation between Vihaan and his niece that he earned his “black belt” at 16. The precocious soon-to-be-8 niece is not impressed, though. She is already a ‘green belt’ and plans to become the first woman General of Indian Army. Luckily for her, General Bipin Rawat would no longer be there to dissuade her.
The same cute girl would later let out a fierce war-cry of her father’s regiment during his last rites. This scene is inspired by the gut-wrenching clip from January 2015. At the last rites of Col MN Rai, who died in Kashmir, his daughter bellowed the war cry of 2/9 Gorkha regiment. Vihaan, therefore, has a personal reason to ensure the success of his mission. As do the ghatak (specially trained assault platoon) troops of Bihar and Dogra regiments he’s seen training for the surgical strike. The two regiments lost their men during the Uri camp attack on 18 September 2016.
What Uri Does Not Do
First and foremost, it does not try too hard to convince you. There is no spotlight on the mandatory Muslim soldier. It also resists the urge to exaggerate the mannerisms of the living people involved. Prime Minister Narendra Modi (Rajit Kapoor), NSA Ajit Doval (Paresh Rawal), Manohar Parrikar, Arun Jaitley and Rajnath Singh are portrayed with utmost restraint on the part of the actors.
There is no litany on patriotism when the soldiers are gearing up for their mission. There is no soppy sentimentalism around their deaths either. Seerat Kaur (Kirti Kulhari), the air force pilot who is also an army officer’s widow, discharges her duties in a matter of fact manner. Remember that stoic face of Major Rishima Sharma when she received her husband Major Mohit Sharma’s posthumous Ashok Chakra on 26 January 2010?
Another wife’s reluctance to wash her dead husband’s smelly shirts is straight out of life. Yes, it happens. Kids of many faujis sleep at night clutching their fathers’ sweat-soaked clothes. Also realistic is the banter that fauji brats, Vihaan and his brother-in-law, share at a party. Yes, many brats are insufferable on Twitter these days, thanks to their jingoism, but these two are adorable with their “exquisite” susu stories.
Uri ends where it really should: at a promised dinner after the successful completion of the mission. Depicting what ensued eventually, an ugly dog-fight over credit and crass politicisation, would have tarnished the film’s narrative irredeemably. This story is not about what this cross-border mission achieved for the Indian government, it is about the soldiers who went about their duties nonchalantly.
Uri succeeds in humanising the military. Unlike its trailer, the tone of the film is rather sombre. If the hallmark of good propaganda is the absence of overt propaganda, Uri deserves all the laurels. It is also poised to set new box-office records. Because no matter how cynical one is about the military values, when Major Vihaan Singh Shergill asks, “How’s the josh”, the audience is sure to join his boys in the chorus of “High, sir!”.