Parmanu: The Story of Pokhran movie review — John Abraham thriller is reasonably effective, passably entertaining
What John Abraham gives us in Parmanu: The Story of Pokhran is pared-down glamour, well-suited to this role. His expressionlessness, however, costs dear.
1995: An earnest young bureaucrat’s proposal to make India a nuclear state is mucked up in execution by a minister anxious for personal glory.
When we meet Ashwath Raina (John Abraham) again three years later, he is still disillusioned and bitter about his suspension from his job for a politician’s mistakes. Raina has been leading a quiet existence, taking private tuitions at home for IAS aspirants while his astrophysicist wife Sushma pulls most of the weight for the family that also includes their nine-year-old son Prahlad.
When life gives him a second chance through the medium of Himanshu Shukla (Boman Irani), principal secretary to then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Raina first hesitates but then takes the challenge head on, becoming the head of an ultra-covert team that goes on to conduct nuclear test explosions in May 1998 in Pokhran, Rajasthan.
Raina is fictional. The Pokhran operation, as newspaper archives attest, is not. Parmanu: The Story of Pokhran recounts the events of that crucial episode in contemporary Indian history.
This is a tricky subject in this age of high-decibel, aggressive nationalism, and could have gone unbearably overboard in the hands of a smarmy director trying to ingratiate himself with the present right-wing government, especially considering that India’s current ruling party also headed the regime under which the Pokhran tests were conducted in 1998. Director Abhishek Sharma, best known for Tere Bin Laden, seems to be aiming at least for a balancing act in his tone. Instead of getting his characters to spout hosannas to any particular political party, he leaves them to do their work while the then PM’s stances and the international response to the tests are conveyed purely through news video footage from back then of the real-life players involved: Vajpayee, US President Bill Clinton, Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif and his predecessor Benazir Bhutto. Viewers are thus largely left to interpret the proceedings as we wish.
Except for the slimy minister who wronged Raina, Sharma also steers clear of maligning Vajpayee’s Opposition, keeping them absent from the picture. Pakistan (a favourite whipping boy of Bollywood) and the rest of the international community are not lazily demonised either. US Intelligence officials do end up looking stupid in the film, but what the heck, American commercial cinema trivialises the rest of the world all the time, so a similar lack of nuance in the portrayal of the US establishment in a commercial Indian film is worthy of a chuckle and some forgiveness. So is the somewhat delusional description of India's post-Pokhran might in the closing text on screen. The clincher in favour of Parmanu is that though Sharma gives in to the temptation to speechify here and there about commitment to the country, the point is not stretched and the film does not descend into maudlin deshbhakti.
The result is a reasonably effective thriller as Raina & Co race against time, the watchful eye of US satellites and the fragility of Vajpayee’s coalition government to conduct the explosions that made international news in 1998. True, the glaring amateurishness of a couple of their moves on this most secret of missions is laughable. I mean, c’mon, in an area packed with spies, six undercover operatives take on the aliases Yudhishthir, Arjun, Bheem, Nakul, Sahdev and Krishna – can you be more obvious than that? But pace compensates for these missteps which are, in any case, not the norm with this bright, hardworking lot. The writers of Parmanu — Saiwyn Quadras, Sanyuktha Chawla Shaikh and Sharma himself — also need to be commended for making the conversations about the processes involved in their work sound comprehensible yet believably intelligent to the average, inexpert viewer.
What could have elevated this film to another level altogether, of course, would have been at least an allusion to the perils of military aggression irrespective of the perpetrator, rather than a celebration of weaponisation. Perhaps not wanting to make his film cerebral in anyway, Sharma avoids any such discussion. Fair enough. If he had stuck to a clinical account of the work done by Raina’s team (in the style of the recent Bollywood release Raid starring Ajay Devgn), Parmanu could have still risen above being merely passably entertaining. It does not because of a needless string of songs jammed into the narrative. And then there is the matter of John Abraham's performance.
Abraham's charm in films all these years has come from his nice-guy vibe combined with incredible sex appeal. What he gives us in Parmanu is pared-down glamour, which is well-suited to this role, and a remarkable job on Ashwath's look including what appears to be considerable weight loss and a toning down of visible muscle bulk. For a hero whose shirtless scenes and unbelievably hot body have been his USPs so far, no doubt these are brave choices to make, but his expressionlessness from start to finish costs Parmanu dear. Abraham's nice-guy vibe is still very much in evidence here, but it is just not enough.
The rest of the cast are all good with whatever little they are given to do. Anuja Sathe is both convincing and likeable as Ashwath Raina's neglected spouse. Diana Penty, who was luminous in Cocktail in 2012 and funny in Happy Bhag Jayegi, deserves a larger role, but at least she is not treated as a sexy female sidekick to a charismatic leading man as is the norm with similar Hollywood and Bollywood films. Besides, there is a small thrill to be derived from the presence in the story of a woman official from India's IB who does not let it pass that the hero expected a person in her position to be a man. Coming as this does in a film in which the same hero's wife is an astrophysicist, and the writing team does not overtly pat themselves on the back for envisioning a woman in such a profession (unlike most of their Bollywood colleagues for whom feminism is a trend to be profited from, rather than genuine conviction), it is hard to understand why they did not give the rest of their script the same unobtrusive depth. What might have been can be a long discussion. What is is the point here: Parmanu, with all its faults, is passably entertaining fare.
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