Uri: The Surgical Strike is a commercial success but also sets a new bar for military films in Bollywood
In many ways, Uri: The Surgical Strike has set a new a bar for the typical military film.
Prior to its release, Uri: The Surgical Strike was brushed off as nothing more than a propaganda film by many. But the audiences’ have now lapped it up as a typical blockbuster. This speaks volumes about how the perceptions have changed when it comes to certain genres. The war/ military genre in popular Hindi cinema has seen masterpieces such as Haqeeqat (1964) and runaway blockbusters like Border (1997) but barring a handful of films, the genre had been devoid of a bonafide success. In many ways, Uri: The Surgical Strike has not only checked that box, but it has set a new a bar for the military film.
The biggest strength of the war/military genre is also somewhat it’s biggest trapping. The inherent formulaic nature of the narrative, especially when its based on a real-life event, makes it predictable.
But there is no denying that on the face of it Uri: The Surgical Strike's imagery seemed fresh in the context of the popular Hindi film, but some of its earliest visuals, and later the teaser and trailer, brought memories of two recent military/ war films - The Hurt Locker (2008) and Zero Dark Thirty (2012). The two Kathryn Bigelow films have come to be seen as genre benchmarks where the narrative’s underlying theme is often manifested in an extremely stylised visual treatment. In Uri: the Surgical Strike the narrative and imagery takes away any ambivalence to the real-life event that it is based on and manages to strike the sweet spot even though nearly everyone watching the film knew the outcome.
The last time a reel depiction of real-life Army men and women came close to reality might have been in Nana Patekar’s Prahaar (1991). In the film, a strict instructor Major Pratap Chauhan (Nana Patekar) transforms regular men into fighting-fit Para Commandos and finds it hard to come to terms with the regular world where one of his cadets, Second Lt. Peter D'Souza (Gautam Joglekar) is killed for standing up to a local goon. The training sequences in the film were very different from what was seen in traditional masala Hindi films and all the credit goes to Patekar, who underwent rigorous training for his role and continued to lend his services to the Army long after the film was over, in the Territorial Army, including a stint during the Kargil war.
Unlike Border — which took several creative liberties such as ‘killing’ the character of Lt. Dharam Vir, portrayed by Akshaye Khanna, even though in reality he did not die the during the Battle of Longewala in the 1971 Indo-Pak war — Uri: The Surgical Strike is relatively more realistic. It’s inaccurate in its use of military symbols and detailing: it shows a tank in the background when the terrorists strike but there were no tanks in Uri. Yet, even with such fantastical inputs, the film has been praised by former officers of the Indian Army. Despite nearly calling it an agitprop film disguised as a Bollywood product, the critics have also lauded the slick execution and hailed Vicky Kaushal’s performance.
It is easy to brand Uri: The Surgical Strike a propaganda film considering the timing of its release but how much sense such a basic argument makes is a completely different story. The film’s abject refusal to subscribe to easy ideological oppositions, too, could be a factor for it being labeled as such.
Initially, the producers had planned to release the film on the second anniversary of the surgical strikes in September 2018, which, even to the staunchest of critics would have made sense. Similarly, if a delay saw the release pushed a few months and had the film released on 26 January instead of 11 January there might have been less furore.
Needless to say, films are a business and every producer wants to make the most of the timing of the release. A few commentators have also called the film mindlessly celebratory and showing the enemy in a bad light, which brings to mind what Marcus Aurelius mused in Meditations — "How ridiculous and how strange to be surprised at anything which happens in life."
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