Shershaah movie review: Sincere Sidharth Malhotra plays Vikram Batra with saintly swagger in simplistic Amazon war drama
When they asked Audie Murphy, one of the most decorated American soldiers of World War II, how he managed to singlehandedly hold off an entire company of German soldiers, he shrugged, “They were killing my friends.” Murphy’s journey was made for the movies; he witnessed the attack on Pearl Harbor at the age of 16, had his sister falsify documentation about his birthdate to help him enlist, and by 19, had won the Medal of Honor for his service. In another life, they’d have called him Shershaah.
But Captain Vikram Batra didn’t need an inciting incident to inspire him; he didn’t come from a family of war veterans; and for as far back as he could remember, all he wanted to do was become a ‘fauji’. Based on his short but stirring life, director Vishnu Varadhan’s Kargil War drama Shershaah, out on Amazon Prime Video, is a sincere film undone by a shoehorned romantic subplot and a script that’s terrified of scraping beneath the surface.
Watch the Shershaah trailer here:
Just as caste prejudice gets in the way of Captain Batra’s relationship with his college sweetheart Dimple Cheema, Kiara Advani’s Punjabi accent gets in the way of her acting. We know that she is talented; we saw her deliver a fine performance in last year’s Guilty. But Vishnu’s overall bungling of Captain Batra’s personal life story suggests that the actors aren’t to blame, although a few more sessions with the dialect coach (if there even was one) wouldn’t have hurt.
Their scenes together don’t work. The accents are all over the place and the dialogue is clunky. Dimple is supposed to be a ‘sardarni’ from Chandigarh, but sounds like she’s placing an order at Bastian. Captain Batra, played by Sidharth Malhotra, is from Palampur, but talks like he’s just finished two semesters at DU. “Thand rakh kudiye,” he tells her in a scene, with the sort of energy that almost makes you expect a ‘burrrrah’ next.
Thankfully, Shershaah’s ‘character moments’ come across as an afterthought. Once he’s off to war, the pace picks up, and his interactions with Dimple no longer require either of them to open their mouths. Instead, they rely almost entirely on sending ‘sandesas’ to each other. This works out well for all of us, actors included.
Captain Batra, as played by Malhotra, is a showboat and a saint; so saintly, in fact, that he can sway the sentiment of an entire community just by talking. But the less said about that the better. He makes friends quickly, both in his battalion and among the Kashmiris that he shares cups of kahwa with on his first posting. His brothers in arms warn him about getting too attached, but Captain Batra operates on instinct alone.
He always has a one-liner at the ready, the most famous example of which was his battlefield declaration of ‘yeh dil maange more’, a victory call that elevated a Pepsi slogan into an anthemic war cry for a nation. And then there was his spontaneous defence of Madhuri Dixit’s honour, delivered moments before a bullet to the enemy’s skull. As a scene in a war movie, it feels impossibly far-fetched, but it’s true, according to his twin Vishal. Either way, why let the truth get in the way of a good story?
Miraculously, there is actual television footage of Captain Batra narrating the story of how him and his troops took control of strategically-located Pakistani bunkers. It boggles my mind to imagine that just hours before the interview, he’d killed three enemy soldiers in hand-to-hand combat. The interview is also recreated in the film, and features Malhotra affecting an entirely different accent altogether. He might as well have stuck with what he was doing earlier, because there isn’t a trace of Captain Batra’s distinct Pahadi-Punjabi twang in this word-for-word redo.
But it’s surprising how well-choreographed Shershaah’s action is, and thankfully, there’s a lot of it. The final act, in which the Indian forces mount an offensive against the enemy, is genuinely moving. These are the moments in which the film deliberately distances itself from jingoism. One blink-and-miss moment, in particular, is truly surprising. When Captain Batra’s troops take control of a Pakistani bunker and hoist the Tricolour on its roof, in the corner of the frame, for barely a second, you can spot an Indian solider carefully folding up the lowered Pakistani flag.
Call it producer Karan Johar’s sustained love for Fawad Khan or simply his good sense, but none of his ‘India-Pakistan’ movies — Raazi, Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl, and this — can be faulted for playing to the gallery. Shershaah, regardless of how successful it is at condensing Captain Batra’s incredible life into two hours (not very, unfortunately), is a character study first. It’s a shame, then, that it can’t help but subdue the war hero’s natural fieriness with a distinct dollop of vanilla.
Director – Vishnu Varadhan
Cast – Sidharth Malhotra, Kiara Advani, Shiv Pandit, Nikitin Dheer
The author tweets @RohanNaahar
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