Aditya Dhar’s Uri: The Surgical Strike is a conflicting experience. On the one hand, it pushes the boundaries of what action films in Hindi cinema can achieve (not that that’s particularly difficult given just how low we’ve set the bar with the genre) but equally, it makes no attempt to mask its agenda of blatant glorification of the army and current government.
Almost like that’s creative tax of sorts you have to pay in today’s climate in order to make a movie based on true events like this one – really lean into the hyper nationalism element to get the audience’s blood boiling and better digest the film and give them a reason to come back. Is jingoism the new item song?
I’ve struggled a lot lately with this idea of jingoism, what specifically denotes a jingoistic film and just where the lines are. If you make a film about a genuine achievement of a country and the people that made it happen, is that jingoism? If you make a patriotism-fuelled film on the military’s achievement at striking back at militants, is that jingoism? And is there such a thing as a ‘good’ kind of nationalistic movie?
Luckily these questions are far too nuanced and evolved for Uri which makes no attempt at blurring the lines and instead makes its stance exceptionally clear. The first time you see a Pakistani official onscreen, he’s quite literally a burping cartoon, nothing more than a device for comedy. Another top official is later seen as a lecherous fool who spills trade secrets with ease. We see it through the frequent cutaways to a tense Prime Minister Modi (played by Rajit Kapur) portrayed as the caring leader who just wants to see his boys come home. Most of all, we see it during the final hand-to-hand showdown as Major Vihaan (Vicky Kaushal) screams ‘INDIAN ARMY’ at the top of his lungs as he stabs the main mastermind behind the Uri Attacks. A hilarious ‘powerful’ moment that will no doubt go down as one of the year’s top movie moments for all the wrong reasons.
That being said, you can’t deny the film’s achievement in its admirable execution of the combat sequences. The final leg of the film which showcases the surgical strikes themselves – as small groups of commandos systematically attack a series of terrorist hideouts on enemy soil – offers the kind of slick precision we aren’t used to seeing in Hindi cinema. A nod also to the film’s sound design which commendably makes the extended gunfights come to life, making you feel like you’re in the midst of the nail-biting action.
I don’t claim to the know full facts behind the 2016 Uri Attacks where armed militants attacked an Indian army base killing 19 army personnel – so I can’t speak to the film’s authenticity as such. But Aditya Dhar’s approach in telling the story and movie-fy the events isn’t a bad one. At the forefront, we have ourselves the fictional Major Vihaan, a celebrated officer who must leave the frontlines to opt for a desk job in Delhi in order to take care of his ailing Alzheimer-stricken mother. That is until the Uri attacks take place which forces him back in action to lead a team and hit back at the enemy through calculated surgical strikes.
By focusing on a Vihaan’s story at the films centre, Dhar takes the more personal approach, recounting the events from a soldier’s perspective and the hardships they endure. To Dhar’s credit, the film’s tonality and pitch don’t feel overwrought but rather more restraint than you might expect. The same can’t be said for the dialogue. All the army and political officials talk almost exclusively in ‘movie dialogue’ heavy on exposition rather any sort of attempt at authenticity where god forbid you’d trust the audience to keep up.
The film’s second half, post the attacks themselves where things slacken. This, the intelligence gathering portion typically serves as the tense buildup to the final blowout– as seen in Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, the clear template on which this film is mounted. In Bigelow’s film the final military strike is almost incidental, instead, it is the gruelling investigation and race against time to tie various threads and locate the enemy which are the core of the film. Here, however, that is reduced to one traced phone call where a Pakistani official just casually lists all the coordinates of the terrorists’ camps (??). Add to that a track dedicated to a new kind of ‘bird drone’ which is very difficult to take seriously.
Similarly, in Zero Dark Thirty, Bigelow doesn’t shy away from the highlighting the atrocities of the lengths the intelligence community goes to, to extract answers and interrogate, scenes which are by no means easy to watch. However, in Uri when we see Vicky Kaushal torture a militant for information during an interrogation or later where he begins to hack off the leg of a terrorist, again for information, it’s almost as if the film wants you to hoot for him despite the monstrous nature of the act, necessary or not. These are grotesque moments of violence designed to elicit seetis and claps from the audience which in many ways captures the very essence of this film.
As Major Vihaan man of the moment Vicky Kaushal is rock solid (quite literally) and entirely embodies the physicality and sternness of a soldier. However, Kaushal is far stronger in his silences, wherein certain moments of army-angry-bark-dialogue come off as awkward. While Uri will no doubt speak to his versatility and impressive range, I offer that this is arguably one of his least memorable performances. As Captain Kashyap, the steadfast Mohit Raina is perfectly cast and borderline steals the show in the film’s first half. Paresh Rawal is steadfast and reliable as always as the government doer spearheading the strikes. It was also nice to see Yami Gautum be given something to do for once.
In the end, despite its uncomfortable politics, Uri is a film whose confident direction and slick execution seize the day.