‘Shershaah’ Review: A Surprisingly Subdued Tribute To A War Hero And His Two Loves That Should’ve Been So Much More
From watching the movie and reading the articles about Param Vir Charka awardee Captain Vikram Batra, one thing was amply clear. The guy is war hero alright. But he was also quite like a filmy hero, channelling a similar spirit and flamboyance about his two loves—the country, and the woman in his life. He was dynamic and made the people around him instantly want to believe in him. Which makes it all the more surprising that a biopic on this 25-year-old Kargil war legend was so subtle and restrained for the most part, until the war sequences arrive. Shershaah is directed by Vishnu Varadhan, who has previously helmed Tamil movies and makes his Hindi feature debut with this one. It stars Sidharth Malhotra as Capt. Vikram Batra, the eponymous Shershaah as was his codename during the missions he led in the 1999 Kargil War. Alongside Malhotra, there is Kiara Advani playing Dimple Cheema, a character that would be just another woman in love with an army man who might never return, except there’s the fact that she loved him too much to ever love another.
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The film also stars Shiv Panditt, Raj Arjun, Pranay Pachauri, Himanshu Ashok Malhotra, Nikitin Dheer, Anil Charanjeett, Sahil Vaid, Shataf Figar and Pawan Chopra. It is produced by Karan Johar’s Dharma Productions and Kaash Entertainment. The story, screenplay and dialogues are by Sandeep Shrivastava, cinematography is by Kamaljeet Negi and editing is by A. Sreekar Prasad. The film is also an effort by Capt. Batra’s twin brother, Vishal Batra (also played by Sid Malhotra in the film) to share the story of his brother, of a young, determined life that was cut short too soon but was legendary nonetheless.
To say Shershaah is predictable wouldn’t be fair. We are a generation that has first-hand witnessed (and in some cases, experienced) the Kargil War happen. We know how this story goes; it begins with loss and crescendos in a rousing victory, and ends marred once again by the tremendous loss of life of our heroic soldiers. Both the writer and director have ensured that they stay very close to the ground reality of Captain. Vikram Batra’s short but grand life, whether it is about the TV interview he gave after a successful first mission, the speech by his brother Vishal Batra about his hero twin, or the way the war sequences are shot in difficult terrain with limited lighting.The Batra twins, Vikram and Vishal
Shershaah begins with an introduction to the Batra twins, and a young Vikram Batra making it clear that what is his is his and nobody can take it from him. We get a very short glimpse into his obsession with dressing up in army fatigues for social gatherings while other kids his age don regular civilian wear. And then, that’s it. No training montages at the military academy, but straight to his posting with 13 JAK RIF, where he begins living his childhood dream of being an army man, and goes on to impress everyone, irrespective of their rank, with his dynamism and can-do attitude. In the middle, through a rather abrupt cut, we get the love track which takes us back to a collegiate Batra as he begins dating Dimple Cheema, his college crush. He’d like to marry her, a sardarni, and even considers for perhaps the first and only time in his life to give up his one true love for the sake of another. Yet, it is his destiny to end up in the army, where he is the most at home, and that’s were he goes on to become who he is.
The elements of Capt. Batra’s life—his determination to fight for the country, the love for Dimple, and his fearlessness in the face of life-threatening danger—have lots of potential for good, layered storytelling which could help dispel any formulaic taste that the film might take on. Unfortunately, Shershaah misses its shot. And to explain to you just why, I am going to have to take you on a little nostalgia trip with other war film, Lakshya.
It’s almost reflexive in how much Shershaah reminded me of Lakshya. The parents thinking their son might amount to nothing more than hooligan. The girlfriend telling him that if he has made up his mind to choose the army over her, then he better stick to at least that one decision. The camaraderie amongst the army men. The conquest of two peaks to regain control in a war. The loss of life. And yet, where Lakshya excels (pun intended) in making us care about the hero as well as the people in his army unit, Shershaah is unable to build that emotional connect. The film restrains itself from diving deep into what makes Vikram Batra who he is. Perhaps a little more exploration into the interpersonal relationships he shares with his family, his best friend back home in Palanpur, and his army mates could’ve helped with that. I think the film’s biggest mistake is investing too much time in the love story, which prolongs the wait to get to the best parts of the film, the action. Had it chosen to invest some of that time in building the supporting characters playing by Shiv Pandit, Nikitin Dheer, and Shataf Figar, and others, it would’ve triggered more emotion when these characters met their fates on the battlefield.
The action sequences aren’t extraordinary, which might dull the payoff for some. Nevertheless, they are the best parts of Shershaah, even if they take forever to arrive in both halves, and credit to DOP Negi for shooting in the difficult terrain and the production team for making them look good. I sometimes found it a tad difficult to follow when an important character was injured or lost, and that’s exactly what I mean by taking time to build the supporting characters to add a more human touch to these scenes. I think war stories ought not to be about guns and bloodshed and patriotism, but about the price of war that we humans pay with lives destroyed not just on the battlefield but also off it, like that of Dimple, who lost a man she wanted to spend her life with, or of Sunny, who lost his best friend. Watch Sam Mendes’ 1917, and you’d get exactly what I mean.
What was also a tad conspicuous by its absence was the relationship between the brothers They were twins, and the end credits said Vishal Batra too wanted to join the army but eventually ended up doing something else. We barely get any conversation, any semblance of a relationship between them, and a complete lack of family dynamics, which gives a feeling of an incomplete life story.
On to the good parts though. When we finally get to the action, it is familiar territory and the film becomes the immersive experience you were waiting for. What’s remarkably absent, and thank heavens for that, is the unnecessary jingoistic sentiment and propaganda that is heavily injected into these films. I was afraid we might be getting a lot of that considering this is an Independence Day weekend release. It’s like when Sidharth Malhotra as Capt Batra begins his pep talk to his mission team, and tells them that he doesn’t need to give them the usual one-two about loving your country. After all, they’re here, in the thick of war, because they love the country. No need more proofs of their patriotism.
Again a good thing, not too much of showing the enemy in bad light with unnecessary war mongering by the Pak army and militants. But I am a little unsure about the politics of Shershaah. The film has a dialogue that says every soldier hopes that he gets to fight at least one war in his lifetime. Now this isn’t exactly glorifying war, but I am not sure if every soldier feels that. But at the same time, we have a scene, right after the Ghumri base in Kargil is attacked, where Vikram says something to the effect of how war sucks. I’d like to think the fact that a very young life of barely two score and five years being lost is pointed enough to make audience realise that war indeed sucks and countless lives with potential are wasted in pursuit of targets set by men in air-conditioned boardrooms who make these decisions.
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To reiterate, the valorous hero Captain Vikram Batra was IRL like a filmy hero. He was romantic, he loved mouthing dialogues, and had a ‘Yeh Dil Maange More’ attitude, as evident by the victory catchphrase he chose for his mission. Many might think Sid is miscast here, but I think to play an army man who was too young, full of life, and not yet hardened by war, Sidharth Malhotra was a decent choice.
Sidharth Malhotra looks the part and plays this role with utmost sincerity, and his performance really does go with the whole soft, subdued tone that Shershaah has followed. He is the most comfortable when he is interacting with people, whether the Kashmir residents, his teammates or the woman he loves. In the battle scenes, the restraint is noticeable, where he doesn’t need to emote with too much intensity or infuse the moment with OTT drama, because that’s not the film’s point. Sidharth’s performance gave me the feeling that we’ve gotta get Sid M in more complex roles that involve some emotional peaks to be conquered because he has potential.
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Kiara Advani as the sweet Dimple is pretty bang-on casting. This character is Kiara’s comfort zone, if you ask me. And if you haven’t paid much attention to her name in the film, the whole madly in love and rebel against family for it act, however short, might just make you refer to her as Preeti, galti se. I don’t have the usual “she should’ve gotten more to do” wala complaint here, because really, I don’t think she could’ve had more to do. The film barely has time for anyone other than Vikram here, and I am not sure some more letters or phone calls, or a montage of her pining set to another romantic number might’ve added much. But, I have to mention, was that Punjabi accent really necessary? Because it is inconsistent and sounds awkward.
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I do want to sat “they could’ve gotten more to do” for the army men. To say Shataf Figar as Lt. Col. YK Joshi has a screen presence is an understatement. He looks great, talks with such command, and I would’ve loved to see some more of his wartime strategy or interactions with the rest of his subordinates.
Shershaah is a surprisingly subdued film about a Kargil war legend whose reality was more filmy than the fictional take on it. The film restrains the jingoism in, but also holds back from delving deeper into what makes a young man so fearless and spirited in the face of imminent death, while infusing so much life in the relationships he built with the people around him. This won’t be a landmark film like a Lakshya, or perhaps won’t inspire a craze like Uri, but I still think it finds its own simple and honest way of honouring Capt. Vikram Batra (PVC) that no matter how the film is, will make you tear up in the end. And the tears might not stop as the end credits roll, because you’re going to see the reel characters’ pictures agains the real heroes of war, some lost, some decorated and retired, and some continuing to serve their country.
Watch Shershaah to pay your tribute to this hero, for a sincere Sidharth Malhotra act and to understand the cost of war paid with such young lives.
Shershaah is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video.