The action drama Uri, directed by Aditya Dhar, is preoccupied with one line of thought. The film pays tribute to the armed forces and a “new India.” Its penultimate chapter is simply titled, you guessed it, “A New India”. In a crucial meeting, which includes India’s prime minister, the chief of army staff and home minister, the national security advisor (Paresh Rawal) says, “Yeh naya Hindustan hai, yeh ghar me ghusega bhi, aur maarega bhi [this is the new India; it will enter the house and kill].”
There are subtle strains of that thought, too. A young intern at the Defence Research and Development Organisation, a young man, makes a drone that is instrumental to the surgical strike operation. The loudest war cry in the film comes from an eight-year-old girl whose father was killed in Uri by Pakistani terrorists. Dhar’s “new India” is a hyper-masculine state, quashing dissent within its boundaries, to the aggressive refrain of “Bharat Mata ki jai.” That contradiction is furthered by a scene where India’s prime minister says, “Desh bhi toh maa hi hai [the country, after all, is a mother, too].”
India’s fervent patriots have come to signify not who they are, but what they’re not: “anti-nationals.” The lines have already been drawn, minds have already been made. In such a climate, any nationalist drama is similar to a film helmed by a Bollywood star: If you’re not a believer, you’ll probably have a tough time. Struggling with my own biases, as any other audience member, I wasn’t looking forward to Uri – the Hindi nationalist dramas have a poor track record, and this film looked no different.
But as the film found its rhythm, it questioned my preconceptions. A quiet drama – subdued and polished – was underway. It was about an army major, Vihan Singh Shergill (Vicky Kaushal), relocating to Delhi to take care of his mother afflicted with the Alzheimer’s. It was about his relationship with his brother-in-law, a fellow soldier killed in Uri, with whom he shared jokes and drinks. It was about an Indian Air Force officer, Jaskeerat (Kirti Kulhari), coping with the death of her husband.
The guns, the grenades, the chest-beating declarations seemed to belong to a different film. Dhar even shows a perceptive eye for filming shootouts. In the middle of a massive fire-exchange, he concentrates on the strategic tussles of two people – showing the interplay between bullets and brains.
But a film of this sort needs exceptional writing to transcend its rigid boundaries. So we ultimately find out, to no one’s surprise, that the subplot involving the family was just a ruse. Once Uri dives deep into the surgical strikes, we hear nothing about the mother, sister, or niece. What matters to this movie, above all, is military conquest. The film shows the important Pakistani characters as either buffoons or leches. The bits that are patriotic (or well, anti-Pakistan) are predictable.
A team is assembled, a plan is hatched, the orders are received, and the soldiers are deployed. Nothing new to see here – except a bit, which has Vihan training, that resembles a sports drama – and you aren’t disappointed. In fact, you’re surprised that this film isn’t as offensive or jingoistic as you’d thought it’d be (especially given the spate and tenor of nationalist dramas of late.)
However, it can also be argued that films like Uri are a kind of ‘dog-whistle’ cinema, where your actual message needn’t even be literal. The subtext, more obvious than the text, is all too clear. I saw an example of it in a Delhi multiplex. At one point in the movie, an Indian army officer says that, “We don’t have a problem with the Pakistani civilians. We’re only after the terrorists.” Much later, Vihaan finds himself facing an adolescent holding a gun. “Kill him!” said a man behind me. He paused for a while, then continued, presumably talking to himself, “So what if he’s a kid? He also has a gun. Kill him!”
There’s a reason rape-revenge and nationalist dramas are becoming increasingly common these days. The rage and discontentment of our lives need new outlets – any action, armed with a morally sound reason, can be justified. This is what we want, and this is what we get.
That man, and his friends, clapped after the movie ended.