Abhishek Sharma’s Parmanu, based on the 1998 Pokhran nuclear tests, poses a question that has fascinated audiences and critics for a long time: Can fiction – or any piece of art – transcend its moral obligation? In fact, should art be subjected to such a condition at all? It’s a question that corners the censor board frequently, but what happens when the viewpoint is flipped, when we have to assess a film that doesn’t agree with our worldview? There’s a term for such a fictional depiction, “propaganda”, which often obscures more than it illuminates. How difficult is it to enjoy a film – or rather see it ‘fairly’ – when you vehemently disagree with its foundational thesis?
From its very first frame, which sees the detonation of a nuclear bomb as celebration rather than destruction, Parmanu makes its intentions, its reasons for existence, clear. This is going to be a jingoistic piece, dedicated as it is to “soldiers, scientists and engineers of India”, which will project a dangerous national misstep as a moral and technological triumph. At this point, which is Parmanu’s first five minutes, you can either walk out of the film (if its moral transgressions feel so unforgivable), or you can hang on, if you don’t feel as strongly about them – or even better, if you don’t see them at all.
The problem with jingoistic films is the the problem with jingoism – it is essentially futile. As George Carlin once said, “Pride should be reserved for something you achieve or obtain on your own, not something that happens by the accident of birth. Being Irish isn’t a skill; it’s a fucking genetic accident. You wouldn’t say I’m proud to be 5’11.” Over the last few years, though, with the Narendra Modi-led government at the Centre, nationalism is a drug we can’t get enough of. That wave has blown through Hindi cinema as well. And it makes sense – nationalism and (dumbed down) mainstream cinema share a lot in common: both create common heroes and villains, both fixate on delivering a message (one that is invariably ‘inspirational’), both weave narratives that distract us from our flaws and make us feel good about ourselves.
Parmanu opens to its hero, Ashwat Rana (John Abraham), an IAS officer, trumpeting his patriotism. India should become a nuclear state, he says, handing his boss, the principal secretary to the prime minister, a report detailing that plan. However, a few weeks later, when the Indian government fails to covertly execute the mission, it is heavily castigated by the US, and Ashwat is made the scapegoat and fired.
Besides a story drenched in pathos, Ashwat is an ideal character for other reasons too. He, to begin with, is an engineer from IIT. His father was a colonel in the army, who fought against China in the 1962 war, winning the “Veer Chakra”. Ashwat, and consequently this film, is obsessed with the army (no one is surprised). In less than 15 minutes, Ashwat’s father and his medal are either shown or referenced thrice. Later, we find out that Ashwat wanted to join the army but couldn’t because of a flat foot (of course).
Ashwat, a smart, moral, conscientious officer, is dedicated to the cause of the nation – so much so that the film is compelled to remind us of it every five minutes. For instance, after getting fired, he moves to Mussoorie, where he coaches IAS aspirants. (The film slips in that he doesn’t charge more for extra classes.) When one of his students says that he wants to join the IAS for the comfort and prestige of a government job, Ashwat loses it. “Being a civil servant means serving the country,” he says. “Desh ki seva” is repeated enough times in the film, with few good reasons. Remember the unbearable cop from this year’s Raid? Ashwat is a slightly more tolerable version of him.
Three years later, in 1998, when the bulk of the film is set, Ashwat meets Himanshu Shukla (Boman Irani), the new principal secretary to the prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who shows a renewed interest in India’s nuclear capabilities. Since the film thinks India becoming a nuclear power is one of the best things to have happened to the country (and perhaps even to the world), it is in awe of Vajpayee. There is old footage of Vajpayee’s swearing-in ceremony, his speech in parliament during the no-confidence motion, his speech after the nuclear tests.
But like most jingoistic dramas, Parmanu is at times less about pride – the quiet confidence in your abilities – and more about poking fun at others, wilfully done through misleading stereotypes. Here the target is the US – more specifically its Central Intelligence Agency. But here too, the film seems lazy and smug. The CIA officer looks like a pissed off, stressed out automaton who keeps squeezing a stress ball that has a world map on it (yes, very symbolic) while looking at images from a surveillance satellite. There’s nothing about this man that indicates credible or even human. And that is the most unfortunate flaw of films like this – that the chest-thumping chants of ‘my country greatest’ comes at the cost of dehumanising something foreign.
There’s also a ridiculous fight between Ashwat and an ISI agent that looks like it’s straight from a bad 1990s film. Moreover, since Parmanu’s characters are fictional, Sharma overreaches in extrapolating their personal lives. As a result, one of the subplots resembles a silly domestic drama, almost out of tune with the rest of the film.
But the most disappointing bit about Parmanu is that it’s tone-deaf. This is crucial because the combination of cluelessness and patriotism in a film about nuclear explosion isn’t encouraging. If this is how the majority defines being “a global power”, then even democracy can’t save us. Consider this scene: the plutonium core responsible for the nuclear tests sits at the back of a van, getting transferred from Bhabha Atomic Research Centre to Pokhran. At one point, the van jerks and the core slides. A senior scientist gets worried for a moment, holds the core, and says with unmistakable pride, “If this explodes, this town will be destroyed in minutes.” He then pauses, smiles and says, “Made in India.”
Parmanu also inadvertently parodies itself. For all its talk about the ingenuity of India’s scientists and the bravery of its armed forces, it is ultimately able to conduct the tests, according to the film, because of an abiding ‘Indianness’: power cut. A smart, self-aware film would have made a joke out of it, but Parmanu is too contained in itself to look at anything else.
This is a pity, because it is relatively not a shoddy film. Even if you disagree with its premise, the film is consistent in its own world, moving at a rapid pace, sweating the small stuff. It has an impressive ensemble – the five personnels in charge of the tests – whose members share pleasant chemistry with each other. (Yogendra Tiku in particular, as the harried, stuck-up Defence Research and Development Organisation scientist, is a delight.) For a film whose climax is already known, it does a commendable job of sustaining the tension; the attention to detail and research keep you invested in the mission’s outcome. (That said though, the standards of mainstream Bollywood are so low that most times, doing your job is a good job.)
Parmanu releases at a time when the threat of a nuclear war – with Donald Trump as the US president and Kim Jong-un as the Supreme Leader of North Korea – is real. Taking something so destructive and spinning an inspirational yarn out of it says something penetrating about the state of the Indian mind today – that we’ve become so insecure and fearful that we see rainbows on a noxious mushroom cloud. This perfectly sums up Parmanu as well: a nationalist drama that ends like a horror film.