Shershaah, a cinematic tribute to the life of the late Capt Vikram Batra, is an authentic biopic but struggles to translate as a compelling watch
Story: The film details the remarkable yet short life of the courageous Param Vir Chakra awardee Capt Vikram Batra who was claimed by the Kargil war of 1999.
Review: Biopics often grapple with assembling the significant events in a person’s life in a compelling and impactful manner without resorting to exaggeration or straying from facts. And if the person in question happens to be a public figure, most of the details of his/her life are known. In which case, the filmmaker would have the additional task of telling a story that is already known and yet, managing to hold one’s attention and interest through the proceedings. Shershaah, a cinematic tribute to the life of the late Capt Vikram Batra, is an authentic biopic but struggles to translate as a compelling watch.
The film opens to a belligerent war scene where the film’s lead Capt Vikram Batra (Sidharth Malhotra) is crouched by the edge of a cliff with his unit hoping to evade the constant shower of enemy fire. The scene wraps up when the hero takes a drastic decision to counter the situation -- one that could only have extreme results, but then, the screen fades to black. A flashback sequence ushers us back into his childhood when his fascination for the armed forces had reached a point of obsession. Later, when he graduates from the IMA, he’s commissioned as a lieutenant with the 13 Jammu and Kashmir Rifles in Sopore. We see the young Batra as an amiable figure who chats up locals. While he understands his role in the terror-inflicted territory, he can’t always be bothered to follow protocol and is often admonished by his seniors.
Being posted in Kashmir, a turbulent region littered with terrorist activities, Batra gets several chances to test his reflexes and presence of mind. But the sequences are shot in a limp and cliched manner where the jolts are far from sudden and can be predicted from a mile away. For instance, a tested trope that’s liberally deployed is of scenes featuring casual banter between the soldiers which is invariably followed by an ambush or an air raid. It reaches a point where one can almost sense the forthcoming scene, thus diluting the impact when it actually plays out as predicted.
Movies that have depicted the capture of terrorists in recent years leaned heavily on sudden jolts and ‘I didn’t see that coming’ sequences. And there’s determined effort in drafting these scenes where the audiences’ attention is carefully lured in a certain direction only so that when things blow up unexpectedly, the effect is amplified. In this film, the sequence where Capt Batra is commanding a unit to capture a certain terrorist, everything from the build-up to the execution seems laboured if not off point. In fact, Malhotra’s body language in the scene hardly packs the unflinching focus and stealth of a soldier on a mission and seems more tentative, like Elmer Fudd hunting for wabbit.
The film sways between Capt Batra’s personal life, where he’s courting his college crush, Dimple (Kiara Advani), and his life in the army where he seems to be getting on famously with his peers and seniors. The difference between a war film and a biopic of a soldier is that in the latter, the war sequences may be incidental and not the highlight of the film. But Shershaah actually picks up from the point when Capt Batra is pulled in to serve at the Kargil war and retrieve certain captured peaks. While the inevitable end is known, these war sequences are well-executed. The generous exchange of bullets and guerrilla-style warfare renders some devastating action scenes and one hardly misses the absence of heavy artillery in combat.
Malhotra is yet to prove his mettle as an actor and his recent screen outings (Jabariya Jodi, Marjaavaan) have done little to alter one’s opinion about his craft. In this film, he had the opportunity to slip into the skin of a relentless, simple-minded soldier who appeals to one’s better sense and is driven to a point of obsession. But Malhotra hardly manages to elevate the character or convey the brave soldier’s distinguished take on life. None of the supporting parts are remarkable enough to deserve a mention, though Shiv Pandit completes Batra’s first commanding officer with an assortment of grim expressions. Advani can hardly be called the film’s leading lady as the romantic angle here is only peripheral to the plot. While her screen presence is measured, her contributions can hardly turn the fate of this feature film.
There have been breakthrough Tamil film directors who’ve managed to translate their craft in Hindi cinema such as Murugadoss, who is lauded for his technical flourishes and for embedding a certain nuance in his storytelling. Then, there have been accidental filmmakers such as Prabhu Deva who has helmed almost a dozen Hindi films that have gone on to be commercial blockbusters even if they may be considered a tad formulaic in treatment and form. Making his Hindi film debut, director Vishnuvardhan made his Tamil debut with the forgettable Kurumbu (2003) before venturing into remakes such as Pattiyal (Bangkok Dangerous) and Billa (Don). Here, he struggles to infuse depth or substance in this remarkable story of the selfless slain soldier. It almost seems like he’s in a hurry to run through the events in Capt. Batra’s life without taking the time to introspect and reflect on the character’s inner journey. In fact, there are dialogues in this film that seem to be lazily inserted only to convey a character’s traits instead of allowing the audience to mould an opinion about him on their own.
Verdict: Most biopics struggle to stitch a cinematic narrative out of facts and events. In this case, Capt Vikram Batra's singular life story binds into an inspiring story. What makes it to the screen, however, hardly does justice to the ‘material’ available.