While designating the code names to his squad, Lt Colonel Y K Joshi assigns a Maharana Pratap, a Charaka, a Sangram, a Chanakya but when it’s Shershaah’s turn, there’s a moment’s pause as though anticipating a drumroll followed by a triumphant guitar tune. The movie is a paean to his brave deeds and makes no bones about it.
Some heroes become legends with the passage of time but Captain Vikram Batra’s star was on the rise even when he was fighting the enemy across the border during the Kargil War of 1999. His jaw-dropping valour in recapturing crucial points contributed to India’s sure shot victory over Pakistan — a role that is etched in Indian history, a role that was honoured with the prestigious Param Vir Chakra, a role that he died fulfilling at the young age of 24.
Though it’s a biopic, Director Vishnu Vardhan — working on Sandeep Srivastava’s script — is always conscious of Batra’s larger-than-life figure and well-documented popularity. Exerting this knowledge strangely benefits Shershaah and solidifies Batra’s swashbuckling imagery, somebody who could turn a cola slogan into a life motto — Yeh Dil Maange More, somebody who would be portrayed by a Bollywood hero merely five years after he took a bullet in battle.
In comparison, Shershaah‘s single-minded focus on Captain Vikram Batra (Sidharth Malhotra) acquaints us with his exuberant, go-getter impulses bordering on reckless as he defies rules and teases protocol drawing attention to his innate guts, tactical prowess and a watchful eye that sees more than it lets on.
From his indecision in picking between a lucrative career in the merchant navy or joining the armed forces in pursuance of his lifelong dream, to starting out as a daredevil lieutenant at 13 Jammu and Kashmir Rifles and getting promoted to the rank of captain in two years and leading a successful operation at Kargil in the history of mountain warfare, Batra accomplished a fair bit.
A restless energy envelops him, not too uncommon in twenty-somethings eager to act and conquer.
There’s glamour in greatness and Batra who has grown up watching fellow Palampur native and the first recipient of Param Vir Chakra, Major Somnath Sharma eulogised in Farooq Shaikh’s skin and Chetan Anand’s television series, is gleefully aspiring for it.
There’s a good deal of him to discover outside the military turf as well. While his close ties to his parents, two sisters and twin brother are disappointingly peripheral, the handsome romantic’s Punjabi-speaking flirtations around Dimple, a comely Sardarni he meets while studying in Chandigarh form the heart of Shershaah‘s spirited tale.
This is the meatiest role of Sidharth Malhotra’s career and the man sure enough gives it his all. There’s charm, swagger, warmth, empathy, verve, authority — a lively portrait of a lion, a legend. Let’s say if Shah Rukh Khan was an emotion, Sidharth channels his to the brim. Add to that his smooth chemistry around Kiara Advani, which exudes a much-in-love air that makes the impending doom all the more upsetting to bear. Meanwhile, Kiara’s light, luminous elegance helps overlook some of its slit-finger sindoor cheesiness.
Props to Cinematographer Kamaljeet Negi for bringing some novel perspective to scenes of love and war, especially where he frames his shots through narrow passages or focuses on his protagonists against striking backdrops.
The combat scenes are ably executed and opt for a raw urgency over slick impact, but Shershaah completely neglects to address the difficulty of fighting in Kargil’s complex climatic and logistical conditions.
Creative liberties for the sake of drama are a given, but Director Vishnu Vardhan (at the helm of Tamil hits like Billa, Arrambam) refrains from grating jingoism and faithfully resurrects all of Batra’s moments and maxims — chants of Durge Mata Ki Jai, crossfire and cracks over Madhuri Dixit and his stoic belief — You live by chance, love by choice and kill by profession.
Though it isn’t above banalities like the mandatory childhood flashback of a mini me of the future you, dodgy, one-note nemesis and his politics of opportunism, the Kashmiri local lamb who has lost his way until the do-gooder hero intervenes, the sight of a herdsman in the valley signalling towards an ominous occurrence or the jinx of the picture shared by an army man inevitably ends in a life cut short.
Batra’s colleagues (only a sombre Shiv Pandit registers) didn’t hold back in gallantry, something the end credits attest amply but are relegated to awestruck teammates.
Having said that, Shershaah is at its most compelling when going with the flow of its central character’s spontaneous instincts. The minute it tries to explain, emphasise and remind us who said what and when, it dilutes a perfectly poignant moment. And Vishnu Vardhan goes significantly overboard in magnifying the martyr moment, blazing guns and all.
Except you know what? I was moved to tears. Sidharth and Kiara dig beyond the heroics and bring out the human. He is as dear as he was daring.
Shershaah streams on Amazon Prime Video.