Aditya Dhar’s Uri: The Surgical Strike seems to be a tribute to NSA Ajit Doval, played by Paresh Rawal.
The legend of National Security Adviser Ajit Doval is alive and well. Any damage to it in real life with the mishandling of the Pathankot attack has been ably overcome by director Aditya Dhar’s thrilling cinematic reconstruction of the surgical strikes in Uri: The Surgical Strike. Played by Paresh Rawal, the National Security Adviser and chairman of the Strategic Policy Group, is here Govind Bhardwaj, nothing short of superman, albeit in an ill-fitting suit.
He is a super spy, leaving hotels through the kitchen, jumping into an autorickshaw in the middle of the night to get to Raisina Hill, cultivating a highly placed asset deep in the Pakistani establishment (that too, without giving much away, a whisky-swilling, smooth-talking one) and using burner phones. He is also able to spot the talented intern who just happens to be working on a drone that may just win the war, and which, in a nod to this establishment’s obsessive harking back to the past, is called Garuda. The name is not accidental—Garuda is, after all, the mount of Vishnu and the arch enemy of the snakes.
It doesn’t take much to understand who the snakes are in this movie — even without reference to former secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s famous allusion that those who keep snakes in their backyard are doomed to be bitten by them. The Pakistanis are portrayed as relentlessly deceptive, given to golfing, eating yakni pulao, and downing Eno to overcome indigestion. They are also obsessed with bleeding India by a thousand cuts. But as the film keeps telling us, this is is Naya Hindustan. “Yeh ghar main ghusega bhi, aur marega bhi.” Or as Vicky Kaushal’s brave soldier Vihaan Shergill says: “Unhe Kashmir chahiye aur hamein unka sir“.
And the architect of this, the one man who has the Prime Minister’s complete trust, is Govind. The Army Chief, defence minister Ravinder-ji (clearly Manohar Parrikar in healthier times) and Govind are the three men the PM listens to. The idea of the surgical strike is seen to have come from Govind. He has to merely pick up the phone and the ISRO chief will position a satellite on the seven terrorist camps in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. He goes shopping to the DRDO to see the latest in spyware, developed in consultation with Israel—a sort of James Bond visiting M.’s magical gadget land scene. In a nice little touch, it’s a Kashmiri Pandit boy who is developing the drone that catches his fancy. Govind is the one who knows the exact coordinates of the assaults. And he is the one who is best able to articulate New India’s ideal — Israel. As he puts it, after the 1972 Munich Olympics attack by Black September — a splinter group of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation — Mossad launched Operation Wrath Of God, where they killed each and every person identified with the attack over a period of several years. That’s the sort of force Naya Hindustan has to muster.
Aditya Dhar, the 34-year-old former hotel management graduate, says Govind is an amalgamation of three officials who played a vital role in the surgical strike, but does admit he spent two and a half hours with the 73-year-old Ajit Doval before he started shooting the film. “It was a surreal experience,” he says, “having a conversation with the National Security Adviser of the country, about his interests and his beliefs. We discussed everything from Kashmir to films.” Dhar is a Kashmiri Pandit himself whose extended family had to leave the Valley after 1989. Growing up, he was fascinated by the Army, and would have loved to join it if he could.
The real Doval hasn’t seen the movie, as yet, but he would be very happy indeed with his portrayal. He would be no less chuffed with the portrayal of the Indian Army, given his father, Gunanand Doval, was a major in the Indian Army—Doval has consistently said that India punches below its weight and has to step up its game.
Paresh Rawal, who is also a BJP MP from Ahmedabad East, says he had to be very careful not to play the character as “loud” or “jingoistic”. “The Army in India has always been powerful and quite capable of striking even after 26/11. But perhaps because of the vote bank, the government of the day chose not to act then. What was different after Uri was that there was sanction from the politicians. Yet, I had to play Govind as unassuming, always in the background and very soft-spoken — as a man capable of dissecting the situation and getting to the heart of the problem,” said Rawal. “As an actor, you have to make choices. Like when I played Sunil Dutt in Sanju, I had to capture the spirit of a man whose beloved wife is dying, whose son is in constant trouble, whose political career in danger, whose young daughters are not safe. No amount of prosthetics can help you with that.” So with Uri, did he approach the role as a politician or as an actor? “As an actor first, someone who keeps his cool in a grave crisis.” So will he fight the next election? “I don’t think so,” he says, “but the party has to decide. I have learnt a lot as a politician, especially how to be patient.”
Dhar has taken pains to ensure that he shows the Indian Army in the best light possible—he was one of 13 filmmakers who requested the Army for rights to cinematically depict the surgical strike, but the only one who gave the Additional Directorate General of Public Information (AGDPI) a script to read. Dhar’s Army doesn’t kill children, even those with guns; it is egalitarian when it comes to women in combat (in a nice touch, Kaushal’s Shergill chooses a woman to pilot his chopper) and believes in treating the enemy the same way they would treat them — cutting off their feet, leaving bombs to blow their bodies up, and using torture to extract information from terrorists. Dhar shot the action scenes in Serbia, where the terrain was similar to Kashmir’s and where the equipment used by special forces was most easily accessible.
More than the resoluteness of the political establishment, the movie is a tribute to Doval — whether it is his Myanmar operation or his knowledge of Pakistani deep state, gleaned from several years spent there. Sure the Prime Minister is seen as the man who green-lights the strike, but it is Govind who masterminds it with the Army Chief and our other hero, the fictional Vihaan Shergill. The movie puts to rest any doubt over whether Doval is the most powerful bureaucrat India has ever seen – and is an interesting contrast to the portrayal of bureaucrats in this week’s other release, The Accidental Prime Minister. Former principal secretary to the PM, Pulok Chatterji, is portrayed as an oafish political puppet while former National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan is seen as a gossip whose favourite party trick it is to say: “I have a file on you.”
Ironically, Uri would not have been Dhar’s first film if the Uri attack hadn’t happened. After several false starts, Raat Baaki, a comedy action movie starring Fawad Khan and Katrina Kaif, would have been his first movie, to be produced by Karan Johar. Uri put paid to it, with the controversy erupting over Pakistani actor Fawad Khan’s presence in Karan Johar’s Ae Dil Hai Mushkil in 2016, and Johar’s abject national apology. There were calls to ban Pakistani actors, and Fawad Khan has not acted in a single Indian film since then. One presumes this is what Johar meant when he tweeted after meeting Prime Minister Modi on 10 January: “Together we would love to inspire and ignite positive changes to a transformative India.”
The author is a senior journalist.
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