From the recently-released Shershaah to films like Uri and Gunjan Saxena, movies with patriotic narratives have been successful in engrossing audiences across the country, rousing intense interest and curiosity
By Reya Mehrotra
On August 12, the biographical war film Shershaah released with great fanfare on Amazon Prime Video. Based on the life of deceased Indian Army Captain Vikram Batra, the film is directed by Vishnuvardhan and stars Sidharth Malhotra and Kiara Advani. A war hero, Batra sacrificed his life during the 1999 Kargil War and was posthumously awarded the Param Vir Chakra. A day later, another war film, Bhuj: The Pride of India, released on Disney+ Hotstar. The film, starring Ajay Devgn and Sanjay Dutt, is based on the 1971 India-Pakistan war and follows the life of IAF Squadron Leader Vijay Karnik. The officer was incharge of the Bhuj airport and, along with his team, reconstructed the IAF airbase with the help of 300 local women. Shershaah and Bhuj follow the long tradition of films releasing around Republic and Independence Day that feed the patriotic hunger of the audience.
Patriotic films or those based on true events or real-life heroes have kindled the audience’s interest since the birth of Indian cinema. And why not? Patriotism in popular culture adds to the sense of ownership of one’s country. So when such films films are released, they rouse a lot of interest and curiosity among the audience.
Story so far
In the 2019 film Uri: The Surgical Strike, Vicky Kaushal’s character asks his battalion, “How’s the josh?” and they shout back “High, sir!” The dialogue became a rage in the country soon after the film was released, capturing popular imagination. It’s adrenaline-boosting dialogues like these that have enthralled audiences over the years.
The popularity of such films can also be attributed to the fact that many of these are inspired by true events, real-life heroes or based on ongoing conflicts and issues. In fact, going back in time, films made between 1921 and 1947 focused on and depicted the revolt against the British. These films imparted a strong message of freedom from the British rule in the backdrop of the independence struggle. Charkha chalao behno (a song from the 1940 film Aaj Ka Hindustan) and Dur hato aye duniyawalon Hindustan hamara hai (song from the 1943 film Kismet) communicated to the Indian audience to gear up for the struggle. Some movies also called for uniting and letting go of societal evils. The 1937 film Duniya Na Mane advocated widow remarriage, while Brandy Ki Botal (1939) encouraged Gandhian morality.
Aware of the newborn unity that Indian cinema was calling for, the British fired back through films like The Drum (1938), which portrayed Indians as scheming and untrustworthy. In the 1940s, the dawn of the decade of independence, Indian cinematic voice grew louder as the British presence started showing signs of fading. The 1947 film Ek Kadam, in fact, featured Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose on its poster.
The post-independence era saw events like the Indo-China war, India-Pakistan skirmishes, the 1999 Kargil War, the Kashmir conflict and, most recently, the surgical strike, all of which were adapted successfully for the screen. The 1997 film Border (based on the 1971 Indo-Pak war) and Uri: The Surgical Strike (based on the 2016 surgical strike) received great critical acclaim, as well as huge commercial success. Then there were films like Rang De Basanti (2006), Kesari (2019), Swades (2004), Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl (2020), etc, that presented patriotic narratives, engrossing audiences.
Film critics, however, believe there’s still a lot of scope for improvement and value in such films. Author and movie critic Gautaman Bhaskaran, for one, says Indian war films compare poorly with their western counterparts. “Can anybody name an Indian war movie that can be compared to works like Von Ryan’s Express, Battle of the Bulge, Where Eagles Dare or The Bridge on the River Kwai? Indian works, right from Haqeeqat in 1964 to the latest like Uri: The Surgical Strike, are technically shoddy and look like promotional pieces. They have hardly touched my heart in either narrative value or authenticity,” he rues, adding, “Much of Indian cinema suffers from ham-handed scriptwriting, poor direction and bad performances. There have been marginal improvements in recent years, but we still have a long way to go if we want to catch up with foreign cinema.”
From him using the phrase ‘Yeh dil maange more’ to communicate a mission’s success to slitting his thumb to apply ‘vermilion’ to his fiancée Dimple Cheema, Captain Vikram Batra lived like a true hero. Before going for the Kargil War, he famously said, “Tiranga lehra ke aaonga ya fir usme lipat kar aaonga” (Either I will hoist the Tricolour or come wrapped in it).
It’s these larger-than-life characteristics of him that translate beautifully on screen. Talking about portraying the real-life hero on screen, actor Sidharth Malhotra, who comes from a family of army and naval officers himself (his grandfather fought in the Indo-China war, while his father is a retired Merchant Navy officer), says it was an emotional journey for him.
“The character was not fictitious, but a true hero. I met his brother and parents, and felt extremely emotional and connected, as we share the same cultural background… I had that sense of obligation towards his family and the army,” he says, adding that it is one thing to hear stories from his grandfather about his days in the army and another to be portraying an army officer on the battlefield. “It requires more craft as an actor to play a true character. You can’t improvise, but need more practise and skill,” the actor says. Malhotra also spoke to Batra’s twin brother Vishal to understand Batra better and even visited his house in Palampur.
Vishnuvardhan, who has made his directorial debut with the film, says such movies can inspire people. “How a 24-year-old boy became a legend is for you to see. More than being a war film, it should create an impact and inspire people.” Some portions of the film, which took a couple of months’ research, were shot in Kargil, the real location. Vishnuvardhan says they were fortunate that the army suggested they shoot there. “We had planned on shooting in Kashmir and Leh, but since there was some tension in Kashmir then, the army suggested we shoot in Kargil and we were overwhelmed. The location became our character,” he says.
While there have always been films on war and real-life heroes, audience interest in the genre has escalated after events like the 2016 surgical strike and the 2019 Balakot air strike. These strikes, says Indian Navy veteran Manan Bhatt, gave the nation the hope that terror could be ended. “The surgical strike was the first time that India reacted with military action to a terrorist event. The perpetrators of terror no longer had a free hand. The air strike strengthened the belief that there would be retribution for every act of terror. India’s definite actions in the war on terror have all of a sudden brought about a passionate upheaval in the patriotic emotions of the entire nation. There is a keen interest in the entire stratum of Indian society to read and watch real tales of patriotism, sacrifice and valour,” says Bhatt, who recently wrote the book Balakot Air Strike: How India Avenged Pulwama.
He is right. The audience is lapping up war films, especially those showing men and women in the uniform winning against all odds, says Manish Kalra, chief business officer, ZEE5 India. “One of the reasons is that these stories unite people from across the country. Uri, the State of Siege franchise, Jeet Ki Zidd, Parmanu have been great entertainers and have very high engagement rates, which means that people have loved these stories,” he says.
Perhaps that’s the reason Ebury Publishing and Vintage, a division of Penguin Random House India, recently launched the imprint Penguin Veer. Dedicated to telling stories from the Indian armed forces, Penguin Veer will begin by publishing three titles annually and will debut its first list of books later this year.
Talking about Shershaah, Major General (retired) GD Bakshi shares that Batra was from his regiment and that he is glad his story is finally being told. “We need to read more traditions of bravery. Long back, there used to be poets singing songs of bravery of heroes from village to village… as the tradition of poetry died, we had hoped for TV and films to preserve it. However, there haven’t been many films on real heroes,” he says.
Bakshi and his son Aditya have taken to producing war documentaries to bring out such stories. Some of their productions are Killer Squadron: The Indian Navy’s Historic Strike on Karachi 1971, Sentinels of The Snow: The Battle of Rezangla, etc. Apart from Haqeeqat and Border, says Bakshi, there haven’t been quality films on wars. “We recently had the 50th anniversary of the 1971 war. It was such a crucial point in history where two countries were separated and created, but no film was released to mark the date. Now, after recent events, there is great hunger for such movies,” says Bakshi, who has also written the book 1971: The Fall of Dacca.
Women in war
Most war films, however, only focus on the battlefield and the men in action without telling the aftermath of the war—the deaths, losses, atrocities on women, the economic drain a country experiences, withered and broken families, the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) induced by the events of the war, etc. An exception to this is Amazon Prime Video’s Family Man, which shows its lead character Shrikant feeling stressed and guilty after wrongly killing an accused. His colleague Milind, too, is shown struggling with PTSD.
The most vulnerable, however, remain the women—mothers, daughters, wives, sisters and partners. While the men fight on the field, they struggle with their own emotional battles and insecurities off it. The film Border depicts it well, showing soldiers leaving behind wives and mothers to fight in the war. In Rang De Basanti, too, flight lieutenant Ajay’s (R Madhavan’s) mother and fiancée face the heat for protesting after his death.
Kiara Advani, who plays Batra’s fiancée Dimple Cheema in Shershaah, says she understood what women go through after meeting her. “The partners and the people behind the soldiers are their strength and support system, and we don’t know much about them sometimes. They are an integral part of their lives, but aren’t always in the limelight. Dimple didn’t want to come in the limelight, but through this film, I got the chance to meet her and she graciously shared her story. The emotions and sacrifices of army wives, families, partners and loved ones… what they go through… perhaps these are the most selfless relationships. It is a high-risk job,” shares Advani, calling Cheema a strong woman who fought for her love. “She is one of the loveliest people I have met. She shared the beautiful moments of her relationship with me, her decision of staying unmarried. I see her as a strong Indian woman who made her choice and stood by it proudly,” says Advani.
Talking about his own grandmother, Malhotra says he has seen her build a house, take care of the children and grandchildren while his grandfather was away at war, got injured and later passed away.
Patriotism beyond the battlefield
In the 2007 film Chak De! India, a stern-faced Shah Rukh Khan says in one of the most famous dialogues of the movie, “Mujhe states ke naam na sunai dete hai, na dikhai dete hai. Sirf ek mulk ka naam sunai deta hai—India (I can neither hear nor see the names of states, but only the name of my country India).” The film, which tells a fictional story about the Indian women’s national field hockey team, went on to win a number of awards. The emotion echoed more than a decade later when the Indian women’s hockey team entered the semi-finals at the Tokyo Olympics this year.
The success of Chak De! India is a clear indication that patriotism for the common man is not limited to the battlefield. Films inspired by the lives of Indian sportspersons are an instant hit, too, with the audience as they come with an important message. Take, for instance, films like Dangal (based on the Phogat sisters), Saina (based on shuttler Saina Nehwal), MS Dhoni: The Untold Story (based on the cricketer’s life) and Soorma (based on hockey player Sandeep Singh). All these trace the story of sportspersons who came from humble backgrounds or rose above the challenges to represent their country globally.
Then there is Mary Kom. The Priyanka Chopra-starrer depicts Kom’s story of struggle to become a boxer, and how she navigated her way back to the ring after motherhood. As for the legendary Milkha Singh, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag exposed the young generation of today to his unmatched prowess as he rose to fame after a troubled childhood.
With certain sportspersons like Dhoni, who enjoys a huge fanbase, films on their lives become inspirational pieces that motivate the young and instill a feeling of pride. Perhaps that’s why director Kabir Khan chose Kapil Dev as the subject for his next film titled 83. The film, which tells the story of the cricketing legend who got India its first World Cup in 1983, is underway and stars Ranveer Singh as Dev, with Deepika Padukone playing the part of his wife.
The different colours of patriotism on the big screen over the years
Duniya Na Mane (1937)
Ek Kadam (1947)
The Legend of Bhagat Singh (2002)
Mangal Pandey: The Rising (2005)
Rang De Basanti (2006)
Chak De! India (2007)
Mary Kom (2014)
MS Dhoni: The Untold Story (2016)
Parmanu: The Story of Pokhran (2018)
Uri: The Surgical Strike (2019)
Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl (2020)
Bhuj: The Pride of India (2021)
India’s definite actions in the war on terror have brought about a passionate upheaval in the patriotic emotions of the countrymen
— Manan Bhatt, Indian Navy veteran and author
These stories unite people from across the country. Uri, the State of Siege franchise, Parmanu have been great entertainers and have very high engagement rates— Manish Kalra, chief business officer, ZEE5 India
There is a great hunger for such movies— Major General (retired) GD Bakshi, author, 1971: The Fall of Dacca
More than being a war film, it should create an impact and inspire people— Vishnuvardhan, director, Shershaah
There have been marginal improvements in Indian war cinema in recent years, but we still have a long way to go if we want to catch up with foreign cinema— Gautaman Bhaskaran, author and movie critic
Interview: Vishal Batra, twin brother of late Captain Vikram Batra
‘I hope people learn from his life’
‘Shershaah’ was the code name given to 24-year-old Captain Vikram Batra, who fought in the Kargil War and inked his name in history. He was awarded India’s highest military honour, Param Vir Chakra, posthumously in 1999. Starring Sidharth Malhotra as Batra, Shershaah, based on the war hero’s life, released on August 12. Reya Mehrotra caught up with his 46-year-old twin brother Vishal Batra (a Delhi-based banking executive) ahead of the film’s release to know more about the national hero, his memories of them growing up together and the journey of making a film on his life. Edited excerpts:
Shershaah has released. How does it feel?
It is a moment of both pride and emotion. To see Vikram on the big screen has been a long dream for us and the movie is finally out and taken shape. Every time I talk about him, I go back to our childhood and life together till the age of 24.
How did the film materialise? Were you approached by the makers?
We were approached by producer Shabbir Boxwala from Kaash Entertainment in 2015. That was the time we already had a dream, and then Dharma Productions came into the picture. We wanted Vikram’s story to reach every nook and corner of India, and wanted it to be heard by every Indian, so my compliments to both Dharma and Shabbir for bringing it to life.
So you had already thought of a film on Vikram’s life?
Yes. In fact, we had two dreams. Dad (GL Batra) wanted to write a book on him… it materialised and the book was unveiled in 2017. It was titled Param Vir Vikram Batra: The Sher Shah of Kargil—A Father Remembers. It was a tribute from a father to a son. The second dream was to make a biopic on him. I knew one or two people from the industry and would have approached them at the right time. But thanks to Dharma and Shabbir, this dream came true. I always believe it is Vikram driving everything from the top, and it happened organically by default.
How was he as a person? Did he always want to join the Army?
He was a livewire, a man full of life. He believed in one principle from childhood: ‘live life king-size’. I am happy that even though he went early, he lived life the way he wanted to. He was an amazing brother and the best confidant. We were identical twins… he was older by 40 minutes and we used to share every bit of our lives together. He was yaaron ka yaar, a very loving brother. All his friends loved him too. They called us Luv and Kush. He was Luv because he was so affectionate. We had dreamt of joining the armed forces together. I tried thrice, but was not recommended by the board, while he got through in the first attempt. Life took a twist and now I am living his life by continuing and carrying forward his legacy. What he did for the country is unforgettable.
How different were both of you?
I am a little more compromising as a person. But if Vikram decided anything, he had to do it at that moment. Sometimes dad would say, ‘Let’s do this next month’, and I would agree, but he would be like ‘Let’s do it now’. Otherwise, we were very similar. We were both keen sportspersons who represented our school in all-India nationals and played many games like table tennis, judo, karate… we were great roller-skaters too. Vikram, however, was better at squash. The only difference was that Vikram was bindaas.
You didn’t make it to the Army. How did life turn out after that?
I have always believed the Army never wanted a second Batra, as one was enough (laughs)… that’s the principle I am living on. It was not destined for me. If he was to go early, God wanted me to stay back and take care of our parents. I thank God that I had a sibling like Vikram and take a lot of pride when I meet men in uniform because I, too, had that dream.
What was your role during the making of the film?
We were more of storytellers, sharing things about Vikram, his childhood, student, school and college life, academy days and army training… his initial insurgency days, the missions 5140 and 4875, which he undertook during the Kargil War. Our role was limited to storytelling, but I have to give credit to Sidharth (Malhotra) as he got into the skin of the character and understood Vikram as an individual by talking with me for long hours.
Were you a part of the shooting process, giving your inputs, etc?
They (the crew) are professionals and know better. But I was there when they were shooting in Chandigarh. I spent a lot of time with Sidharth in Palampur and Kargil, where they shot for a while. I was there for support and saw a few glimpses of the portions shot…
How did Sidharth prepare for the role?
I first met him on December 24, 2016, and must give him credit, as he had studied a lot beforehand—through media reports, books and stories—about Vikram. He took a lot of interest in understanding Vikram as a son, Army officer, brother and human being.
Is there anything you have kept from the film?
Not really, because it is a biopic and it has to depict him as an individual… the world only knows him as ‘Shershaah’, not as a brother, student, his personal life and war days. We have not hidden anything. The movie hasn’t taken much cinematic liberty… only 10-15% of it.
After almost two decades, your family would see Vikram come to life on screen. What are the emotions?
I have seen the unedited version, but the family is yet to see it. There is no fabrication in the movie. The story is real. We are all eagerly waiting to watch it.
If he were alive today, what would be his reaction on seeing the film?
I wish he was there to see on screen what he has done for the country. On July 7, 2019, I was fortunate enough to go to Batra Post (the historic capture point 4875), which has been named in Vikram’s honour. Thanks to the Indian Army, I got a chance to visit the peak and made a call to my parents from there. On the same date, 20 years ago, Vikram had called dad and mom when he had captured 5140. When dad asked me on the call, ‘Kaisa lag raha hai? (How are you feeling?)’, I said, ‘I wish this call had been made by Vikram.’
What did the family go through at that time? How did you cope?
He was so young, all of 24. We still have not come out of it. The void is permanent. Vikram recorded his name in Indian history forever. He continues to live on, he might not be here physically, but we feel him around us.
The two dreams—of the book and movie—have been accomplished. What’s next?
I will continue sharing his bravery, so that it reaches every Indian. I hope when people watch the movie, they pick up some lessons from his life and contribute towards society.