The first thought that comes to mind when I see Shershaah is that a war hero deserved a more exciting movie. It is a properly sad, restrained story of the brief life and career of a 25-year-old Army Captain who died fighting in the 1999 Kargil conflict, but it takes far too long to reach full velocity.
Given Shershaah’s tone and presentation, Captain Vikram Batra’s experiences as an officer and a gentleman add up to a tale that relies on broad strokes rather than diving into the intricacies of the titular hero’s growth as the incredibly courageous maverick.
The story’s narrator is the protagonist’s identical twin. Still, he, like the rest of the soldier’s family, is relegated to the plot’s periphery, a creative decision that prevents Shershaah from becoming an overarching tale that straddles the martyr’s exceptional courage as well as the fortitude of his family.
The Vishnu Varadhan-directed war film, co-produced by Karan Johar’s Dharma Productions and now available on Amazon Prime Video, weaves together fragments of a life fashioned out of documented data and placed inside a framework.
Sidharth Malhotra, the lead actor, has what it takes to flesh out a real-life martyr who has left behind a larger-than-life aura. Still, the character’s tough-as-nails mentality that lies at the heart of his battlefield daring-do is conveyed in shallow, banal driblets.
Captain Batra, alias Shershaah before of a critical mission during the Kargil conflict, coined the phrase “Yeh dil maange more.” Unfortunately, the film about him and his brief life lacks the enthralling force to captivate.
On the surface, Sandeep Shrivastava’s writing for Shershaah appears to touch into the sadness of a life cut short by war, as well as the bravery and pride implicit in Captain Batra’s final sacrifice. On the other hand, it employs unadventurous means to tell a narrative that has, for the most part, been in the public domain for two decades and a bit. So there aren’t any shocking discoveries in store for the audience from Shershaah.
Vikram, who has yet to enter adolescence, battles a bully who refuses to return a cricket ball. His father, a schoolteacher in Palampur, Himachal Pradesh, criticizes his son and worries that he may become a ruffian. Unfazed, Vikram says, “Meri cheez mere se koi nahi chheen sakta (No one can take what belongs to me).”
From there, it’s a natural progression. Vikram is enchanted by the late 1980s television series Param Vir Chakra, particularly an episode on Palampur’s Major Somnath Sharma, the first recipient of India’s highest bravery medal.
To the chagrin of the rest of his family, the youngster begins to wear combat fatigues to parties and social events. However, the boy’s mind is made up. He informs everyone around him that one day he would be a soldier protecting the nation’s boundaries.
The second chapter in the Vikram Batra tale takes place in a Chandigarh college when he falls in love with Dimple Cheema (Kiara Advani). As the college romance develops, his parents, two elder sisters, and identical twin brother Vishal (also portrayed by Sidharth Malhotra) are pushed to the sidelines.
Dimple Cheema belongs to the Sardarni tribe. Her father is vehemently opposed to his daughter having any relationship with a Punjabi Khatri lad. But keep in mind that no one can take away what Vikram Batra sets his eyes on. However, the love affair comes to a halt as Vikram is undecided about the future course of action.
With Dimple on his mind, he is unsure whether to follow his boyhood goal of entering the army or accept a high-paying Merchant Navy job. In the end, no prizes for guessing. He takes the correct decision, aided a little by his lover and his closest friend Sunny (Sahil Vaid).
Eighty minutes of the film – Shershaah has a runtime of 135 minutes – are spent setting the stage for Vikram’s heroic deeds, first in Sopore, where he develops excellent camaraderie with his seniors and juniors alike, and then during the Kargil conflict, which forces him to cut a trip back to Chandigarh to meet Dimple and reassure her that his love is real.
Shershaah gains momentum in the combat sequences that follow, as all of the characters in front and behind the camera, including the director of photography (Kamaljeet Negi), the action choreographer, and the lead actor, come into their own. The slow pace of the first two-thirds of the film is swiftly forgotten as Shershaah settles into something resembling a rhythm.
As a soldier, Vikram’s philosophy is “live by chance, love by choice, and kill by profession.” Even if the loss of his comrades during the war hurts him, he does not give up. He swears that he would do all in his ability to keep Indian casualties to a minimum.
“No one will die on my watch again,” the fearless lieutenant of the 13 Jammu and Kashmir Rifles assures Captain Sanjeev “Jimmy” Jamwal (Shiv Pandit), his Indian Army superior by six months. “If anyone dies other than the enemy, it will be me,” Vikram adds.
Lt. Col Y.K. Joshi (Shitaf Figar), the young officer’s supervisor, recognizes the spark in Vicky and Jimmy and readily admits that the two are his best soldiers. Unfortunately, Jimmy’s character, as well as numerous others, is woefully underdeveloped. Shiv Pandit, Nikitin Dheer, and Anil Charanjeett, who play these supporting characters, have only a few scenes to make their presence felt. It’s a losing fight.
Shershaah, thankfully, does not stoop to chest-thumping and flag-waving. It honors a brave soldier. The hero, on the other hand, isn’t given to either superficial swagger or bellicose bluster. He’s the type of clear-headed man who understands what he needs to do and attacks it with steadfast determination.
To some extent, that is how the film is. Shershaah might have soared much higher with military drama and a bit more cinematic firepower and grit.