'This is a movie made with this gaze fixed on its immediate well-wishers, while at the same time it squints hard looking for those swaying back and forth on the fence,' notes Rohit Sathish Nair.
Other reviews might have already told you this, but I'll say it again: Rajit Kapur in Uri gave us the better Manmohan Singh portrayal of the week.
Just kidding, folks, hold your horses! But to talk about Uri and about whether it is propaganda or not one must start with those aspects of the movie that betray a (perhaps even deliberate) tentativeness, the kind of tentativeness which many of this film's benefactors loved to underline as the ex-PM's chief trait.
The prime minister shown here is barely a character or even an archetype, he is just a collection of the most favourable attributes of both Singh and Modi; a figurehead which, if not for the few technicalities actually related with the subject, both parties would have loved to appropriate.
For the 'Grand Old Party', this would have been their prototype for the 'Alternative New PM': A leader with originality of thought and the will to take bold decisions without fear of 'interference' and near-obsequious adherence to one's party's 'dogma', and thus might have been their latest counter for all those indictments in the other release on January 11th.
As it stands, what is does accomplish is the shattering of the image of the PM created by the Opposition in those who know pretty clearly what he isn't as a prime minister, but can't really put a finger on who exactly he is.
And this is exactly in line with how the movie functions as a whole.
This is a movie made with this gaze fixed on its immediate well-wishers, while at the same time it squints hard looking for those swaying back and forth on the fence.
And it gets its easy votes by giving us cliches right from the beginning: The first martyred soldier to be given a close-up after a bus is ambushed and blown up in Manipur in the first scene, is the soldier who was serenading his far-away wife minutes ago in the bus.
The film has a way of setting up scenes taken from real-life solutions in a rather naturalistic manner, leaching out the suspense and a lot of the realism and letting them play out in a very cliched manner garnished with a push-button background score.
Even at its best, the film feels authentic but not original.
Even when you are told that the handler for the Uri attack resides in the most inaccessible (at that moment) terrorist launch pad out of the 5 points that the army rounds in on for the surgical strike, you recognise it less as an acknowledgement of the concurrence of the hierarchy of the terrorist group and the strategic use of the hierarchy of remoteness of its base locations, and more as a safe abidance of genre conventions.
Thus it could be deduced that while propaganda movies as we know them employ distortion, what Uri really uses is distillation.
Uri doesn't rewrite fact so much as omit a fair share, most of which it simply couldn't afford to reveal for security reasons perhaps, but also in the process, some subliminal yet irrefutable truths.
Though it had limitations in terms of giving us an entirely true portrayal event, the movie gives off a feeling that the turn of events just happened to suit the narrative of a genre film.
So while it is pretty far from most 'nationalistic' movies (for one, it does move and look like an actual movie for the most part) and can't exactly be set aside to that bunch, it isn't exactly too far from a Sanju as both films take to disproportionate distribution of sympathy and agency among their characters (though in Uri's case it feels less scandalous and easier to discern where from and how it has manifested) and most importantly, their main tactic and mantra is to 'reveal a little to conceal a lot'.
This comes in the form of cutesy tics like NSA Govind Bharadwaj (Paresh Rawal)'s clamshell phone breaking routine, without buildup, follow-up or variation, broadly comic scenes like the one where the 'Garud' drone is tested (the most obvious and broadest comic strains are sought after in this scene, it doesn't feel like the humour that emerges naturally yet uninvited in tense situations) and the song sequences, ultimately generic but edited in such a way that just as we are about to get a grip on what is happening, they cut to the next set of visuals (And as usual you don't really get a fresh idea on why it happens or how the particular scenes add up to the larger picture, though it always keeps you up in anticipation for the next visuals).
Songs in Bollywood are hardly made with an aim for lightness of touch in mind and most mainstream Hindi movies still try to use them as a fellow motor for narrative, but it does say something about the movie when the subtlest component of the post-Manipur segment is the fine Kaafi-lite composition Behe Chala (written although as a slightly unhandy, thinly veiled metaphor for Vihaan Shergill's (Vicky Kaushal) confusions.
The action scenes too come with their conclusions strongly hinted at beforehand through the background score, and it isn't moments of clarity, disorientation, anxiety and composure emerging naturally from the proceedings but the converse that seems to happen: The scenes where the team awaits combat or inching for the kill are shot rather neatly before they and the terrorists go all out and the camera noodles in like a sidewinder burrowing his way back into a dune, and just when they feel that the momentum is sagging, they splice in a shot of a soldier accidentally stepping on a bucket (no consequences for that, though, and no relief or reassurance felt at there not being any).
Our soldiers get the closer, tighter shots alright, but more often than not, they also seem to get the steadier shots, irrespective of what their state of mind at that particular moment is.
A soaring aerial shot of the soldiers as they march towards the caves suggests triumph even before they really get to the business end of the operation.
We do know 'what happens' in these segments, but we are denied the steady accrual of suspense that comes with 'How it happens' and 'Does everything happen according to plan?' and 'How they improvise in the face of even the smallest obstacle'.
The terrorists on the other hand even when they are collected and intact have been captured in a perpetually jittery state (The tea they have at the Uri base right before their sinister mission can't quite quell it).
The real clincher and the icing on the cake, which would tell you that Aditya Dhar is a smart, astute film-maker who looks where others ain't looking, is the sound design, with the sounds of bones breaking and blood gushing out of a slit heel ad eyes almost being gouged out all being amped up for the purpose of vicarious enjoyment.
In short, in the process of banalising a complex dynamic and tipping the scales quite liberally (giving both sides their due doesn't necessarily mean humanising the terrorists, just showing them attempt to get their act together in their last moments), Uri goes against the cardinal rules of both serious works of art about terrorism and sturdy garden-variety action/revenge genre movies.
That said, the film does exhibit a slight sense of self-awareness at times that contributes a lot to its pull, which it seems to have developed in anticipation of easy responses like 'War is Bad' and 'This is BJP propaganda' without substantiating claims, and it doesn't make basic mistakes (While watching the movie the first time, an evil thought crossed my mind: 'Was the PM actually present in India during the timeline mentioned in the film?', after which I silenced myself into shame and guilt at that very instant. After a Web search, I was relieved to know that I was wrong and the film was right).
The post-interval block starts with an Eno-swilling Pakistani bureaucrat (someone we instantly slot as the 'cliched incompetent enemy bureaucrat' in our minds) who is revealed to be a mole working for India.
We also get the Rajnath Singh and Arun Jaitley substitutes discussing alternatives to the surgical strikes, though these insertions are done not to depict a proper discussion going on than to give an impression of a proper debate and discussion going on; an excuse to plod along for a while until Govind Bharadwaj clinches his case for the surgical strike.
The Pakistani War Room has enough intuition but still a bit tentative about its hunch about India's moves.
A Pakistani official's jibe about Bollywood banning Pakistani actors isn't played up for laughs, and once again as an obstacle for the sake of an obstacle, we get news about a Pakistani offensive just when our helicopters are about to cross the LoC smoothly.
This self-awareness, frames with tidiness and minimum fuss, smooth movement (Vihaan having a slice of cake at his niece's birthday party quickly cuts to him having a sandwich in the rain), abstinence from perpetual spoonfeeding and query-resolving and an overall air of confidence are the factors that really make the film suck viewers into its slipstream during the first watch.
Other doubts about the events of the film or about the army in general go unresolved: Doubts ranging from those about mundane, almost bureaucratic trivialities like: 'How do armymen cope with repeated exposure of their ears to overpowering sounds and what special relationship do they share with their ENT doctors?' (a detail I would like to see explored in movies about cops and gangsters as well) to doubts like 'Doesn't ther supreme commander of the armed forces, the President, get to be a part of strategising?', 'What made us susceptible to the attacks shown in the film?, 'Is sahansheelta (patience or tolerance) the one reason we point to for all our issues at the defence and foreign policy fronts?'
'As much as the surgical strike is an important step in our war against terrorism, what to make of the note of finality that the film suggests at the end of the movie?' to doubts like 'Is there more to Vihaan's choice of hand-to-hand combat against the leaders of both the north east separatist group in the beginning and the Uri attack handler in the end (the closing shots of both sequences mirror each other) than proximity and perhaps presence of mind?;'
The movie merely deflects these doubts back to you and doesn't give you a starting point to venture from there on.
The viewer's condition becomes akin to how Nawazuddin Siddiqui in Raman Raghav 2.0 (another film with Vicky Kaushal looking for an outlet for his rage, which is also divided into chapters) never gets a lighter or a matchstick to light his cigarette.
The fact that the film at best directs you to others who know about such details for answers, a distinction which any other film on war worse or better could have earned simply by releasing at the same time, further makes you question the purpose of the movie.
Once you know towards the later portions of the movie and on a second watch (as I did) that the movie isn't particularly interested in quenching or even further igniting your curiosity about the subject matter or the armed forces in general, the film becomes slightly tedious to watch.
The moments that stay with you even after two viewings remain few: Portions like when Vihaan notices Kirti Kulhari's air force officer character at his new desk job, but decides against approaching her a few times, or where the Yami Gautam character, an agent posing as a nurse for Vihaan's Alzheimer's afflicted mother as part of protective surveillance post the Manipur ambush, gradually becomes a part of the family over the course of one year.
Though all the performances are without fault, almost all of them seem to have been worked out in advance and have precise marks to hit at most points of the movie.
It is only Mohit Raina's performance as Major Karan Kashyap, Vihaan's brother-in-law and fellow soldier, that feels like an act of discovery and a portrayal with subtext.
For one, he masterfully avoids most salient features of the 'Jovial Soldier' cliche and in the process, adds spontaneity to the proceedings (The scenes with him, like the first scene with Vihaan where he stuffs paper into a sleeping soldier's mouth, or a scene where they discuss the same soldier's failed date, are easily among the best scenes of Uri).
The biggest achievement he earns might be that he makes you think if the film's focus on Vihaan's life is a bit much (He seems to be as good a hands-on leader as Vihaan, but his daughter, an army general aspirant, still sees Vihaan as the model soldier).
The character of Karan is also perhaps the one volatile-in-terms-of-effect compenent in a movie where everything else meshes together like Swiss clockwork, and his death brings about a few more questions.
His death, for example, isn't without a slight element of freak occurrence, and you are bound to ask, especially given the film's indiscriminate treatment of patriotism and revenge: Would Vihaan have been charged into action had Karan not died?
This question looms larger when Vihaan mentions that in such missions a soldier's feelings come of use more than training and prowess, and you ask: Is patriotism or the necessity of defence and security not strong enough a reason for a soldier to be fully functional in such a situation?
This doubt might have been cleared in a movie that had a more investigative temperament about a soldier's psyche.
The film's stance thus brings to mind our response to heinous crimes which come with the interference of accident, as to how our rejection mechanism for that element of accident, though done for reassuring ourselves about the moral positions of the participants in the event, gradually gives in to a reinforcement of notions that pervades our views on most matters of justice.
Just as one begins to tire of the rather empty professionalism in the pre-climactic portions, on seeing the images on screen, our minds drift off to similar images found in better films which seem unrelated at first to this movie, but whose relevance emerges in our mind only after the movie closes
A shot with the team assembled by the dining table, days before the strike, brings to mind the Corleone family having Chinese food for dinner, right before Michael sets out to murder Sollozzo and McClusky.
A scene where to breach a gate, the team has to cut off a string connected to the pins of four grenades pinned to the gate, had me thinking about Fahadh Faasil's necklace-stealing routine in Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum.
And in what was the biggest non-sequitur of a movie memory, a scene with Pakistani officials playing golf (has there been any other sport so frequently associated with the sedentary type of evil that power signifies?) made me remember Kammatipaadam, where with time oppressors changed and along with them the bamboo cane gave way to the golf club
Though at first the rather disreputable protagonists of these films didn't seem like the right people to view Uri against, I gradually realised that the murkier moral dynamics and pole positions, and more importantly, the lack of political correctness as a safety blanket that gave these films the freedom and confidence to fully explore their characters.
The Godfather, also a film about a wartime situation, simply recorded the upheavals happening within and outside the Corleone family without spoonfeeding us immediate pointers on where each decision stands on the moral scale, and then left it to us to find out why Tom Hagen wasn't considered as a 'wartime consigliere' and let in on the plan to kill the dons of the Five Families.
In short, an approach which is the exact opposite of that of a film like Uri.
Even as I reconsider the connection to the chain-snatching act in Thondimuthalum..., I still can't help but think: But aren't the soldiers and Prasad both facing a life-or-death situation?
As for Kammatipaadam, what also comes to mind is the extra resonance that a golf club brings: It signifies the land grabbed and families that might have been forcibly evacuated to bring forth a golf course.
Also that Rajeev Ravi was confident enough a director to not underline, cross the t and dot the i with respect to this prop.
It goes without saying that there isn't much leeway you get when it comes to a sacred cow of a topic, and movies on the army are always welcome, but should these films be from the same crucible that gives you lopsided exercises in heroism and revenge movies that don't bother about the implications of revenge spilling over?
For here we are looking at a film which showed a little more wisdom about its subject when it was a barebones storyline than when it became a full-fledged film.
A storyline which knew instinctively that terrorism corrodes every member of its ecosystem, even those who combat it, even if in varying proportions.
A storyline which understood that terrorism, when it doesn't kill you, slowly chips away at your humanity.