'Shershaah' Review: A mixed-bag affair

A Potpourri of Vestiges Review

By Murtaza Ali Khan

At the end of Shershaah, the recent biopic on the life of the legendary Kargil War hero Captain Vikram Batra, Vishal Batra, Captain Batra’s twin brother, avers, “When I think of Captain Batra’s life of 25 years, I realize that there is no greater honor than being a soldier. There is no great pride than wearing a soldier’s uniform. And there is no religion greater than one’s country.” Rest assured, the scene will give you goosebumps. I wish I could say the same about the whole film which can best be described as a mixed-bag affair. The film’s biggest problem is the casting of Sidharth Malhotra in a double role as Captain Vikram Batra and Vishal Batra. While Vishal is the narrator of Captain Batra’s story, one never really gets to see the twin brothers together in the film except as young kids early in the film (with Krishnay Tuteja and Kavay Tuteja playing the parts of Captain Batra and Vishal Vatra, respectively). More so, Sidharta Malhotra as an actor has many limitations. He is great if he just has to look cool and suave. But every time a character demands him to step out of his comfort zone he gets totally exposed.

Another major issue with Shershaah is that it wants to obsessively follow Captain Batra all the time like some character driven non-fiction film. As a result it fails to do justice to the other characters as well as the world around Captain Batra. In other words, Sidharth Malthotra is the Rajinikanth of Shershaah’s world. If only he were half as good as Rajinikanth in a quintessential Rajinnikanth film.  Now, it’s not that Sidharth doesn’t try. In fact, he gets 100/100 for trying. But in the world of professional acting, trying is just not good enough. You either have it or you don’t. And Sidharth definitely has it in him to impeccably play Sidharth Malhotra every time. Now, anyone who has seen old videos of Captain Batra would agree that he was really one of a kind. And so it is wishful thinking to expect someone like Sidharth Malhotra with limited acting skills to plausibly play a braveheart like Captain Batra. In fact, the director and the casting department have done a great disservice to the iconic stature of Captain Batra by casting Malhotra in the part.

To quote the late American film critic Roger Ebert, as critics, we are looking for “moods, tones, fears, imaginings, whims, speculations, nightmares” in the films that we watch. He adds, “As a general principle, I believe films are the wrong medium for fact. Fact belongs in print. Films are about emotions.” Therefore, even when a filmmaker is making a biopic, he/she cannot afford to get too obsessed with facts and figures. Ebert further adds, “My notion is that ‘JFK’ is no more, or less, factual than (Oliver) Stone's ‘Nixon’ or ‘Gandhi’, ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, ‘Gladiator,’ ‘Amistad,’ ‘Out of Africa,’ ‘My Dog Skip’ or any other movie based on ‘real life’. All we can reasonably ask is that it be skillfully made and seem to approach some kind of emotional truth”. Ebert’s astute observations perfectly apply to Shershaah. Here is a film about a beloved and revered martyr like Captain Batra and yet one doesn’t really feel the goosebumps for the most part. And therein lies the rub. One wants to clench one’s fists every time Captain Batra goes on a nigh impossible mission. One wants to feel the adrenaline. Every time he finds himself in the tight spot while facing the enemy one wants to pray for his safety. And when he triumphs one wants to make the same battle cry. Alas, such moments are few and far in the film!

Shershaah’s greatest strength is Kamaljeet Negi’s splendid work in the cinematography department. Negi’s camerawork helps bring the Kargil War to life. Also, the film’s editing and sound design are its strong areas. Even as Malhotra struggles throughout the film to get a hold over his challenging character, actors around him succeed in leaving their mark. While Raj Arjun is mesmerizing to watch during his special cameo appearance, Sahil Vaid is solid as ever as Captain Batra’s elder brother. Also, Mir Sarwar looks menacing during his short but powerful portrayal of the head of a Kashmiri militant outfit backed by Pakistan. Shiv Pandit also impresses in the limited screen time that he gets. As for Kiara Advani, she somewhere seems to be playing the extension of her character from Kabir Singh. At this stage in her career she needs to be very careful of getting typecast and so she cannot afford to play the shy, homely girl with little or no agency over and over again. Shershaah isn’t a bad film but it hardly has anything new to offer. For some reason, Indian filmmakers just can’t seem to go beyond the scope of ‘Border’ or ‘Lakshya’. At this rate we might have to wait until the next century for our own ‘Saving Private Ryan’ or ‘The Thin Red Line’ to arrive on the film scene. 

A version of this review was first published in The Daily Guardian.

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