The Cinematic Arms Race Heats Up

I find myself becoming increasingly enthralled by modern war films produced in the international circuit. What was once the province of Hollywood, the jingoistic action thriller is quickly becoming the hallmark of nations hoping to redefine their image in the global landscape through film. Many projects nowadays feature production values on par with the mightiest of bombastic American films by the likes of Michael Bay or Peter Berg; the worldwide blockbuster Operation Red Sea is a recent example of this. India, which has a long history of indigenously produced war films reflecting it’s real world conflicts, has now thrown down the gauntlet for modern warfare action cinema with the film Uri: The Surgical Strike. Although I am not a part of Hindu culture, I nonetheless found myself getting swept up by the tactical kinetics and adoring patriotism on display. As always, however, I remain mindful of the powerful spell movies hold on the mind, especially where fictionalizing true events is concerned.

On 18 September 2016, Four heavily armed militants infiltrated and assaulted an Indian Army Base in Uri, Baramulla district, Jammu and Kashmir, India. The attack resulted in 19 Indian Army personnel dead with as many as 80-100 personnel wounded. In the early hours of 29 September 2016, the Indian government responded to this terrorist attack by conducting a surgical strike against militant base camps along the Kashmir Line of Control, where Indian and Pakistani forces delineate control over the region. This film is a dramatization of the two attacks, though it also includes a recreation of the 4 June 2015 ambush on the India-Myanmar border which resulted in 18 Indian soldiers killed.

Source: Bloomberg, Mint Research

From my time as a Military Intelligence Analyst, the sensitive nature of this subject matter was readily apparent to me. This is in regard to the relationship between Pakistani intelligence (ISI) and the militant organizations within the country that play a a role in regional terrorism, to include neighboring countries such as Afghanistan where I was stationed. The sensitive nature of the material also refers to the longstanding animus between India and Pakistan, which means being cognizant of the nationalist biases in any piece of fiction based on the real world conflicts between the two countries.  In the Stimson research center publication Investigating Crises: South Asia’s Lessons, Evolving Dynamics, and Trajectories, former Foreign Secretary of Pakistan Riaz Mohammad Khan emphasizes that “the unremitting hostility between the two countries, which is partly rooted in the traumatic circumstances of their independence, exists alongside a reservoir of centuries of common experience and cultural overlap.” In his chapter titled Conflict Resolution and Crisis Management: Challenges in Pakistan-India Relations, Khan summarizes the India/Pakistan situation:

The Kashmir dispute lies at the heart of Pakistan-India tensions and conflict. Pakistan regards Kashmir as an unfinished agenda of the partition of British India and emphasizes the Kashmiris’ right to choose between the two successor states.

Kashmir stirs deep emotions in Pakistan as a large segment of the population in eastern Punjab shares common ethnicity in addition to centuries old cultural links. On the other hand, India regards the part of Kashmir under its control as a symbol of India’s multi-religious and multicultural democratic persona.

Source: Central Intelligence Agency

With all this in mind, I sat in a packed theater on a Sunday evening in Times Square very wary of what was to transpire. From the first sequence, Uri acquits itself masterfully to modern warfare action filmmaking techniques. The opening barrage gives way to an extended sequence where we are introduced to our hero, Major Vihan Singh Shergill (Vicky Kaushal), leading a team of Indian commandos on a retaliatory raid against the militants who massacred a convoy of troops. Major Vihran serves as a fictional stand in for the real life ground operatives who conducted the dangerous mission. Sharing almost equal screen time is Paresh Rawal as Govind Bhardwaj, the Indian National Security adviser responsible for both the complex strategic components and delicate political aspects necessary to ensure a successful operation. This structure hues closely to the critically acclaimed but widely controversial Zero Dark Thirty, which uses a main character, loosely based on a real person, to connect plot points and events that were not necessarily related to each other in real life. Moreover, Uri also pays close attention to the immense intelligence apparatus needed to hunt down terrorists.

The action in Uri is drum tight and fast paced, rivaling its American contemporaries such as American Sniper, Lone Survivor, or Act of Valor. Uri incorporates the heightened melodrama, tactical realism, and bombastic pyrotechnics of these films along with the thrilling elements of espionage and politics of the aforementioned ZDT that altogether make for a rousing bit of agitprop. It is here where I would normally be very cautious with accusations of propaganda, but Uri wholeheartedly embraces its role as an overtly patriotic tribute to its nation’s fighting forces. That it does it so well is more surprising than the tacit admission of propaganda in and of itself. While the movie is unabashedly full of cliches such as orphaned kids, sick mothers, and mustache twirling villains, the film knows exactly how to mash on those emotional chords for maximum manipulative effect. In some cases this is literal, as the score features a deft combination of traditional battle hymn overtures and slickly produced percussive electronic beats.

Uri: The Surgical Strike throws down the gauntlet for all modern warfare movies to come, firmly establishing India as a super power in the cinematic arms race. In my viewing, I tried to gauge the audience reaction as the movie went along, wondering if the mostly Indian-American audience would be averse to such nakedly obvious jingoism. One thing I was particularly worried about was the reaction to this highly confrontational line seen in the trailer where Major taunts a dying terrorist:

The infamous line “go back to Fuckheadistan” in the schlocky action movie London Has Fallen seems to pale in comparison to the contempt present within this bit of dialogue in a comparatively more serious work. The strike was fervently condemned by the Pakistani government, and in the years since there have been numerous flare ups and cross border fire incidents. What the film seems to avoid is the collateral damage and loves lost by these constant conflicts in Kashmir. This report from the Asia-Pacific current affairs news magazine The Diplomat estimates that, just in 2017, there were as many as many as 12 civilians were killed and 79 injured due to cross-border firing. I wondered if there would be some kind of argument or at least some element of vocal distaste with what the film displayed. I found that although there were moments scoffs and chuckles, the audience in general seemed to be fully engaged. There was a collective audible gasp during one tragic death scene, letting me know that the movie was working just as expected. Overall, I highly enjoyed Uri: The Surgical Strike as a premier modern war film, while at the same time being cognizant of the messaging on display. Whether or not you feel the movie has made an egregious moral/ethical transaction is for you to decide, but I will say this: hearing one young audience member shout in utter elation during the hero moment of a female helicopter pilot in the film’s action climax means that however you feel about the portrayal of the subject matter, its power as pure, raw cinema is undeniable.