Dir: Vishnu Vardhan. With: Sidharth Malhotra, Kiara Advani, Shiv Pandit, Nikitin Dheer. 135 mins. Cert: 16+ (streaming)
Hot on the heels of Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl, last year’s biopic of one of the hardier combatants in the India-Pakistan flare-up of 1999, mega-producer Karan Johar offers a disappointingly generic tribute to Vikram Batra, shot down in the same conflict aged just 24. Batra’s passing was previously noted in 2003’s all-star LOC: Kargil, where he was played by Abhishek Bachchan, and an image of the soldier has clearly lodged in the Indian collective memory: as a model citizen, a straight arrow willing to sacrifice all for the motherland. Yet that very straightness proves an issue within a two-hour battle charge that shuttles its practically perfect protagonist (codename: Shershaah, or “Lion King”) from playground fisticuffs to fateful last stand. Its idea of conflict never develops beyond the childishly superficial.
For starters, this is the first time Batra has been played by someone who might pass for a model: Sidharth Malhotra, ever-handsome, mostly upright, sensing he needn’t flex too hard to emerge looking like a sweetheart. As the film chops between Batra’s personal and professional lives – fostering an illusion of multi-directionality – its star successfully runs the trickiest gauntlet: trying not to look too gawky in the signifying shellsuits of college flashbacks. Malhotra and an unusually deglammed Kiara Advani (as Batra’s beloved Dimple) can’t credibly resemble undergraduates, but they share a fond, tender chemistry. It’s a pity this service leave keeps being interrupted by rumbles from Kashmir – but that’s where this story’s destiny, and its most ordinary material, lies.Here, Tamil recruit Vishnu Vardhan stages recces and shootouts with an unspectacular competence, the most distinctive touch applied by make-up: three stitches on Malhotra’s temple, so as not to obscure his features. The politics are far less delicate. This Batra begins as a diplomat (“If we don’t trust them, they’ll never trust us”), but the film makes him a warrior, throttling targets with their own headscarves. The avoidance of nuance should at least spare Johar any more of those loopy accusations of treason he attracted upon casting the Pakistani actor Fawad Khan in 2016’s Ae Dil Hai Mushkil. His latest is nothing but patriotic, but it’s also rote and uninspired with it, right through to the final-reel rallying cries and shots of the Tiranga fluttering unsullied in the wind.