Wednesday 29 August 2018

On demand: "Parmanu: The Story of Pokhran"

The planets being aligned as they are, we may very well be in for a run of films in which India explores its own recent history, much as German cinema did in the Seventies and again in the Noughties, and Romanian cinema has since the turn of the millennium. There will, however, be pronounced differences between this New Wave and those that came before it. Firstly, the bulk of these movies will be couched as crowdpleasers, and therefore obliged to conform to certain conventions, not least song breaks that would have been unthinkable in Downfall or 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days. Secondly, yet not unrelated: as these films will be addressing the issue of how India became modern India - which is to say Modi's India - they will likely end up broadly uncritical in their tone, or having to be very careful in the way in which they frame their criticisms. Parmanu, a genuine oddity that hit cinemas earlier this year, revolves around the composite character of Ashwat Raina (John Abraham), one of the civil servants who rethought and redesigned the country's nuclear program in the 1990s, when - as the film has it - India was cowering in fear from the military might of neighbouring Pakistan and China. Plotting Raina's haphazard route towards the successful execution of a gamechanging nuclear test, this is a film that marches with unexpected enthusiasm towards a very big bang; to paraphrase those noted historians Fall Out Boy, every scene isn't a scene so much as a goddamn arms race.

It could have made for no more than a dryly procedural account of paperwork-shuffling, yet writer-director Abhishek Sharma has packed the facts of the matter off to the gym and reshaped this chapter as something both commercial and vaguely familiar: the tale of a maverick officer cast out of the system by lazy superiors before being re-embraced as the only person whose methods get results. (Call it Dirty Bomb Harry.) As played by chiselled action hero Abraham, this Raina is by some distance cinema's buffest functionary. When the government doesn't listen to his initial warnings, then has the temerity to pin the blame on him for an unsuccessful test, we suspect he's but a hair's breadth away from ripping off his shirt and giving someone a severe beatdown; as Sharma frames it, it was only with the appointment of (just-deceased) Atal Vajpayee as PM that Raina found the institutional toehold he needed to drag India into the fully weaponised 21st century, taking root in a disused fort and assembling a squad of oddbods and outcasts - a Dirty Bomb Dozen, if you will - to assist him in his tinkering. (In a concession to New Movie thinking, there is also a gun-toting, ass-kicking female officer, drafted in to lend some additional measure of glamour to what was, in real life, a project overseen largely by middle-aged males.)

Their mission is compiled with a mixture of competency and clunkiness. Sharma folds in actual news archive to lend his narrative greater context, and that story does carry us into an area that is both genuinely intriguing (how do you run a nuclear program?) and generally classified. It yields leftfield setpieces - much of the second half finds Raina trying to keep the test site clear from prying US satellites - and winds up celebrating one particularly crafty move, involving onions and the Kashmir region, in the manner of a bold-faced prankster who cannot hide his glee at having pulled off such a trick. Other elements are very movie, and might only pass muster if you were feeling generous. It feels a shade contrived that Raina should get the idea for assembling a team while watching five mythical warriors riding through an episode of Mahabharat, and Diana Penty is wasted in the Anne Archer role of Wife Who Spends Her Screentime Waving Hubby Off To Work. The songs, thumping hymns to the Motherland and the prospect of nuclear annihilation ("The ground trembles/There is no stopping us now"), will have to go down as an acquired taste. No denying the confidence pulsing through its veins, though, and the attempt to turn nuclearisation into the basis of an Ocean's-style caper tickled me - even as its final-act flagwaving and speechmaking underlined that this is exactly the kind of propatainment that might have been playing at the Pyongyang Odeon any time over the past fifty years. 

Parmanu: The Story of Pokhran is now streaming on Netflix.

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