One of the reasons why mainstream Bollywood is losing the foothold it once enjoyed is easily the genericness of its content. It is no flash news that contemporary Hindi cinema churns out films as if they are generated out of a stencil and director Vishnuvardhan’s hugely hyped war drama Shershaah is no exception. Cut out of Bollywood’s standard war drama template, the film is nothing but a predictable medley of cliches that the sub-genre has been milking for decades.

So, how different can a war hero’s life story be? After all, an army man in his personal space is as normal as each one of us are and no element of theatrics would possibly blow up his persona. This is where Shershaah, which kicks off with its subject Vikram Batra’s (Sidharth Malhotra) college days, gets crippled. The situations are mundane and the actors project themselves to the extent of enunciating every spoken word. There is perhaps the most indifferently rendered parental opposition angle between Batra and his girlfriend Dimple Cheema’s (Kiara Advani) father. Countless songs do nothing to soothe an already tired narrative and suddenly, it’s a state of no return.

Cut to the Indian Army, Batra is shown to be an enthusiastic 24-year-old lieutenant with a penchant for Pepsi’s then-tagline “Yeh dil maange more” (translated as ‘This heart desires for more’). Posted in Kashmir, he befriends the localites (read Muslims), nabs a terrorist named Haider in a difficult mission besides winning the hearts of his colleagues in no time. Things are so unimaginably sweet that Shershaah turns into a rare army biopic that would beat a campus romance in its syrupiness. That makes you wonder whether its rom-com-obsessed home banner (Dharma Productions) had possibly smoothened the screenplay out of all its raw edges. We will never know.

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The final act of the film is the 1999 Kargil war. It’s a story that is familiar to a lot of us and Batra’s story was chronicled briefly in J. P. Dutta’s 2003 war epic LOC: Kargil. While Vishnuvardhan’s writing gives a more personal account of the hero’s journey, its appeal is restricted to what we would derive from reading an article on him. There is nothing that Shershaah as a motion picture does to elevate the story a notch higher. The war sequences are (thankfully) not jarringly high-pitched, but they are never entirely affecting.

Sidharth Malhotra who essays the title role suffers from the Katrina Kaif Syndrome. He tries so hard that the creases of strain are visible on his forehead – so much so that it feels bad. It’s also because the writers never examine his psyche beyond the anecdotal information they might be working on. Unlike a similar film like Lakshya, there’s not a single scene in Shershaah where Vikram spends with himself. He is a know-all and the film is even more. How I wish there was a quiet moment of the army man immersed in his thoughts – where he weighed his passion for his motherland and also the love he had for his fiancée.

As Batra, Malhotra looks picture-perfect but his physicality is not fluid enough to be the rough, agile Vikram Batra. The actor’s diction is bad almost throughout the film. The worst of all is easily scene where he directs his battalion before they set out to capture Point 4875. No, it doesn’t help that the editor felt so frustrated here that he did a shabby snip of what was anyway badly acted and filmed. On a different note, Malhotra’s misadventure makes me randomly appreciate Arjun Kapoor for what he did in his last couple of films.

Kiara Advani as Dimple Cheema is burdened with a character with zero exciting shades. The actor, with her limited abilities to add nuances to mediocre material, tries hard and we end up noticing her attire more than a bunch of contrived stock expressions. Advani does a decent job in the last scene, I must add. This also takes me right back to the excruciatingly long LOC: Kargil where the characters (played by Abhishek Bachchan and Esha Deol) felt a lot more real.

That said, Shershaah is never really a terrible film. It belongs to the ‘watchable’ category as television pundits might cite. It does not go the ‘90s route either where the enemies are shown to be pure vile. In fact, the Pakistani militants have almost no role to play in Vishnuvardhan’s film besides fanboying over Madhuri Dixit and cluelessly firing bullets. This way, Vishnuvardhan’s film ensures that the couch patriot in you is happy with a popcorn-viewing, but it seldom inspires us to be one amongst the men who braved their lives for India – something that Lakshya could ignite within us.

Rating: ★★ 1/2

Shershaah is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

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