The recent clarification by the Supreme Court that theatre audiences are not required to stand at attention when the national anthem is played as part of a film couldn’t have been more timely. The Ghazi Attack, an underwater chase thriller about Indian and Pakistani submarines in 1971, features two renditions of the anthem. As if that wasn’t enough to remind the cola-popcorn crowd of the sacrifices of the armed forces, it includes the strains of Saare Jahan Se Achcha, as well as shots of the fluttering tricolour.
Sankalp Reddy’s movie, which has simultaneously been made in Telugu, does not start out in shrillness. The briskly narrated, suspense-filled drama begins on the eve of the 1971 war between India and Pakistan. The Pakistani submarine PNS Ghazi is lurking in Indian waters in wait for the aircraft carrier INS Vikrant. Following a tip-off, the Indian Navy chief (Om Puri) asks a submarine crew to investigate, but takes the precaution of sending Arjun (Rana Daggubati) to keep an eye on the vessel’s hot-headed captain Rann Vijay (Kay Kay Menon). Rann Vijay is the shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later kind, and when he senses that a Pakistani submarine is in the vicinity, his eyes acquire the gleam of a psychopath.
Yet, Rann Vijay is no uniformed nutcase – he is merely an intelligent patriot who prefers aggression to the niceties of standard operating procedure. Rann Vijay is also an ace strategist – his hero is American general George S Patton. The loyal second officer, Devaraj (Atul Kulkarni), becomes the mediator between Rann Vijay’s obduracy and Arjun’s bureaucracy. Devaraj often steps to calm tempers, especially when Rann Vijay insists on pursuing the source of an unmistakable sonar signal despite the potential damage this may cause his submarine.
Rann Vijay’s Pakistani counterpart (Rahul Singh) is equally obsessive (a job requirement, perhaps?). Razzak’s eyes bulge with delight as he contemplates the prospect of firing torpedoes into the belly of the Indian submarine. A chase ensues – a Fast and Furious at the bottom of the sea, if you will. The events might not pass muster with military historians, but they certainly meet the requirements of the average war drama. Reddy effectively recreates the closed interiors of a submarine on an Indian budget, ratchets up the tension, and handles potentially shrill material with admirable restraint.
By the time the war drums start pounding, Reddy’s work is done. An apt audio-visual metaphor for the current nationalistic fever that has infected Indian cinema is provided in the pre-climax sequences. But far more rousing than the play on patriotic sentiment is Reddy’s skillful direction. He handles his cast well and evenly distributes the honours across the prominent and lesser-known actors. Atul Kulkarni provides an effective foil to Kay Kay Menon’s borderline mania, while Rana Daggubati’s limited abilities are smartly channelled into a necessarily passive role.
But even Reddy cannot justify the presence of Taapsee Pannu in the cast. The survivor of a merchant ship that has been attacked by PNS Ghazi, Pannu’s character does nothing more than add a redundant female presence to the all-male ship. Fortunately, Reddy doesn’t ask her to break out into a song. For vocal relief, there is the national anthem – twice.
The Ghazi Attack is billed as the first Indian movie to be set on a submarine. It is also the first Indian movie to mine nationalism at the very depths of the ocean. Indian cinema’s quest for a flag-thumping moment will stop at nothing.