Abhishek Sharma’s Parmanu: The Story of Pokhran merrily mixes fact, fiction, Quora-type information, artificially generated suspense and domestic melodrama to roll out a nationalistic yarn about India’s transformation into a nuclear state. The image of a life-destroying mushroom cloud is celebrated here as a sign of Indian can-do. The five nuclear tests conducted in Pokhran in Rajasthan between May 11 and 13 in 1998 are attributed to five cowboys in the desert and one in New Delhi, rather than to the efforts of numerous agencies working hard and under the radar for decades.
Nation-building statements come thick and fast in the screenplay by Abhishek Sharma, Sanyukta Shaikh Chawla and Saiwyn Quadras, which includes such gems as “Heroes need intent rather than a uniform to prove themselves” and “We will not sleep for three days so that we can render our enemies sleepless.”
John Abraham, who has also produced the movie, is in Akshay Kumar-mould here as the chief crusader against subtlety. The comic book-level plot revolves around Ashwath Raina (Abraham), an Indian Administrative Service officer seemingly modelled on APJ Abdul Kalam who has “a plan called nuclear peace” that will help India compete with the United States, China and Pakistan. This plan fails after it is poorly implemented, and Ashwath retires to Mussoorie with his wife Sushma (Anuja Sathe) to lick his wounds.
The hawkish principal secretary (Boman Irani, playing Brajesh Mishra) plucks Ashwath out of the wilderness and recruits him to restart the nuclear programme. Ashwath heads a five-member team that plonks itself in Pokhran and hoodwinks American satellites. The real villain in the movie isn’t the unimaginative bureaucrat at the beginning of the film who mocks Ashwath’s mission, but the eye in the sky that circles the earth’s orbit and pick up every little detail on the ground.
The efforts of the Indian scientists, engineers and Army officers in cheating the satellites is as exciting as the final overs of an Indian Premier League match. There are also American and Pakistani spies trying to spoil India’s party.
The other side-splitting moments are contributed by Diana Penty’s crew member, codenamed Nakul, who is easily the most glamourous and incompetent intelligence officer to ever be on government rolls. Nakul is supposed to provide the rest of her teammates with a convincing security cover, but the only reason this character exists is because the movie needed a woman who is easy on the eye.
Some of the intentional and unintentional humour ends up being a welcome break from the loud background score and the aphorism-laden screenplay. The movie does a good job of simplifying the fission-fusion business but the insistent patriotism proves to be a drag. A song titled Shubh Din plays as the team watches the bombs being delivered to their hideout. The politics surrounding the tests, which were a part of the election manifesto of the Bharatiya Janata Party before it came to power during the period, features nowhere. Ashwath’s harangues about national duty and his portrayal as a superhero in civilian threads mocks the contributions of the hundreds of government officials who made the tests possible. Among his team mates, only Yogendra Tikku manages to leave an impression.
It is likely that Parmanu will be decorated with tax-free status and national film awards, and we imagine that it will be made mandatory viewing in schools across the country. The tests are two decades old, but Parmanu’s chest-thumping ardour and propaganda-level treatment are firmly of the moment.