Aditya Dhar nearly directed a film in 2011 and then in 2013. When he finally had the opportunity in 2016, terrorists attacked an Indian Army camp in Uri in Kashmir, causing the deaths of 19 Indian soldiers. Dhar had been planning a film with Fawad Khan and Katrina Kaif, but the ensuing ban on Pakistani artists working in India brought the project to a halt. Eleven days later, India retaliated by attacking terrorist training camps in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, and the operation was termed a surgical strike.
“Either something of this scale had never happened in India or it happened and it wasn’t talked about,” the 34-year-old director said. His curiosity has led to Uri: The Surgical Strike. Vicky Kaushal stars in the January 11 release as Vihan Shergill, a fictional army major who leads his team across the border. The supporting cast of the RSVP production includes Paresh Rawal, Yami Gautam, Mohit Raina and Kirti Kulhari.
Some of the dialogue in the original trailer has led to a debate over whether Uri is a propaganda tool for the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government’s campaign in the upcoming Lok Sabha election. There has been criticism of the line, “Apne bahattar hooron ke humara salaam bolna, kehna dawaat par intezaar kare, aaj bahut saare mehmaan bhejne waale hain.” (Send our greetings to your 72 virgins. Ask them to wait during the feast for we will send a lot of guests their way). This line has since been excised from the trailer, and a new version, 12 seconds shorter, was recently uploaded on YouTube.
Dhar has written lyrics for films, including Kabul Express (2006), and dialogue for Priyadarshan’s Aakrosh (2010) and Tezz (2012). His writing credits include Abhishek Pathak’s short film Boond, which won the National Film Award for Best Short Fiction Film in 2009. Dhar spoke to Scroll.in about the origins of his directorial debut, the process of its making, and addressed the charges of jingoism.
How did you research for ‘Uri: The Surgical Strike’?
The research took about five to six months. Everything was classified, so I studied publicly available papers and accounts by journalists. I figured out the route of the mission, the places attacked, the chronology of events. If 80% of journalists were sure that so-and-so place had been attacked, I considered the majority opinion. I’d think if the security forces were here at this hour, then they couldn’t be there at that hour so soon, and so on.
How did the army react to your script?
The ADG PI [Additional Directorate General of Public Information] read the script, called us to Delhi, and okayed it, saying that 12 producers had come for the rights to the surgical strikes story, thinking that once they had them, they would make a film. But they were pleased to see a ready screenplay in front of them.
Did the army suggest or demand changes?
Not on the lines of how the mission went. But they pointed out mistakes regarding how a soldier behaves or walks or talks to a senior, where the medal should exactly be, how the cap should be worn. That apart, they suggested changes to Vicky’s character. Initially, his family angle was a bit long and the soldiers said that this was dragging the story. So I cut Vicky’s family portions down.
Talk about the characters in the film.
All are fictional characters who are amalgamations of two-three real people. In reality, maybe, four majors went into battle, but in the film, we follow one hero’s journey. So we just have Vihan Shergill.
Paresh ji’s character Govind Bhardwaj looks like Ajit Doval, but he isn’t playing him. The way he talks is inspired by a bunch of people.
Mohit Raina plays Captain Karan Kashyap, Vihan’s best friend. Yami Gautam is Pallavi, an intelligence officer who gathers details of the enemy’s movements and territory. Kirti Kulhari has a special appearance as Seerat Kaur, a chopper pilot. It’s a small but very, very important role.
As a first-time director, what was your biggest concern?
Representing the Indian Army correctly. I will give an example. During research, I spoke to the special forces. They are gladiators. They go through some of the most difficult training regimes in the world to reach where they are. I was asking them what made them join the army, and then become a para-commando, and finally a part of the special forces. Someone said he was always passionate, someone said he was inspired by his father. One guy, about 25 or 26 years old, said that he bunked school as a kid and watched Lakshya. He walked out of the theatre determined to become a soldier.
I realised the responsibility I have. I have to represent the army in the best way possible and ensure that I inspire the next generation of school students or college goers who will see Uri and think, right, this is how the profession is, this is what I want to do. Getting the kind of action the special forces do, the right kind of guns, the exact gear and equipment, all of that had to be precise and detailed.
What were the challenges during the making of the film?
There was a lot of pressure on Ronnie. I was a first-timer. Vicky had only acted in two niche films. Raazi was being shot. Sanju and Manmarziyaan hadn’t been released. The budget was one-fourth of what a war film should cost. All the actors were more or less fresh. Ronnie’s faith in us was incredible.
The average age of our crew was 25/26, and everyone was motivated to get this film right at all costs. We shot in jungles in Serbia in very low temperatures in the rain. It was physically difficult for the actors.
Why did you cast Vicky Kaushal when you could have opted for a more established actor?
Because even if any such actor had liked the film, I would have got dates only in 2020. Secondly, I needed an actor who could give six months to the film, and Vicky did.
The problem with Vicky is that he has incredible metabolism. He wouldn’t gain weight at all, and I needed him to play a 35/36-year-old army major. Rakesh Udiyar, who trained Aamir Khan in Dangal, prepared a plan for him. First, Vicky had to have three meals a day. Then, it went to four, then six, then seven. Each meal had 1.5 to two kgs of chicken, mutton and fish. Vicky would eat, work out, throw up, eat again. I feel what Vicky went through for the role should be part of acting courses.
What kind of training did the other actors go through?
The other actors began training in January, and it was very tough for them. They woke up at 3:30am, went to Navy Nagar to get trained by army officers, came back, did workout sessions and mixed martial arts sessions. In the evening, they underwent physical endurance training. This included room intervention, how to hold a gun, enter a house, those kind of things.
Would you say your film is jingoistic?
In a scene in the film, in the war room, an important character says that we are not enemies with Pakistani civilians. They are worse off than us. We are fighting terrorism.
That is the thought behind the film. I am a Kashmiri Pandit, and I have lived in both Kashmir and Delhi before migrating to Mumbai. I have seen how terrorism affects people. Till 1989-’90, Kashmir was on the verge of becoming India’s most successful state. Terrorism destroyed everything. My film is against that, not Pakistan.
In a Hollywood war film, any army chief or commander will motivate his battalion with powerful words. We, sitting in our homes, don’t have to pull the trigger. The solder on the front has to. When he has to, he cannot be in doubt about whether shooting is the right or moral thing to do. His leader cannot afford him to be doubtful or indecisive. Then, the leader’s job is to eliminate that doubt so that the soldier does not falter at his job when his matters.
So when Vihan says, we did not start this war but we will bloody hell finish it, it is easy to say he is jingoistic. But it is his job to motivate his troops. Any army person will tell you that no soldier enjoys killing another soldier. It is their job. If they don’t do their job, they will die.
When you see online trolls using your film’s trailer to abuse Pakistanis, Muslims and the opposition and praise Prime Minister Narendra Modi, how do you feel?
We are filmmakers who enjoy telling great stories. We don’t care where they come from. Fortunately for BJP, the surgical strikes happened during its tenure. If tomorrow someone tells me an incredible story that happened during the regime of Indira Gandhi, I would love to make it.
Uri is a tribute to the Indian Army. There is no political angle. If it did, the BJP would tweet our trailer. The surgical strikes were designed by and conducted entirely by the army. The credit is theirs. It is not about any political party. I want Right-wing, Left-wing, centre, everyone to see it.
The military operation has already been co-opted for political benefits.
See, you cannot negate the factor that this mission took place during this government’s tenure. Now, if any party would like to ride on it, it’s up to them. I have no problems with who’s saying what. My job was to represent the army in the right way.
I think my team, and I have done a decent job there. If anyone wants to take credit for the strikes, they can. If I start thinking about all these things, then, all the creativity and beauty of filmmaking will get diluted. I just want to concentrate on my writing and cinema.