Goodbye, love story, hello, the love-your-country movie. Satellite Shankar is the latest entry in the growing category of films that promote patriotism by valourising the intelligence agencies and the armed forces. Irfan Kamal’s second film after the tearjerker Thanks Maa (2009) is less muscular than the year’s blockbuster Uri: The Surgical Strike, but the message is the same: the men in olive are the only true patriots in a country whose politicians and commoners are often found wanting.
The screenplay, by Kamal and Vishal Vijay Kumar, borrows several ideas from the Russian classic Ballad of A Soldier (1959), but replaces that film’s lyricism and underlying critique of war with mushiness and soft-core nationalism. The innocent, resourceful and eternally optimistic Shankar (Sooraj Pancholi) is the darling of his Army unit. Shankar is nicknamed “Satellite” for his ability to beam happiness and goodwill onto every situation. After he is injured in a skirmish with militants along the Indo-Pak border, Shankar begs his superior for permission to take a short holiday to meet his mother (Sohaila Kapur) in Tamil Nadu.
The journey to Pollachi becomes a discovery-of-India tour for the young man in fatigues. Shankar keeps getting distracted as he carries out favours or leaps to the rescue of people in peril. Without quite realising it, the man who cannot say no becomes the object of a nationwide campaign steered by video blogger Meera (Palomi Ghosh). Meera meets Shankar early on during his trip, and quickly identifies him as a hashtag-worthy subject.
The nation wants to know about Shankar, and all of India is transformed into an invisible army of cellphone users who log on to track down Shankar and try and help him along his adventure.
Shankar’s do-gooder attitude marks him out as a saint in uniform, and his acts stretch from resolving family conflicts to successfully wooing a woman. Megha Akash, playing microbiology student Pramila, is a warm and welcome presence. Pramila correctly identifies Shankar as all heart and not too much brain: are you a tubelight or a satellite, she wonders.
To relieve the tedium of watching Shankar miss yet another train or get derailed by yet another good deed, the movie is punctuated by frequent bursts of patriotic fervour and paeans to the sacrifices of the armed forces. The conceit holds up for about half the running length before collapsing under its hubris. A sequence set in Kashmir, revolving around bloodthirsty-looking men and bleeding-heart mothers, signals the slide into outright propaganda.
Although Shankar is half-Tamilian and half-Punjabi, his Tamil diction is a hoot. Sooraj Pancholi is surrounded by nicely cast and mostly unknown actors, and they provide a buffer for the young actor’s limitations.
Despite 135 minutes at its disposal, the movie isn’t interested in teasing out the shades and complexities of Shankar’s cross-country adventure. Ballad of a Soldier celebrates the Russian spirit while allowing for doubt and sadness. Satellite Shankar is all grins and salutes, an extended army recruitment video that exhorts viewers to sign up by claiming that civilian life is some kind of a battle zone too.