The SonyLIV web series Avrodh revisits events that have already been dramatised in the 2019 blockbuster Uri: The Surgical Strike. Aditya Dhar’s movie explored the Indian government’s “surgical strike” in September 2016 – the military response to a terrorist attack on an Army camp in Uri in Kashmir days earlier. Seventeen Indian soldiers were killed in the Uri attack, which was carried out by members of the Jaish-e-Mohammed outfit.
The surgical strike targetted training camps in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and was portrayed as a triumph for a country dismissed as weak and indecisive for far too long. This was also the line taken by Dhar’s 2019 movie. Avrodh, based on a chapter from the book India’s Most Fearless by Shiv Aroor and Rahul Singh, goes further in its praise for India’s muscular response. If the movie had 138 minutes to explore its thesis, the series has nine episodes, each lasting roughly 30 minutes, to express its awe and admiration.
Directed by Raj Acharya and written by Harmanjeet Singha, Sudeep Nigam, Abhishek Chatterjee and Aadhar Khurana, Avrodh doesn’t attempt to be subtle or nuanced. The aim isn’t to provide an objective and rigorous examination of the operation, one that looks at all angles and places the event against the larger struggle for self-determination in Kashmir. Instead, Avrodh is a take-no-prisoners saga viewed through the barrel of an assault weapon and written with one hand on the keyboard and another raised in salute.
Some of the plot points in the series hew close to news reports. Others flow from the determination to prove that “India isn’t just the land of Mahatma Gandhi but also Subhas Chandra Bose”. Barely disguised characters include the Prime Minister, unnamed but unmistakably resembling Narendra Modi, National Security Adviser Shailesh Malviya (based on Ajit Doval) and External Affairs Minister Sunita Bharadwaj (inspired by Sushma Swaraj).
It begins with the death of Bilawal Wani (modelled on Hizbul Mujahideen militant Burhan Wani). Wani’s killing increases tensions in the Kashmir Valley. Rival Jaish-e-Mohammed commander Abu Hafeez (Anil George) gets competitive and decides to unleash a series of terror attacks.
At the Uri camp, the bonhomie between the Army men is too good to last. A security lapse results in tragedy, and Major Raunaq (Darshan Kumaar) is left seething.
In Delhi, the National Security Council plots retaliation. The Prime Minister (Vikram Gokhale) is depicted as the commander in chief, leading from the front and making pointed and cod-profound statements to inspire his posse.
The unnamed leader of the nation is given to pregnant pauses and aphoristic dialogue. The world thinks we are peaceful and we are, he remarks, adding, the tiger is peaceful too, but if he doesn’t strike once in a while, the jungle will think he has become weak.
The line “ghar mein ghuskar marenge” is a favourite at the meetings – we will get into their home and hit them. One of the first places we heard it in was in a movie that had nothing to do with terrorism. In Subhash Ghai’s crime drama Kalicharan (1976), a female character suggests that the best way to defeat the adversary is “Uske ghar mein ghuskar usko marenge.”
Years later, writer and director Neeraj Pandey adapted the line for his nationalistic thrillers. The characters in Avrodh seem to be fans of Pandey’s films, given the number of times they keep demanding that India cross the Line of Control to teach Pakistan a lesson for harbouring terrorists on its soil.
The worst lines are spouted by Shailesh, a hawkish and impatient maverick with a distaste for due process and democratic institutions. Shailesh (Neeraj Kabi) valourises himself ever so often – whatever I do for the protection of the country is legitimate, he declares. His actions include railroading the Army’s command structure and arm-twisting the media, particularly hotshot journalist Namrata Joshi (Madhurima Tuli).
An anchor and reporter with a television channel in Delhi, Namrata has anticipated the Uri attack. She is good at her job – so good that she appears to be the only journalist in all of India doing any reporting on Kashmir.
Namrata pumps a local Kashmiri source for information, and is in pole position when mysterious troop movements are reported in Kashmir. Her channel head succumbs to pressure from the government, and in due course, so does Namrata. After a bruising encounter with the increasingly sinister Shailesh (“Put a leash on her,” he instructs his colleague), Namrata goes from sceptic to supporter.
The only voice of reason belongs to Satish Mahadevan, the Secretary of Defence. The token dissident in the room, Satish (Ananth Mahadevan) is allowed to ask the questions that matter. Is the delicate operation worth the risk? What about casualties? He is shouted down by Shailesh: “Please have faith in your forces yaar!”
The script is straight out of a government dossier. The cheerleading is amped up several notches with the entry of Special Forces commander Videep Singh. Played by a bulked-up and aggressive Amit Sadh, Videep predictably leads his men to glory.
There are times when Avrodh appears to be a better produced and less hysterical version of Anil Sharma’s chest-thumping films from the 1990s. The slickly executed battlefield sequences mark the advances made in shooting techniques. The night-time scenes, also a standout feature in Uri: The Surgical Strike, are especially striking.
For every swaggering character, there is a more subtle and effective counterpart. Better than Amit Sadh’s teeth-gnashing commando is Darshan Kumaar’s dedicated soldier, pained at the loss of his buddy and keen to contribute his bit. Ananth Mahadevan provides a welcome foil to Neeraj Kabi’s unending hamminess.
Madhurima Tuli makes the most of a character who tries to fight the good fight but is swept away by the show’s larger propagandist imperatives. Her Kashmiri colleague Fakhruddin (Mir Ehsan) suffers a worse fate – he is hauled up during reporting by a high-level official who is investigating the security lapses that led to the attack on the Army camp.
The investigation doesn’t yield any answers, but the official (Arif Zakaria) does get the chance to air his suspicions about Kashmiris. Who do you work for, Fakhruddin is asked. The truth, always relative and the biggest casualty in a time of war-mongering, proves to be an inadequate answer.