Bhuj, a period war drama streaming on Disney+ Hotstar, begins with a disclaimer. Its second line? “This film is a tribute to the Indian armed forces.” Its second-last line? “We salute the Indian armed forces.” The kicker? “Jai Hind!”

Most Bollywood productions have a disclaimer; that’s not remarkable. But this flag-waving zeal, even before the film has begun, is not so common. In fact, this short message encapsulates Bhuj so well that even if you don’t watch the rest of the thing, you’ll be fine, because, like the disclaimer, the movie reveres the Indian armed forces and likes to repeat itself again and again; and then, again and again.

Inspired by the heroics of an Indian Air Force pilot, Vijay Karnik (Ajay Devgn), during the 1971 India-Pakistan War, Bhuj aims to “fictionalise and dramatise” real events. You would think that even with creative liberties, it would at least be a drama with a smidgen of realism. But it’s quite clear that Bhuj is an awkward mélange of disparate styles: a superhero film, a newspaper cartoon, an angry pamphlet.

How can you take a ‘serious’ film seriously that operates in three main registers: a) Pakistan is evil, b) Pakistan is very evil, c) Pakistan is very very evil?

With a long, tedious rant against Pakistan, Bhuj is a film where religion, caste and even feminism are all referenced to serve the patriotic cause

The film wastes no time. In an early scene, a Pakistani Army officer says, “Yeh wohi Hindustan hai na jisko 400 saal tak humne apni joote ki nok par rakha [Isn’t this the same Hindustan that we ruled with an iron-fist for 400 years]?” But there was no concept of a nation state four centuries ago — and even if we consider that for a moment, because this is a Devgn-starrer that released two days before Independence Day, what period is this referring to? The Mughals? Well, their dominance lasted less than 300 years. It’s one thing for a film to be shoddy, it’s quite the other for it to be shoddy and factually muddled.

Wanting to capture the western part of India, Pakistan destroys the Bhuj airstrip and, with 100 tanks and 1,800 troops, the [Indian] army intends to capture the Vighakot post, where just 120 Indian soldiers are stationed.

Commanding Officer Vijay needs to repair the airstrip to stop the Pakistani onslaught. It sounds like a harrowing situation, but Bhuj makes Vijay so invincible that the tension dissipates like air leaving a pricked balloon.

Missiles drop, bombs explode, aircrafts burn, but nothing happens to our hero (barring a bloodied forehead). Just its first 10 minutes — which is a buffet of relentless explosions devoid of characters’ context— prepares you well for the rest of the film: We get an Indian flag, a grating background score, and bad CG.

Over the last several years, Bollywood filmmakers — aiming for box-office profits and establishment brownie points — have been trying to outdo each other in proving their jingoistic credentials. (Devgn-starrer Tanhaji for instance, a rabid piece of propaganda, garnered more than Rs 367 crore worldwide, becoming the highest grossing Indian film of 2020 by quite a margin.) But what’s ludicrous about Bhuj is that it reveals its parochial mindset even in mundane moments.

A lieutenant colonel, Ram Nair (Sharad Kelkar), is introduced thus: “There’s a faction of Malayali warriors called the Nairs.” Devgn’s voiceover then informs us that Nair, representing the Indian Army, broke the jaw of a Pakistani boxer in 1968, eventually falling for a “differently abled Muslim girl.” Swallow this: The movie references caste, religion and physical impediment while describing two characters in five sentences in one of its more ‘subdued’ scenes.

Consider the introduction of another character, Pagi (Sanjay Dutt), a Rajasthani villager. He kills five Pakistani soldiers, gifts their dead bodies to “Devi Ma”, and then joins R&AW. There’s an Indian spy in Pakistan, Heena (Nora Fatehi), whose revenge is both “personal and national.” Her brother, also a spy, was arrested in Pakistan. Surrounded by a bloodthirsty mob, he was stoned to death.

The makers are so obsessed with our neighbours that, I’m sure, if you ask them, “What is 1947 multiplied by zero?”, they’ll answer Pakistan. There’s some ‘feminist’ commentary, too: “From a broken button of a shirt to broken courage, a woman can fix anything”; “a woman’s most invaluable possession is her home; we needed bricks and stones to build the runway. The women of Bhuj broke their homes and said, ‘India first, everything else later’.”

For a film that claims to take pride in the country and its people, Bhuj shows a hypocritical patronising attitude towards its target audience (who are, well, Indians). It not just repeats dialogues and information but entire subplots. We hear the following more than once: that Kutch is 50 percent water, 50 percent land; that two bridges connect it to India; that Pakistan has 100 tanks and 1,800 troops; that it may try to pull off a negotiation like it did in 1965; that General Tikka Khan murdered three million Bangladeshi Muslims — and on and on.

The movie doesn’t even get the basic filmmaking right. Two songs for instance — a romantic number sung by Vijay for his wife in front of the other officers in the canteen and a villager, Sunderben (Sonakshi Sinha), and other locals celebrating the prospect of rebuilding the airstrip — look embarrassingly misplaced.

When Bhuj is not bashing Pakistan, it is propping up nationalist pride through trite means. We hear different versions of clarion calls. There’s the standard “Bharat Mata ki jai” but also “Jai Shri Ram” and “Jai Gujarat” — even a rendition of “sarfaroshi ki tamanna”.

None of these leave an impact though, because this is such a disingenuous movie, intent on using jingoism as a cash cow (pun very much intended). Even the direct confrontations sound as forced: “Hindustan tere baap ki kahani hai [Hindustan is your father’s story]”, “you betrayed Pakistan being a Muslim”, “Pakistan is Islam’s biggest enemy.”

And of course, another line equating Pakistanis to Mughals. If everything fails, Pagi and Vijay (who is called a “Maratha warrior” more than once) single-handedly destroy dozens of Pakistani soldiers.

Amid such consistent sloppiness, just one element deserves unambiguous praise: cinematography. Even in the most banal scenes, the lighting is exquisite, the camera movements precise. Cinematographer Aseem Bajaj takes great pains to ensure that even formulaic sequences are imbued with technical ingenuity. Consider the scene where the chief Pakistani antagonist discovers Heena’s secret.

They get embroiled in a fight, which results in heads banging against a big mirror. As the tussle continues to escalate, the scene keeps unfolding in a longish take through their image in the mirror — it’s a striking visual. Or the bit where Vijay splashes water on his bloodied face in a close-up (we can’t see the source of water; the droplets fall on the screen), the camera then pinches in closer and upwards, then recedes from him at an exaggerated tilted angle to reveal the full view of the room, then changes perspective so that it seemingly emerges from a mirror and captures the officer staring at his image — all of this done so smoothly, without a perceptible cut, that the result is spellbinding.

But literally nothing else in Bhuj comes even close to being called a film. It’s shockingly off-putting even by the plummeting standards of Bollywood. Earlier it monetised escapism, now it’s devolved to something more lazy and vicious: unapologetic bloodlust draped in the tri-colour.

By arrangement with The Wire

Published in Dawn, ICON, September 12th, 2021

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