Bhuj: The Pride of India Movie Review: A noisy, clunky war epic
Ajay Devgn bores in this lumbering tribute to real heroes
A good way to honour the valour and sacrifice of the Indian armed forces is to not make clunky, cartoonish films about them. Bollywood, of course, never learns this lesson, with Bhuj: The Pride of India joining a long line of disastrously unwatchable Hindi war movies. For any decent war film to work, it must deliver on two fronts: emotion and technical sophistry. Bhuj, which takes its cue from a real event in 1971, fails on both counts. It’s emotionally vacant and limp, and technically resembles a cancelled mobile game instead of a film.
At the peak of the Bangladesh Liberation War, India intervened by rallying troops to the east. This left Bhuj, with its strategically-important airbase, open to attack. Pakistani Sabres bombed the airbase to smithereens. With a siege imminent, squadron leader Vijay Karnik, the base’s commanding officer, mobilized 300 women from a nearby village and rebuilt its landing strip. Their brave venture, completed in just 72 hours, proved pivotal in the war, and Karnik was promoted to Wing Commander in 1985.
Cast: Ajay Devgn, Sanjay Dutt, Sonakshi Sinha, Nora Fatehi, Sharad Kelkar, Ammy Virk
Streaming on: Disney+ Hotstar
Director: Abhishek Dudhaiya
That, at least, is the real-life story of Bhuj. On film, director Abhishek Dudhaiya plays fast and loose with facts, needlessly embellishing what is already a dramatic and inspiring story. The opening hour is dizzying enough to cause motion sickness. It flits from a massive airstrike to haphazard character intros and back to more airstrikes. Ajay Devgn, who essays Vijay Karnik, looks positively lost in the part. Told that 40 of his men are dead, he looks momentarily pained, then simply orders the area be cleared.
Reading the synopsis of Bhuj, I expected the 300 women of Madhapur village to anchor the story. But the film treats them as a sideshow, focusing instead on a parallel campaign to stop the approaching Pakistani army. It’s over an hour before Sonakshi Sinha, playing a local leader named Sunderben, makes an appearance, and is promptly ignored. Not that the other female characters have it any better. Pranitha Subhash, as Vijay Karnik’s wife, gets a couple of scenes and no dialogue (even the song she’s in is half a song). And I was startled the film checked back with one of the war widows near the end.
Nora Fatehi draws the shortest straw as an Indian spy. Her character, Heena, is caught across borders; instead of being executed right away, she’s taken to a religious gathering and stoned to death. Abhishek isn’t done hammering, though, and we get other glimpses of the film’s warped politics. Animal protection is brought up twice: first when Ranchhod Pagi (Sanjay Dutt) kills a bunch of soldiers over some cattle, second when Sunderben steps up to save a cow. The Indian soldiers cite the Mahabharata; the Pakistanis use strange codewords like ‘Shah Jahan’ and ‘Taj Mahal’.
The battle sequences are a mess. Instead of gradually building up to a conflict, we’re pummeled with action throughout. The film is always aiming for maximum impact—which only guarantees no impact. Some of the war strategies are smart (using soda bottles as Molotov cocktails) while others look dubious. At one point, Karnik, surrounded by enemy bombs, strings them together and lights a match, a technique better suited for Diwali celebrations than the battlefield. Even stranger is a scene where Ranchhod dashes across the trenches at an incoming tank. He leaps right on it, and you marvel at how Dutt’s intricate dhoti stays in place (not that the opposite would be desirable).
During the first airstrike, Ajay is knocked out cold, but slowly rises to his feet. It reminded me of a moment in Major Saab, a 1998 military film the actor had done. There was an irreverence to that film—and to Ajay’s performance—that’s missing in his recent ventures. He appears too stiff, too overly sincere and respectful, to portray his characters authentically. As the end credits roll, we see pictures of the real Vijay Karnik, and a different man greets us from the screen. Who will tell his story?