Uri: The Surgical Strike was the most physically challenging project of my career, says Vicky Kaushal
The actor and director Aditya Dhar talk about their upcoming military action film
After being hailed as one of the best actors of 2018 with his performances in Love Per Square Foot, Raazi, Sanju and Manmarziyaan, 30-year-old Vicky Kaushal is kicking off the New Year with the action-packed Uri: The Surgical Strike. The film, directed by debutant Aditya Dhar and produced by Ronnie Screwvala, takes us behind-the-scenes of the 2016 surgical strike conducted by the Indian Army in retaliation to the Uri Attacks — which claimed the lives of 19 Indian soldiers at a military base camp in Uri, Jammu and Kashmir. The film’s trailer garnered praise for its sleek, realistic action scenes — a rarity among most Indian war films — but was also criticised for its provocative and untempered dialogues, which many slammed as jingoistic and hateful towards Pakistan.
Addressing the above line of criticism, Vicky says, “Look, I am playing an army officer in the film, a major who is in charge of the team conducting the surgical strike. It is my job to motivate my troops before they get off the choppers and jump into action. There's a chance that they might never come back. When I am giving them a pep talk, I cannot be speaking in evasive, soft language; I have to pump them up. You won't see that major standing at a town-square and shouting at civilians, ‘Chalo khoon ka badla khoon se lete hai’ (Let's avenge blood with blood). No army person does that. My character is just speaking to his soldiers who have to do the dirty job of pulling the trigger for us, so that when they are facing a militant, it's them who pull the trigger first and not the enemy.”
Uri: The Surgical Strike also stars Paresh Rawal as India’s National Security Advisor (inspired by Ajit Doval), Yami Gautam as an intelligence officer, Mohit Raina as captain Karan Kashyap, and Kirti Kulhari as an army pilot.
For the film, Vicky and his co-actors underwent rigorous military training and physical preparation to look the part of real combat soldiers. Vicky recalls, “Uri was the most physically challenging project of my career so far. I, along with twenty other actors who are playing special forces commandos, went through a boot camp training for two months. Our trainer was someone who had trained himself with the Black Cat commandos. The boot camp was designed for endurance and stamina building: we learned how to walk, jump, crawl, sweat and be in pain together. We were taught about team formation and tactical warfare. Special forces prefer to operate in stealth mode; they use silent bombs, tear-gas shells, night-vision, and so on. There's also something called buddy pairing: a team of commandos moves in even numbers, in pairs, so that there's always someone watching your back.”
The boot-camp training, Vicky adds, was followed by actual military training under a Sikh regiment posted in Cuffe Parade, Mumbai. The actors took part in the regiment’s difficult obstacle course and were also trained in 'slithering' — the daunting task of rappelling down from flying choppers using ropes. “It was all done by us in the film. There were no stuntmen doing it for us. Usually the choppers are at a height of 40 feet, but for the shoot we lowered them to about 20 feet,” says Vicky.
Uri’s director, Aditya Dhar, started his Bollywood career by assisting Vidhu Vinod Chopra, Rohan Sippy and Vishal Bhardwaj, as well as writing lyrics (Kabul Express) and dialogues (Aakrosh) for Hindi films. In 2016, Aditya was poised to direct his first feature film, Raat Baaki, starring Katrina Kaif and Pakistani actor Fawad Khan. However, on September 18 that year, the Uri attacks happened and diplomatic tensions escalated between India and Pakistan. Ripples were felt in the Hindi film industry when the Indian Motion Picture Producers’ Association passed a resolution to ban Pakistani actors from working in Bollywood. Fawad Khan — who had until then acted in Khoobsurat, Kapoor and Sons and Ae Dil Hai Mushkil — found himself at the centre of this controversy, and had to drop out of the project.
Aditya remembers, “While we were trying to figure out how to re-cast the film, the surgical strikes happened. Being a Kashmiri Pandit, I had seen terrorism from my childhood. At one point, I was interested in joining the army. So I suddenly felt the need to put Raat Baaki on the back-burner and explore how the surgical strikes were conducted. It took me six months to research the film. It was a difficult task because all the information was confidential. We took the conscious decision of not meeting the real soldiers involved in the fight. The characters in the film — for example Pareshji’s character — are an amalgamation of multiple real-life personalities.”
Given the timing of release, Aditya’s film — along with the Anupam Kher-starrer The Accidental Prime Minister, which also releases this Friday — has been accused of being a propaganda exercise favouring the ruling party ahead of the 2019 general elections. To this, the filmmaker responds by saying, “Our film is about the fight against terrorism. You can be from anywhere, but if your heart is clean and your conscience is true, then you must be against terrorism. We live in a democratic country where we cannot stop people from interpreting a film however they want. We can't explain our thoughts and intentions to everyone. Having said that, I must add that my film is a tribute to the Indian army. It has no political affiliation or agenda.”