Synopsis – A look at India’s second confidential nuclear test series at Pokhran lead by Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam, during the time of PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s tenure.
My Take – In recent years Bollywood filmmakers have seemed to have shifted their focus from larger than life patriotic heroes and instead seem more interested in grinding and presenting stories of accomplishments led by unsung heroes. The underdogs and those who work behind-the-scenes make great subjects when combined with patriotism. Here, writers Saiwyn Quadras and Sanyukta Shaikh Chawla of Neerja fame, director Abhishek Sharma (Tere Bin Laden) and producer/ star John Abraham, bring us the story which finally turned India into a super power. This much controversial film, which has been in the news for the legal tussle between John Abraham‘s production company and KriArj Entertainment takes us back to the events leading up to 11th May 1998, when India, despite facing major opposition from world, was declared a full-fledged nuclear state after the successfully testing its nuclear bomb at Pokhran, a city and a municipality located in the Jaisalmer district of the Indian state of Rajasthan.
It was a huge victory, considering how India managed to hoodwink the US spy satellites. The episode, considered a defining moment in the country’s history, is also touted to be one of the CIA’s biggest intelligence failures. However, only few people are aware of the problems and hurdles that came in the way. As a result, the film in a fictionalized form, dramatically delves into the wide variety of challenges that the country faced, including technological, logistical, political, and diplomatic challenges, all the while remaining highly engaging and taut. While it has its set of flaws, director Abhishek Sharma‘s film does manage to be a true ode to the visionaries who envisioned and executed the intricate yet successful tests and it deserves your time for the sheer bravery of the officials who carried out the covert mission due to which India (till date) is taken seriously around the world. It’s not so often that a film manages to bring out such kind of patriotism from within us.
Beginning in the year 1995, great political uncertainty is in the air following the collapse of the Soviet Union. With the ever present threat from both sides of the Indian border increasing, especially with both nuclear powers, United States of America and China, forming an allegiance and supplying weaponry to Pakistan. While the Indian PMO’s office continue to brain storm ways to earn respect from their neighbors, the story follows Ashwat Raina (John Abraham), a junior bureaucrat and an earnest IAS officer, who comes up with a full proof plan for India to achieve global nuclear power status.
However, his plan is not followed to the tee, and without his involvement fails, furthermore, America censures India and takes action via strict sanctions. Staked out as the scapegoat of the failure, Ashwath with his supportive wife, Sushma (Anuja Sathe), an astrophysicist in an observatory, and young son, Prahlad, move away to Musssorie, where he takes up a simple life as an IAS tutor. However, three years later, when the government changes the new Prime Minister and his principal secretary Himanshu Sharma (Boman Irani) summon Ashwath to revive the mission, by course correcting all blunders all while preventing American satellites from detecting their preparations in the Pokhran. With his team comprising of Dr. Viraf Wadia (Aditya Hitkari), Dr. Naresh Sinha (Yogendra Tiku), Major Prem Singh (Vikas Kumar), Puru Ranganathan (Ajay Shanker) and Capt. Ambalika Bandopadhyay (Diana Penty), an intelligence officer assembled, Ashwath must now approach everything strategically and conduct a fresh nuclear testing away from the prying eyes of CIA and ISI, on the ground where they failed before.
The film is an astoundingly simplified version of a very complicated historical event. This is a tricky subject in this age of high-decibel, aggressive nationalism, and could have gone unbearably overboard in the hands of a smarmy director trying to ingratiate himself with the present right-wing government, especially considering that India’s current ruling party also headed the regime under which the Pokhran tests were conducted in 1998. It’s hard to make something as political and technical as a country’s nuclear ambitions look engaging without compromising on its inherent gravity. It’s even harder to pass it off as an edge-of-the-seat integrity thriller. In a bid to overcompensate for the nature of the source material – there are no heists, hostages or life-or-death situations as such – they seem to have chosen a genre that services accessibility over durability.
The result is a reasonably effective thriller as the team race against time, the watchful eye of US satellites and the fragility of Vajpayee’s coalition government to conduct the explosions that made international news in 1998. Director Abhishek Sharma, seems to be aiming at least for a balancing act in his tone and instead of getting his characters to spout hosannas to any particular political party, he leaves them to do their work while the then PM’s stances and the international response to the tests are conveyed purely through news video footage from back then of the real-life players involved: Vajpayee, US President Bill Clinton, Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif and his predecessor Benazir Bhutto. And the film works for multiple reasons. The film despite packing in valuable information about the nuclear tests, doesn’t get too dense or too dumb.
It never underestimates audiences’ intelligence nor does it bombard you with too much data. It smartly picks the odds against the mission; a Pakistani spy, nosy CIA satellites and a marriage that faces the brunt of the mission, keeping the emotional quotient of the film intact. Even the names of the shafts are the same that have relevance towards the end of the film. Director Abhishek Sharma also succeeds in making you bite your nails till the end. The entire ‘blind spot’ timing sequences of satellites have been executed so well. As the story builds up, one just tends to think how much this tale had to offer. It also makes you wonder how the story would’ve unfolded in real life.
The script, especially in second half, with the proper amount of patriotism, emotions, humor and thrill, keeps you engaged and on the edge of your seat. True, the glaring amateurishness of a couple of their moves on this most secret of missions is laughable. I mean, common, in an area packed with spies, six undercover operatives take on the aliases of the five Pandavas can you be more obvious than that? But pace compensates for these missteps which are, in any case, not the norm with this bright, hardworking lot. The writers of Saiwyn Quadras, Sanyuktha Chawla Shaikh and Sharma himself, also need to be commended for making the conversations about the processes involved in their work sound comprehensible yet believably intelligent to the average, inexpert viewer.
They also throw in some humorous moments as well, which lighten up the mood when the script becomes too serious and heavy. However, the film seals the deal with its earth-shattering (literally) finale. You find yourself hoping that the team accomplishes what they set out to do, despite knowing fully well, at the back of your mind, that they will. On the technical front, the cinematography succeeds at maintaining the tone of realism. The locales are captured beautifully, and the live action moments are mixed smoothly with the news reels. There is a consistent docudrama feel throughout the film, and that works. The editing is flawless, cutting between fast cuts, and slow cuts depending on the emotion behind the moment. Credit goes to the director, Abhishek Sharma, for communicating his vision successfully to the entire team. The best part of the film is that its patriotism is not jingoistic but is laced with practical facts.
The film brings out the dark fact of power balancing between nations and how it was necessary for India post the collapse of USSR to do a nuclear test. Films like this one deserve a must watch because a new breed of makers are trying to bring a part of our recent history close to us. What could have elevated this film to another level altogether, of course, would have been at least an allusion to the perils of military aggression irrespective of the perpetrator, rather than a celebration of weaponization, perhaps not wanting to make his film cerebral in anyway, director Sharma avoids any such discussion. Also unlike most Bollywood films, this is a rare one which could have done fine without songs. Not that the songs themselves are bad. Music director Sachin Jigar and in some cases Jeet Ganguli tries to delve into the rich texture of Rajasthani folk music for most of the songs but although not unpleasant the music sounds a little dated. With not even one memorable or hummable track, the music of the film falls flat in terms of recall value. Then there is that parallel story line of Ashwat’s personal life, which lends nothing to the main plot other than making provisions, which I honestly felt effected the thrill element of the film. Even though, director Sharma takes many such cinematic liberties throughout the film, he manages to keep you engaged.
Led by John Abraham, who despite all his limitations as an actor is extremely earnest not only in his performance but also in his intention to tell the Pokharan tale. Here, Abraham is subtle when it’s required and charming when the proceedings get too intense. The efforts were visible and he delivers a memorable performance. His most honest moment comes towards the end when he breaks down in tears. He maintains his balance to not cross the line between patriotism and jingoism. Boman Irani is a delight to watch and gives his usual controlled and classy performance. Diana Penty is good, too and looks gorgeous as well. Anuja Sathe is both convincing and likeable as Ashwath Raina’s neglected spouse. The rest of the cast, Aditya Hitkari, Yogendra Tiku, Vikas Kumar and Ajay Shanker, are all good with whatever little they are given to do. On the whole, ‘Parmanu – The Story of Pokhran‘ is a gripping and fascinating thriller, which celebrates one of the most intriguing chapters in the Indian history.
Directed – Abhishek Sharma
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 129 minutes