There’s something indefinable and shapeless about insincerity. No matter how much it’s sprayed with concern, couched in empathy, or wrapped in patriotism, it escapes these containers with a Houdini-like evanescence. Because around anything superficial, the halo of insincerity glows, undeniable silage of rot that hangs in the air, long after a perfunctory act makes its exit, its actor smug in their self-illusory bubble that they’ve gotten away with it.
Bhuj: The Pride of India is a Star candidate (pun intended) in this category. Basing the premise on a true story that ought to have stunned you, it leaves you shocked instead at its brazen intent, its messaging as unsubtle and out-of-context as a vitiating WhatsApp forward. Written by director Abhishek Dudhaiya along with Raman Kumar, Ritesh Shah, and Pooja Bhavoria, the movie is set during the Indo-Pak War of 1971 that itself was triggered by the Bangladeshi Liberation War, the latter stewing in a complex history of East and West Pakistan powers, divergent cultures, and ethnic looks, all which combined into dry gunpowder that waited to be lit. That spark flew from the spark of racial tensions and political negotiations between the two sides that aimed to load governing power on their respective sides. In this tug-of-war between the Bengali East Pakistan’s sweeping win in the Eastern assembly—their numbers granting them a majority in the to-be-formed National Assembly—and Muslim Western Pakistan’s army brass not recognizing this win, the rope snapped when Eastern dissidents began targeting the Bihari population, who’d supported West Pakistan. The subsequent massacre of 300 Biharis gave West Pakistan the ammunition to target dissidents in the East, launching Operation Searchlight.
The point of this synopsis being, none of this complicated history is brought to light in a movie that’s ostensibly all about it. Worse, it completely ignores the real reason why India got into a war with then-West Pakistan—faced with a burgeoning wave of persecuted refugees along its border with East Pakistan that brought its already shaky economy to collapse. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi pushed into a corner with no international support despite multiple appeals and decided that a war with Pakistan would be economically more manageable. Not a semblance of this finds mention in Bhuj as it opens to an utterly disjointed opening, placing the Indian role as one of a savior, not one pulled into a mess that was yet another offspring of the partition. Whence does Pakistan launch a pre-emptive airstrike on 11 Indian airbases, which was codenamed Operation Chengiz Khan. Director Dudhaiya cherry-picks the name, as he does other incidents, placing an Islamic hue to an action that was more war and territory protection than religion. In rapid sequences that are more careless cut-pastes than compelling story building frames, you’re introduced to Squadron Leader Vijay Karnik (Ajay Devgn), in charge of the Bhuj IAF airbase, who survives the air attack and then is tasked with rebuilding the runway to help Indian soldiers regain fighting and strategic advantage.
You’d think that the movie would begin to make sense at this point. But the director’s too busy with communal innuendo and Maratha war cries. When it’s not this, the movie goes unintentionally funny. As Devgn and his second-in-command inspect the damage, an unexploded bomb goes off; both actors react a split-second late to the sound, and then Devgn continues walking with a nonchalant “It must’ve been a time bomb.” The movie, like the Bhuj runway, is strewn with such comic landmines all through. The dialogues are stunted and dull as if taken from a losing entry in a contest. There’s nary a meaningful exchange, every spoken line a listless commentary to inform you about the goings-on and the plan ahead—including numbers and strategies—just in case you’ve had the fortune of having found a cure for your insomnia in this yawn-fest. None of the characters are developed beyond dud screen appearances—be it the IAF pilot Vikram Singh Baj Jethaaz (Ammy Virk in an act that competes with the movie’s amateur touch, delivering his dialogues as if wanting to get over them, worried that he’d forget them if he didn’t hurry), Sanjay Dutt playing real-life braveheart Indian Army scout Ranchordas Pagi (another fabulous story lost in this sorry telling)—and you’re left cold like a desert night. Ditto for Sonakshi Sinha’s supposed-to-have-been feisty Bhuj local woman Sunderben Jetha, who rallies her village women to help rebuild the runway, or Sharad Kelkar’s valorous military man R.K. Nair (whose marriage to a physically-challenged woman who is a Muslim, is a nota bene of no note, except as a distasteful savior intonation.) Nora Fatehi as Indian spy Heena Rehman is terribly miscast; her bee-stung looks coming into effective play only in an action scene.
To top it all, the dialogues delivered by the actors playing Pakistani parts sound exaggerated, akin to the dubbed versions of South Indian movies that relentlessly play on some cable channels. But the saddest news of all? The runway rebuilding, supposedly the pivot of the film, is a pillbox: where Karnik and his wife (Pranitha Subhash) take turns taking a road roller for a spin. If you’ve gotten up to make yourself a drink to girdle up for the ride, you may miss it for the pyrotechnics-heavy border fights. Which is what begs the question that mainstream Hindi filmmakers and top-earning male actors seem doomed not to ask themselves: what is the intent of making such a fruitless venture? Is it to pander to a political dispensation? Or to the basest base of an audience who they think will, under the influence of the contagion called mob psychology, roar against the “Mughal invaders” and cheer for the heroic Maratha? (Even the invocation of Chattrapati Shivaji is so obviously manipulative and dreary, you aren’t sure just how to react.) The makers of Bhuj didn’t consider that movie theaters as darkened vehicles of mass hypnosis no longer exist. It’s each of us to our own, much like all human lives in India. The audience has the choice to exit the app and switch to some other form, which is why the slo-mo shots of a swaggering Ajay Devgn no longer work as bombs go off behind him. Nor does the laughable scene where Virk’s pilot, ejected from his burning aircraft into the sea, emerges from the water, captured in slow motion, as if in an ad for Old Spice.
Bhuj is not the tribute that a powerful story involving a race against time, complex politics, ethnic divides, and human tragedy and valor deserved. It’s so disinterested in its subject that even at the end credits when photographs from history display, has ridiculous chyrons: pictures of the real Karnik have his name showing up, and nothing else; a picture of the women who helped build the runway has the chyron that begins with “Real women from…”. If the movie evokes any form of sincerity, it’s this: a grateful sigh that you didn’t invest multiplex money to endure this disingenuous form in the cinema hall. That would’ve genuinely cost a bomb.
Movie data powered by IMDb. All images owned by the producers. Bhuj: The Pride of India Rojo is streaming on Disney+ Hotstar and rated U/A (Parental Guidance for children below the age of 12 years) for some blinding CGI and comatose writing.
Bhuj: The Pride of India
Director Abhishek Dudhaiya Time 2h 34min
Writers Abhishek Dudhaiya, Raman Kumar, Ritesh Shah, Pooja Bhavoria
Stars Ajay Devgn, Sanjay Dutt, Sonakshi Sinha, Sharad Kelkar, Nora Fatehi
Genres Drama, History, War