‘Parmanu: The Story of Pokhran’ review: Potential Energy

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Life is a Cinema Hall rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars (2.5 / 5) (This rating is only a snapshot. The details are in the words.)

On the 11th of May, 1998, India gatecrashed the elite group of Nuclear states by detonating five bombs. Her action shook the world, especially the countries of United States and Pakistan – the former for having been hoodwinked into believing that all was normal at the blast site in Pokhran, Rajasthan, their satellites sucker-punched out of orbit; the latter for realizing their worst nightmare.

The story of the detonation has multiple layers to it, and a movie like Parmanu: The Story of Pokhran ought to shake you up, even as you sit amazed at what India achieved – a feat in secrecy that was so insulated and isolated, it cried for a hush-hush thriller.  The movie however, is limited in its ambitions and does all it can to not cross the rubicon of cinematic safety. Director Abhishek Sharma – who also co-wrote the story with Saiwyn Quadras and Sanyuktha Chawla Sheikh – is content to operate within the confines he sets for himself and the project. Which is a pity for where his Tere Bin Laden brimmed with smarts and funnies in the right context and amount, here he gets the mix all mixed up, coming up with a countdown plot that has too many distractions including some comic sequences that don’t, simply don’t work.

Vikas Kumar, Yogendra Tikku, John Abraham, Diana Penty, and Ajay Shanker out to change no clear to nuclear.
Vikas Kumar, Yogendra Tikku, John Abraham, Diana Penty, and Ajay Shanker out to change no clear to nuclear.

Parmanu begins in 1995, with Capt. Ashwat Raina (John Abraham) in a meeting with a bunch of uncouth and uninformed bureaucrats and a politico, presenting his blueprint for India’s nuclear bomb testing. The mission is doomed to failure, Raina shifts to Mussoorie, with wife Sushma (Anuja Sathe, trying hard to add some intensity to a shoddily written role) and son. Amidst all of this, there’s a parallel family drama track that director Sharma deems fit to add even as Raina discovers that his in-laws are more persistent than any politician he’s ever known, and they land up at his lovely hill-station home, where papa in-law is content to frown at the day’s newspaper. Thus far, the dialogues and the scene staging teeter to  amateur-time, and you begin wondering about life in a cinema hall.

Before you despair, Boman Irani, playing Himanshu Shukla, Principal Secretary to the PM, strides in circa 1998, snaps his fingers, raises his eyebrow, and in a superbly sharp performance,  rustles up the proceedings. The new government, headed by A.B. Vajpayee, is in place, and wants to revisit the idea of India’s own N-bomb. From here on, things crackle intermittently, especially when Irani’s onscreen – his no-nonsense and pragmatic act is truly the highlight of the movie.

Diana Penty isn't thrilled with John Abraham
Diana Penty isn’t thrilled with John Abraham.

The rest of the movie is uneven – the plan to put the team in place is gripping, meeting them not much – Capt. Ambalika Bandopadhyay (Diana Penty in a likeable act), Dr. Viraf Wadia (Aditya Hitkari, pleasant and with not much to do), Major Prem (Vikas Kumar with the requisite military heft), Dr. Naresh Sinha (the magnificent Yogendra Tikku reduced to some absent-minded comic relief), and Puru Ranganathan (Ajay Shanker, confoundingly snacking on banana chips even as the bombs go off). The interaction between the team members is embarrassingly weak and the director can’t be bothered to dig deeper into these characters.

To dilute the plot-boiler, Sharma adds an American and a Pakistani spy and struggles again – should they be comic, deadly, or both? As it turns out, they’re neither. In the meantime, there’s the family angle encore, and an unforgivable misuse of Diana Penty’s role to add discomfiting comedy, even as the potential thrill of a bug is lost completely.

John Abraham's moves make you go PCO gawd.
John Abraham’s moves make you go PCO-gawd.

Which is all a pity. As a quasi-thriller-cum-patriotic fluff, Parmanu works. But is that what John Abraham was looking at when he so bravely co-produced this venture? (Look at his gritty Madras Cafe and you’ll realize what a missed opportunity this is.) Even as his own act is on an even keel, his movie misses the depth of the forest for commercial trees. There was so much more that the project could have been. The political layer of Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto upping her ante in the UN even as the Indian PM decides to green-light the mission was crying for cinematic drama – to watch Boman Irani playoff with an actor playing Prime Minister Vajpayee as they discussed the consequences on the international stage and their coalition government challenges, would have been gripping; there was so much potential in negotiating the corridors of powers in secret meetings, in showing how the whole mission was pulled off – here, there’s Abraham’s character calling his wife from a public booth in Pokhran and more risibility; the planning of the BARC scientists and their interactions with the Indian Army that could have tightened your guts gives way to a simplistic model.

While the explosions go off using impressive CGI, what moves is you is the real-life photos that are shown onscreen at the end. As for the rest, Parmanu tells you nothing about the core of the nuclear reactors and actors that made it happen.

Life is a Cinema Hall ratings chart
1 out of 5 stars (1 / 5): Don’t bother
2 out of 5 stars (2 / 5): Not too great
3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5): Worth a watch
4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5): Very good
5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5): Drop everything else NOW

Parmanu: The Story of Pokhran (2018) on IMDb

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Parmanu: The Story of Pokhran is rated U (unrestricted public exhibition)

Parmanu: The Story of Pokhran
 Abhishek Sharma Running Time 2h 9 min
Writers Sanyukta Shaikh Chawla, Saiwyn Quadras, Abhishek Sharma
Stars John Abraham, Diana Penty, Boman Irani
 Action, Drama, History, Thriller

Watch the trailer of Parmanu: The Story of Pokhran here:

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