Shershaah review – Sidharth Malhotra stars in nuance-free military biopic

Show caption Straight arrow … Sidharth Malhotra in Shershaah. Photograph: Amazon Prime Video Film Shershaah review – Sidharth Malhotra stars in nuance-free military biopic Karan Johar-produced film about Vikram Batra, who died in the 1999 India-Pakistan conflict, promotes him as a model citizen – with model looks to boot Mike McCahill Thu 12 Aug 2021 03.30 BST Share on Facebook

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Hot on the heels of Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl, last year’s biopic of one of the hardier combatants in the India-Pakistan conflict of 1999, mega-producer Karan Johar offers a disappointingly generic tribute to Vikram Batra, killed in the same conflict aged just 24. Batra’s death was previously noted in 2003’s all-star LOC: Kargil, where he was played by Abhishek Bachchan, and he has clearly lodged in the Indian collective memory as a model citizen; a straight arrow willing to sacrifice all for the motherland. Yet that very straightness proves an issue in a two-hour battle charge of a film that shuttles its practically perfect protagonist (codename: Shershaah, or “King of Lions”) from playground fisticuffs to fateful last stand, while its idea of conflict never develops beyond the childishly superficial.

For starters, this is the first time Batra has been played by someone who might pass for a model: Sidharth Malhotra, ever handsome, mostly upright, sensing he needn’t flex too hard to emerge looking like a sweetheart. As the film switches between Batra’s personal and professional lives, its star successfully runs the trickiest gauntlet: trying not to look too gawky in the shell suits of college flashbacks. Malhotra and an unusually deglammed Kiara Advani (as Batra’s beloved, Dimple) can’t credibly resemble undergraduates, but they share a fond, tender chemistry. It’s a pity Batra’s service leave keeps being interrupted by rumbles from Kashmir – but that’s where this story’s destiny lies.

In the battle scenes, Tamil director Vishnuvardhan stages recces and shootouts with an unspectacular competence, and the most distinctive touch is applied by makeup: three stitches on Malhotra’s temple, so as not to obscure his features. The politics are far less delicate. This Batra begins as a diplomat (“If we don’t trust them, they’ll never trust us”) but the film makes him a warrior, throttling targets with their own headscarves. The avoidance of nuance should at least spare Johar any more of the violent campaigns he attracted after casting Pakistani actor Fawad Khan in 2016’s Ae Dil Hai Mushkil. His latest is nothing but patriotic, but it is also rote and uninspired, right through to the final-reel rallying cries and shots of the Indian flag fluttering unsullied in the wind.

• Shershaah is released on 12 August on Amazon Prime Video.