Film review – Parmanu: A docudrama for patriotic goosebumps

Parmanu: The Story of Pokhran is more of a docufiction than Bollywood and is often flat and drab than rousing

John Abraham’s Parmanu, directed by Abhishek Sharma of Tere Bin Laden-fame, let us say, is utterly unpretentious. It does not pretend to be objective. It does not pretend to water-down patriotism for the left-leaning liberals. It does not pretend to be preachy about nuclear war and non-proliferation.

Instead, it simply attempts to recreate what went behind the scenes in 1998, as India ‘proudly’ earned its place in the ‘Nuclear Club’. Now, that is an easy route to take in contemporary India, where patriotic jingoism works best. Worship the army, worship the nation, and bingo, you are eligible enough to be an MP.

Bollywood and its heroes have been toeing the line with utter obsequiousness (from Akshay Kumar to Vivek Agnihotri, and from Anupam Kher to Paresh Rawal, there are many who don’t shy away from the ruling party’s affection). But there is no reason to say Parmanu is an all-out ode to BJP or patriotism.

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As a basic premise, it is exciting screen material. What indeed went into the Pokhran nuclear tests and how could all those behind-the-scenes be translated on to the silver screen with the right dose of excitement?

Writers Saiwyn Quadras, Sanyuktha Chawla Sheikh and Abhishek Sharma have obviously done some heavy-lifting in terms of research. They spell out the context and bring in sufficient twists and plot-points to create a ‘film’. They then embellish it with the Bollywood essentials – songs, a bit of family melodrama, and a Pakistani spy (although to the film’s credit, there is very little ‘enemy’ bashing; instead, it goes the other way – to show India’s genuine concern for its neighbour in the climax).

But where Parmanu falters is in its flat-note execution. While you do not expect the film to throw at you a debate on nuclear proliferation, it underpins that entering the nuclear club was the only way forward for the country, for which the makers also take refuge in former president Dr. AJP Abdul Kalam’s words, ‘Unless India stands up to the world, no one will respect us. In this world, fear has no place. Only strength respects strength.’

It is easy for us to look back and judge or comment in haste but there has been enough debate about India’s nuclear ambition – and some of these stories make for a fascinating read. So, it could even be justified that the film was just rolling out facts as the writers saw it than go into a lengthy political or military discourse.

Anyway, you hear Dr. Kalam’s line at least thrice in the opening first five minute as we are shown Ashwat Rana (John Abraham), an IAS officer, being booted out of office, after a sly politician botches up his plan for India’s nuclear test. Disappointed and disgruntled, he moves to Missouri where he is training young IAS aspirants, reiterating time and again that civil service is meant to serve the nation and not to have a car and bungalow as one young man suggests.

A change of guard at the centre, with AB Vajpayee (of the BJP, leading the National Democratic Alliance) as premier, throws a surprise at Ashwat, as the new principal secretary Himanshu Shukla (Boman Irani) decides it is time to investigate what led to the first Pokhran test failure. That leads to Ashwat being put in charge of leading his own Team Mahabharata to drive a covert operation that would lead to India’s successful nuclear tests.

The plot is centred on how the high-level team of scientists and military will pull off the tests without being detected by the prying US satellites, operating on-ground only during the ‘blind spots’ when the satellite is ‘away’.

The proceedings aren’t brisk – after all, there is little to build the tension – and showing a CIA and ISI agent on the scent, seated in a Rajasthan teashop, doesn’t add much. The real-life references to speeches by Vajpayee, Clinton and Nawaz Sharif add to the docu-real feel but the fictional elements often appear forced. There isn’t that nail-biting rush to the climax, although there is enough build-up afterward to stir the national pride.

On the plus side, on a political note, as observed earlier, there is no loud anti-Pakistan rhetoric; and on a cinematic note, there is not a scene of wild heroism. Ashwat, for a change, doesn’t even know how to handle a gun. The actors play it real – quite subdued – except for the extra artists in the first five minutes who go over the top.

And for all his dead-pan expression that John Abraham is always attributed, he comes rather clean – a bit sterile, of course – but nothing that will repel or overtly impress you. He is effective while not always compelling. Boman Irani, as always, makes an impression while Diana Penty as the only female in Team Mahabharata has little to do, other than look stern or sneer. There is more to do for Anuja Sathe, as the astrophysicist wife of Ashwat, and she handles it deftly.

Parmanu might not be the edge-of-the-seat thriller; it is definitely not thought-provoking; it is just a reenactment of a factual story – that could have risen to an Airlift status – but doesn’t not because of the actors – but because the material on which they worked on and created is not sufficiently filmy to be engrossing.

Parmanu is perfect for patriots; too direct for critics; and rather plain for the average filmgoer (including yours truly).

Parmanu

Directed by Abhishek Sharma

Starring: John Abraham, Boman Irani, Diana Penty

Rating: 2.5/5

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