Cast: Ajay Devgn, Sanjay Dutt, Sharad Kelkar, Sonakshi Sinha, Pranitha Subhash
Director: Abhishek Dudhaiya
Rating: 1.5 stars
A sad apology for a war film, Bhuj: The Pride Of India is an unmitigated blowout. It hobbles through a maze of explosions, dogfights and battlefield braggadocio without so much as pausing for breath and allowing the audience to figure what on earth is going on. In the opening moments of the film, the hero's Jeep runs into a ball of fire caused by an enemy fighter jet that crashes in the middle of an Indian airbase. Even as the wounded Air Force officer lies on the ground. He neither writes nor groans. The narration begins. The voice is his.
Lo and behold, he emerges from the conflagration with barely a scratch on his forehead. The film isn't that lucky. It damages itself irretrievably as it scrapes the bottom of the barrel as it tries in vain to propel itself out of the quagmire. The battle scenes, the visual effects, the pyrotechnics, the general tenor of the acting and the quality of the writing compete with each other in a race to climb to the top of the sloppiness index.
Directed and co-written by Abhishek Dudhaiya, Bhuj: The Pride Of India, streaming on Disney+Hotstar, presents a fictionalised account of an episode from the 1971 India-Pakistan War. It revolves around the heroics of soldiers and civilians who rebuilt a bombed-out runway in a single night. In the bargain, all that the film does is wage all-out war on all the rules of sensible filmmaking.
The patriotic posturing of the men in uniform who deliver 'thundering' lines about patriotism and courage is laced with cliches, with leading man Ajay Devgn, in the role of Squadron Leader Vijay Srinivas Karnik, spearheading the onslaught. The real-life hero on whom the character is modelled is quickly dumped by the wayside amid a non-stop barrage of inanities.
You know that the film intends to be a Bollywood star vehicle rather than an authentic tribute to the valour of India's defence forces when it puts the spotlight squarely on the two top names in the cast. Sanjay Dutt, playing an Indian villager who can walk in and out of Pakistan at will, gets a fair bit of the action alongside Devgn.
They are all-purpose men. They do everything from spying for the nation and fighting singlehandedly against Pakistani soldiers to defusing time bombs and performing miracles in the face of daunting odds. Everybody else in Bhuj: The Pride Of India, including Sharad Kelkar, an actor who has the voice to rise above any din, is reduced to firing blanks.
More than an hour into the film, the focus shifts to a village where women far outnumber men because the latter are all away from their homes in pursuit of work in the cities. The government contractors and suppliers have retreated in fear. So, the Squadron Leader (he is codenamed Maratha Baagh) seeks the women's help to get the runway up and running again. No matter what the villagers do, the film's rough patches never end.
None of the women, certainly not Sonakshi Sinha in the garb of "Gujarat ki Sherni" Sunderben who kills a leopard with her bare hands, look cut out for the part. They seem dressed for a village carnival. But in order to get all fired up all they need is a vague pep talk from the gutsy hero, who never tires of trumpeting the fact that he is a Maratha, fearless and unfettered. Neither the man's exhortations nor the subsequent actions of the village women do anything to shore up the rudderless film.
It isn't Gujarat and Maharashtra alone that get pride of place in the tribalism-peddling Bhuj: The Pride Of India. Kerala sneaks in via a certain Colonel R.K. Nair (Sharad Kelkar). The film tells us that this Madras Regiment officer belongs to a community known for its guts and resilience and that he once broke a Pakistani boxer's jaws. It is another matter that none of his actions seems to substantiate the tall claims.
Needless to say, there is also the inevitable Sikh - fighter pilot Vikram Singh (Ammy Virk), who thinks nothing of flying into danger - and the token Muslim, an intrepid spy Heena Rehman (Nora Fatehi), who is in Pakistan to avenge the death of her brother, also a brave secret agent, and defend her nation, Hindustan.
In a film that not only revels in unbridled Pakistan-bashing but also in unabashedly hawking a very invidious brand of Islamophobia, it is but inevitable that the soldiers and officers from across the border are mere sitting ducks, laughable caricatures who merely lie in wait to be walloped mercilessly.
WhatsApp history comes into play when Pakistan President Yahya Khan, ruffled by the prospect of defeat in Bangladesh, tells his men that his nation (read: a particular community) needs to do something drastic to hit back at a people that they subjugated for four centuries. The harried head of state comes up with the plan to attack India's western front when the country's troops are busy on the eastern border.
Pakistan's number one intelligence operative catches an Indian spy red-handed. But this is a Bollywood flick: the man stands no chance because he is a Pakistani who mumbles banalities and the spy is a Hindustani who swears by undying allegiance to her motherland. The latter bit is understandable, but anybody who wants to pull off a convincing film based on true events has to demonstrate a sense of balance. The makers of Bhuj: The Pride Of India don't.
If that isn't bad enough, the Bhuj airbase commanding officer would have us believe that women are to be held in the highest esteem because they are good at fixing everything from broken shirt buttons to broken spirits. To rub his sexism in, he also says, in another context, that a woman's most prized possession is her home.
The actress who plays the officer's wife, Pranitha Subhash, has only a walk-on role, and that just about sums up this shockingly inept, gender insensitive film. Agreed that the action is set in 1971, but surely a man who turns to a village full of women for assistance when the chips are down should know better than to decide unilaterally what women are good at.
There is precious little in Bhuj: The Pride Of India that comes anywhere making any sense. If there is anything worse here than the acting, it is the writing. As a result, the 'best' line that the lead actor gets to spout is "Main marne ke liye jita hoon mera naam hai sipahi (I live to die, I am a soldier)".
Hardly surprising that the film is dead on arrival. Common sense goes missing in action once the explosions begin, which, sad to report, is from scene one. For the remaining two hours, Bhuj: The Pride Of India is busy gathering the scattered splinters of its insipid ideas made infinitely worse by resolutely ham-fisted treatment. Nothing to be proud of.