In one of the scenes from War, Hrithik Roshan’s rogue agent Kabir tries to talk another character into going on an undercover mission likely to put them in mortal peril.
In a bid to persuade them, he invokes a version of the oft-repeated soldiers-dying-on-border line. In a lesser movie, this would stir up wild emotions of patriotism, but in War, the dialogue is responded with something that goes: not everyone has pledged to save the country, not everyone wants to be a soldier. Some, the character says, are just trying to get by, hoping for a better life.
It’s a scene that subverts the jingoistic narrative several Bollywood entertainers have adopted, subtly infusing the film with an awareness that reflects not only its political position but also a rejection of exploiting the Pak-bashing sentiment, which the unwatchable Bard of Blood, also about intelligence and spies and a leading man named Kabir, unabashedly did.
Yep. The leading men play the roles of soldiers, so submission to nation comes with the uniform, but it’s important to note the manner in which screenwriters Shridhar Raghavan and Siddharth Anand (who’s also War’s director) end the film, wherein a quiet shift is introduced in the life of one of the leading characters.
War has a straightforward premise: one of India’s top-class agents has gone rogue and appears to be playing for the other side. His protégé, Tiger Shroff’s Khalid Rehmani, must find him before more lives are lost. And so begins a familiar game that gets progressively and deliciously complex, with clever, filmy twists designed to retain consistent engagement.
Other than a heavily-sexualised Hrithik Roshan, who oozes rugged magnetism and shows remarkable restraint and grace even in blood-splitting fistfights, War is made immensely watchable by Ben Jasper’s camerawork that embeds the film’s breathtaking visuals ― Malta, Italy, Portugal, Marrakech, Kerala, Arctic ― with a soulful, almost poetic gaze.
Jasper’s cinematography constantly surprises: a complex airplane fight sequence, quite unlike anything seen in an Indian film, is shot with meticulous precision whereas aerial shots of a jaw-dropping bike-chase, where Roshan and Shroff competitively cruise across the Mediterranean coast, evoke the kind of pulsating thrills associated with intimate participation than mere spectatorship. Here’s a film whose action isn’t random or silly but painstakingly designed to perfection with its two leads carrying appropriate gravitas and physical bravura to make its universe believable as well as accessible.
A sample of War’s detail and commitment to its action can be seen in the way Shroff’s opening sequence - a well-crafted one take shot ties in with a scene at the end featuring Roshan - completing the mentor-mentee saga. In Shroff’s entry sequence, he uses his opponents as human shields, something Roshan repeats in a penultimate fight, revealing that Shroff, in all likelihood, picked the hack from his tutor. The chiseled, well-sculpted bodies of the two leads throb with homoerotic undercurrents and the film owns up to this idea by sneaking in a couple of jokes, addressing the same.
The film’s weakness is its expository dialogue. Although kept at a bare minimum, Abbas Tyrewala’s writing often relies on heavy-handed explanations to spoon feed the viewer.
But make no mistake: War isn’t just a mammoth Bollywood studio putting its might behind a movie that warrants and justifies every bit of its astronomical budget.
Its subtle allegory, of the enemy within, can be read as a broad commentary within and outside the film’s context. Constantly foregrounding the religious identity of one of its main leads - Tiger Shroff as a Muslim captain Khalid Rehmani - the film quells and disrupts the bloodlust with which right wing machinery demands authentication of nationalistic allegiance from the country’s minorities. Sure, Rehmani shouldn’t have to prove his patriotism but the fact that he has to endure and work overtime to do it exposes societal bigotry
More importantly, by inverting another trope (which would be a spoiler to mention) and training its gaze in a different direction, War shifts the construct of the modern villain: can those who need to prove their patriotism be the same people who shout about it the loudest?