Indian cinema's history of military films has been spotty. Unlike Hollywood's close ties with the US armed forces allowing the studios access to military equipment and manpower, relevant technical information and other resources, in return for a positive heroic showcase to the public of the actions of these forces (and cushy consultant positions with showbiz exposure for current and former military personnel), there are at most a handful of such collaborations out here. Then there is the matter of wedding a battlefield story to the stereotype ingredient-based melodrama structure of mainstream Indian films down the ages. Pushing aside the ones where the protagonist being a soldier is just a throwaway backdrop detail for a standard Bollywood product, it is hardly a surprise that we have very few military action focused movies (and only a subset of those have reflected contemporary / near contemporary events). Chetan Anand's Haqeeqat (1964) inspired by the Sino-Indian war of 1962, would appear to have established the paradigm subsequent desi battlefield narratives styled themselves upon. In the more recent past JP Dutta contributed to the Indian war movie genre with Border (1997), LoC Kargil (2003) and Paltan (2018). But these films in order offered steeply diminishing returns, on account of shamelessly rehashed story and character beats, and reduced quality of execution. Almost the only Indian film that seriously explores the soldier's psyche and his place in society is actor-director Nana Patekar's 1991 film Prahaar (and even that eschews the military backdrop in its second half).
Which is not to say that Aditya Dhar's ambitious debut film, based on the covert military ops carried out by Indian armed forces in enemy territory defies convention. Here again you have the heroic Indian soldier, who having faced tragedy from terrorism / foreign aggression, goes on a mission of national (and to some extent personal) vendetta to tell the enemy that their actions will, following Newton's Third Law, cause equal and opposite reactions. Critic Baradwaj Rangan's review has even likened it in outline to 80's Bollywood gratuitous revenge dramas like Hukumat (1987). But there is a focus and visceral propulsion in Uri's execution that invigorates the genre for Indian cinema. In few and bold strokes the film introduces its small cast of main characters and sets up the central conflict, the attack on the army camp at Uri in Kashmir by four insurgents who ended up murdering 21 soldiers before they were felled. The tragic blow to the armed forces and the nation at large is supplemented by a sense of personal loss when our protagonist covert ops specialist Major Vihaan (Vicky Kaushal) loses his brother-in-law to that massacre. Vihaan, who had by then shifted to a desk job to care for his ailing mother (a dignified if prop-like Swaroop Sampat), asks to be reinstated to field operations in the retaliation planned by the Indian army.
The entire second half of the film is devoted to the mechanics of planning and execution of the retaliation through "surgical strikes" hitting terrorist training camps in enemy territory - reconnaissance of enemy locations, gathering information through spies and from captured hostiles, detailing of operation parameters and preparation of the people involved in the actual op. Unlike an all-out war with rank-and-file soldiers, the surgical strikes employed a select band of elite warriors armed with rigorous training and technological aid. Modern combat rifles, night-vision goggles, binoculars with face recognition tech, body-mounted cameras, surveillance drones - as much as anything else, the film serves as a showcase for the sophistication and technical competence of the Indian armed forces as a world-class fighting force. The visual slickness is complimented by the laser-sighted focus of the script - there's no time wasted on throwaway romances (none of the women in the film are love interests), cloying religious integration (Vihaan passes by a group of his team members offering namaz but no big deal is made of it), no one makes big speeches and the patriotism is not expressed through bovine-tempered never-ending ballads. The film revels in a spirit of (positive-minded) aggressive nationalism. At the same time, it is careful not to espouse a tasteless political bias. The characters standing in for real-life politicians are shown to be supportive of military decisions, but not directing them; Rajit Kapur may be made up like Narendra Modi but he behaves with a restraint lacking in the real McCoy.
There are of course the usual exaggerations and fabrications of any mainstream film. A bird-shaped drone used for overhead spying is shown to be the brainchild of a college intern at the DRDO (even if it was, wouldn't the army just ask the kid to write down the instructions instead of depending on him to take part in actual espionage ops?). The enemy is depicted as an indolent moron - Pak military council members shown to be more interested in golf and yakhni pulao than studying India's response to their activities, none of the militant camps have watch towers or night sentries - and the Indian soldiers have almost no worthwhile challenge in carrying out the mission (you're making stuff up anyway, why not invent things that add more tension in the narrative?). But as part of the new breed of Bollywood cinema, Uri-TSS is commendable. Some years ago, such a vehicle would have been unthinkable without a big star name attached and all the baggage that comes with that. Vicky Kaushal is not the first name that comes up when you think action hero, but he turned out to be the perfect choice. He invests himself physically and mentally into the character of Major Vihaan, and infuses him with a controlled exterior and an inner fire (how you wish some of this attitude had shown in his Raazi character). When he gets his slow-motion walk towards the end of the film, you feel he has earned it. The supporting actors (Paresh Rawal, Mohit Raina, Kirti Kulhari, Yami Gautam) may not sport well-rounded characterizations but they have defined roles and are not just props to accentuate the protagonist. Unlike other Indian military and patriotic films, Uri refrains from endless brandishing of the national flag / anthem, seeking instead to interest Generation Now in how cool and exciting an armed forces life can be for those that can handle the pressure...and yes, being terrific popcorn entertainment for the rest of us.