It can be called a coincidence that the very attack that led to the shelving of director Aditya Dhar’s first film was reason enough for him to make another one – Uri: The Surgical Strike (released on 11 January). Dhar was supposed to direct Raat Baaki with Fawad Khan and Katrina Kaif under Karan Johar’s Dharma Productions but the 2016 Uri attack led to the banning of Pakistani artists coming to India. In a chat with Firstpost, Dhar, who has assisted Vidhu Vinod Chopra, Vishal Bhardwaj and Priyadarshan among others, talks about his fascination for the subject, the timing of the film’s release and critics calling it a propaganda film.
So how did you come up with the idea for Uri: The Surgical Strike?
We were on the verge of going on floors with Raat Baaki and the Uri attack happened, and while we were trying to recast, within 10 days, the surgical strike took place. And when everybody was trying to figure out what to do with the film, I was suddenly more curious to know what happened during the surgical strikes. I always wanted to get into the army. I was fascinated because I was surrounded by a lot of people with army and defence background.
Also, as a Kashmiri Pandit, I had seen and heard about terrorism since my childhood so everything was a complete no-brainer for me. If we look at India’s military history we never attacked first, we have always retaliated. This was the first time that we entered the enemy soil though this was also retaliation but this was the first time we took the fight to the enemy. That part fascinated me and I wanted to know how the army pulled this off. By the end of my six months of research, from October 2016 to March 2017, I realised this was one of the best covert military operations ever conducted by the Indian Army and I knew I had to tell this story. But since it was all classified information, I went through lot of articles, met many journalists, retired army officers. It was more like an investigation than research. I started joining the dots and by March, I was ready with my research.
Soon after, I learnt that another producer wanted to make a film on surgical strikes. I panicked and I didn’t want my second film to get stuck. As a first time director, I could only get a producer to back me if I had a great story and screenplay. I finished the entire screenplay in 12 days and my manager sent it to a common friend who is an associate producer with Ronnie Screwvala’s production company RSVP. Ronnie loved the script and that is how the project took off.
How much of the real story were you allowed to tell?
First of all, there was a big responsibility to show only facts but then there were a lot of things in the story that we actually can’t show because of the security reasons. There are a lot of things shown which were real and because it is a film, we have to take that dramatic licence and creative liberty. If we actually go with reality, then there will be so many characters and it will become a web series. Because we have to condense it into a two-hour film, we have to combine a lot of characters, stories and make it one person’s journey, or point of view. When you watch the film, you will know what is real and what is fiction.
Did you always have Vicky Kaushal in mind?
I had him in mind not while writing but once I finished writing. I don’t like thinking about the actor while I am writing because then you write according to that actor’s capability. After watching Masaan, I just wanted to speak to Vicky. A friend helped connect us and I told Vicky that when I become a director, I would like to do one film with him. Little did I know that my first film will be with him.
Why did you decide to go to Serbia to shoot?
The kind of gear — guns, clothes we needed, we had to be as authentic as possible. We had to show army in the right light. Those guns which the special force uses are not available in India except with special force officers. If we had to make the film in India then literally we had to borrow the gun from the special forces which was obviously not possible. Also, the topography of Serbia matches Kashmir and that is how we landed in Serbia and shot all the action sequences over there. We also shot in Mumbai.
What were the major challenges you faced?
To give that kind of scale in a small budget. Budget was really controlled and we had to see that we don’t compromise on scale. Every day, we would come up with some ingenious ways of making everything look real and grand and, at the same time, make sure that we were not over-spending. The climatic conditions were very difficult. Temperature in Serbia was really low, we were in the middle of a jungle and it would suddenly start raining. Shooting on slippery slopes and mountainous terrain was tough. The idea was to create the drama in the real world and that was quite challenging. Vicky, Yami (Gautam), Mohit (Raina), Pareshji (Rawal, Kirti (Kulhari), all of them have done a fantastic job. They were all doing something that they have never done before.
Your film is called BJP propaganda by a certain section also considering the timing of the film’s release, which is so close to the 2019 general elections?
The film is dedicated to the army; it is about the army. BJP were the ones who took that decision (surgical strike) so you have to give that credit to them. If you watch the film, 95 per cent is about what army did, how they pulled it off, how the Intelligence Department worked, how ISRO (Indian Space Research Organisation) and DRDO (Defence Research and Development Organisation) worked. How each and every department with single-minded focus worked towards achieving that goal of surgical strike. It is a democratic country and if some people want to say it is a propaganda film, it is fine. If some feel that the film is made for the army, I am happy about it. We are filmmakers, story-tellers, we look for great stories. It doesn’t matter where it comes from. Tomorrow, if a great story comes from an incident which had happened during Indira Gandhi regime, I would love to show that. Also, the release date of Uri was decided long back. Then, 11 January date worked for us because 15th is also Army Day, and then 26th is Republic Day, so the country is already in that mood.