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Interview Hindi

Vicky Kaushal is the best thing to have happened to our industry, says Uri director Aditya Dhar

Aditya Dhar, director of the year's first blockbuster Uri: The Surgical Strike, is moved more by his leading man Vicky Kaushal's dedication and humility than by his undoubted talent.

Writer-director Aditya Dhar. Photo: Courtesy Aditya Dhar

Mayur Lookhar

While a tragedy is to be mourned, adversity sometimes brings opportunity in its wake.

The terror attack in Uri district of Jammu & Kashmir on 18 September 2016 put paid to director Aditya Dhar's hopes of filming a romantic drama, his directorial debut, in the vicinity.

Ten days later, the army carried out a surgical strike in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. And inspired Dhar to make Uri: The Surgical Strike (2019).

Starring Vicky Kaushal, the film has emerged as the first blockbuster of 2019, having collected over Rs200 crore nett at the box office and still going strong in its fifth week. "How’s the josh [adrenalin]?" This line of dialogue from the film has become all the rage.

In a telephone interview with Cinestaan.com, first-time filmmaker Aditya Dhar spoke of his Uri journey, sharing the struggle of shooting the film on a slim budget and the sense of elation at the response it has received. Excerpts:

How’s the josh? Each time you hear people say that, how's the feeling?

Vicky Kaushal in a scene from Uri: The Surgical Strike

It’s beautiful! The kind of love, the appreciation we are getting, it is surreal. 'How’s the josh?' has become like a nation’s mantra. We never thought about it when we were shooting or when it was written.

What’s more phenomenal is that Uri was leading over newer, subsequent releases in its fourth week in the theatres.

My Instagram feed is filled with messages with people saying they have watched it 12-13 times. And they are also showing copies of their tickets. I have heard some people say their parents, who have not visited a cinema hall in years, have watched the film thrice.

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We knew this would be a film that would work on word-of-mouth. 'How’s the josh?' became popular. Then prime minister Narendra Modi said it, other ministers followed, then Indian cricketers started saying it. So, a person who hasn’t seen the film started getting curious what is this ’how’s the josh?’

Have you shown the film to the real heroes of the surgical strike?

The identities of the real officers can’t be let out. I have heard indirectly that a few of them have watched it and loved it. We have come across army families who left the theatres in tears. They say they felt that the army has been projected in such correct light. We made a film for them and they appreciate your film, there cannot be better validation than this.

Fans and critics have had their say, but as a director what did you make of Vicky Kaushal’s performance?

Vicky Kaushal with writer-director Aditya Dhar during filming. Photo: Courtesy Aditya Dhar

Fantastic! I can’t imagine anybody else playing this character. I can’t imagine anybody else putting that much effort into this film. We know he is a brilliant actor, but he is so dedicated, so humble. He is the best thing to have happened to this industry in recent times. He is a fantastic actor and an even better human being. 

What was your own experience of this entire Uri journey? 

When we started, it was something that was insanely difficult. You are making a war film on a shoestring budget [Rs28 crore]. You are shooting in a foreign country [Serbia], where language is kind of a barrier. Everything which could go wrong was going wrong with this film. Each day we were having a surgical strike in our own lives during the shoot. We were trying to figure out how to solve the problems.

What kind of problems, logistical or technical?

Everything! We were shooting in a difficult location. The topography of the place was really difficult. The fickle weather didn’t help our cause. We were doing everything live, so we had to ensure the safety of each and every crew member/artiste.

We decided we cannot have more than two takes of any action shot. We would shoot for 14-15 hours a day, then gather in the hotel lobby and plan the entire next day's shoot so that we don’t waste time on the sets. This meeting would last 4-5 hours. People barely got 2-3 hours of sleep and the next morning we were back on the sets. This was our routine for 30-40 days.

Because safety was the biggest concern, everyone had to attend the meeting. If you were not aware [of the setup], you could accidentally trip on a wire, which could trigger a blast.

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We were coming up with ingenious ways of saving money. We could only afford nine local stuntmen from Serbia. These people were specially trained in firing guns and were the only people allowed in the blast area. We had five big action sequences — Chandel, Myanmar, Uri, B1, B2 [locations of the surgical strikes]. Apart from the lead cast, these nine people were used as the terrorists in the background for all action sequences.

Aditya Dhar on the sets of Uri: The Surgical Strike. Photo: Courtesy Aditya Dhar

My production designer Aditya Kanwar came up with an ingenious way to shoot. If one day we were shooting the war room, then the next day we were to film the shooting range. Overnight, he would break the walls of the war room, paint it and turn it into a shooting range.

Most of the action scenes were shot in the night. We didn’t have the money to hire lights. What we came up with was Mitesh Mirchandani [director of photography] said let’s construct 12 street lamps and shoot the night action sequences with this. We rotated these lamps across the action sequences. 

An army officer had once told us that the government was wrong to publicize the strikes as the army never likes to disclose these operations. So, what made Uri a story that needed to be told on celluloid?

Vicky Kaushal and his band in a scene from the film

As far as I know, never before had a surgical strike like this taken place. Usually, a special forces team comprises six, eight or 12 people. This was on a scale where 80 people were involved. It was so well coordinated, the best secret operation ever conducted by the Indian military. To go deep into PoK, that had never happened. It was a risky operation, but you come back without a single casualty, that was an incredible feat.

One of the things that struck us was how the film targeted the terrorists but did not label Pakistan as the villain.

In today’s world, people have a very balanced perspective. Realistic commercialism is now being accepted and it is doing well. The audience wants to see everything from a balanced perspective. Perhaps jingoism puts them off now.

You didn’t name the prime minister or the defence minister in the film. Paresh Rawal's character seems to be based on national security adviser Ajit Doval. Whose call was it not to name key government figures who blessed this operation?

All the characters, including Vihaan Singh Shergill (Vicky Kaushal), are an amalgamation of a lot of different people. A lot of people then had said and done different things, but we cannot show everyone in the film.

But was this done on purpose to prevent Uri being called a propaganda film?

Vicky Kaushal with prime minister Narendra Modi. Source: Vicky Kaushal on Instagram

Those who felt so [that Uri is a propaganda film for the government] had a different opinion after watching the film. If some people still think it is a propaganda film, then they must be carrying some propaganda in their minds.

No film in the world can cater to each and every person. As a filmmaker, you have to think about what the majority is going to think. A great story can come from anywhere. It can come from the current or the previous government. The Uri attack happened on 18 September 2016 and the surgical strike happened on the night of 28 September. Now, if the decision was taken by the present government, I can’t bypass that.

Such operations are classified, so I guess that gives filmmakers liberty to create their own version.

It is classified, but once the script was done, we shared it with the army's additional directorate general of public information. It was only after they vetted the script that we went ahead with the film. Uri would not have been possible without their support. Without their permission, you can’t make a film on a piece of classified information.

For a lyricist and dialogue writer to write and helm a film on a subject like Uri, what’s the story behind this? 

I was doing a film called Raat Baaki with [Pakistani actor] Fawad Khan and Katrina Kaif. Some 20-30 days before our shoot, the Uri attack took place. The Pakistani actors were asked to go back. Ten days later, the surgical strike happened. While my office was trying to figure out whom to cast next, I was suddenly interested in knowing how this surgical strike happened.

Look, that is how you survive in this industry. You have to turn adversity into an advantage.

Can you talk about your background?

I was doing theatre in Delhi. My mother is a classical musician. She was the dean of Delhi university's faculty of music and fine arts. So, from an early age, I was exposed to a music/arts environment.

I got involved in theatre from a young age. I did hotel management from Bangalore and then I came to Mumbai. 

Oh, so what were you aspiring to be, hotel manager or chef?

A chef. I was pretty decent at making Kashmiri cuisine. My parents always said that if he is not able to do anything, then at least he can open his own dhaba.

Finally, what next on the plate for you after Uri?

Nothing. I just want to take a break. Uri was a very hectic film. In a few days, I’ll take a break, perhaps go out of Mumbai.