Parmanu: The Story of Pokhran
By Ambar Chatterjee
‘A well-made film on one of our brightest hours that could have been so much better’
John Abraham, Diana Penty, Boman Irani, Abhiroy Singh, Mark Bennington
Operation Shakti was about India conducting a series of nuclear tests in Pokhran at a time when its security was being threatened as much by its neighbors like China and Pakistan as also by the constant meddling by America. It was easily one of the finest hours of the scientists, researchers, politicians, army and every other individual involved with it. When it happened in 1998, I was merely a school-goer and knew about it just as much as the news channel would tell us. I went into Parmanu expecting it to fill in the gaps that remained in my knowledge of the events from 1998. I also wanted to be entertained as that’s what I expect from every good film and the pouring reviews of this film made me feel that it was one.
As mentioned above, Parmanu is the retelling of the events leading to the nuclear tests as seen through the eyes of a fictional character Akshat Raina (John Abraham). While they have changed the names of all the major characters and tweaked the story here and there, the actual chain of events and the end result remains exactly what it was in 1998. The fact that the director chooses mostly to remain transfixed on the matter at hand and very causally deviates a few times here and there results in a gripping and often a thrilling film that is hard to look away from.
Akshat was a part of the team that was responsible for the first tests that were caught by the CIA spy satellite. He was made to be the fall guy and was kicked out of his job when they hardly heard his plan. When the new mission is undertaken, he is the first go-to person for Himanshu Malik (BomanIrani), the PM’s right hand who is actually coordinating the whole thing. From this point onwards, the story rolls only in one direction and remains on point for the most part of the runtime. The planning, the problems, the stroke of luck and also the spite of bad luck is documented in delicious details and played out in the most entertaining manner possible.
John Abraham is brilliant in this film. He has to maintain a straight face all through the film and we know that he can do that. Not muscled into a position where he has to emote too much, he does a fabulous job. His one-on-ones with his wife are wonderfully envisioned. He plays the team man to perfection as well and yes he does get his slow-motion walk towards the camera on more than one occasion. Suffice is to say that he is the producer here and he keeps the best for himself and doesn’t do too badly with it. My favorite John performances will still be Madras Café but this will come a close second.
The rest of the cast is up to the mark even though they do not have much to do. BomanIrani starts off with a bang but once the story shifts to Pokhran, he becomes increasingly absent. However, for the duration that he is on screen, he demands attention. Abhiroy Singh and Mark Bennington play a duo of Pakistani and American spy respectively and they are extremely affecting. They can be taken for what they are playing and never for once did I not believe that they were out to hurt us. Bennington is the suave American who is cool and calculated while Abhiroy is the over-the-top-yet-resourceful Pakistani who just wants to nail India. They both bring out the nuances of their respective characters.
The film feels pacy and relentless even though it is about 2 hours and 10 minutes long. That I believe is because there is just so much happening on screen and whatever is happening is laid out so well and tailored to be understood by the layman that it takes control of your senses. The fact that the film has technical finesse on its side and most of the sets, props and visual effects remain on point only helps to make the experience that much more immersive.
Having said all that, let’s talk about the negatives of the film. DIANA PENTY is the Achilles heel of the film. I have no grudges against her but this is just not a role for her. She is so skinny and un-army-like that not even a frontbencher will take her for a trained and deadly RAW agent that she is made to portray here.She is shown kicking ass in an MMA fight —–in her introduction scene—– that by the way felt terribly out of place for the 1998 period. She is like the sore-sticking thumb out of the rest of the men who feel fairly believable. The only reason I could see for her inclusion in the cast was merely to increase the oomph factor and ensure that there was atleast a heroine in the film. If the director was going for believability, there was no room for her. I don’t want to sound like a chauvinist (which I know I will anyway) but there was no room for women in that crew or in that location. What’s worse is that she doesn’t even oomph it up even a little (chuckle! chuckle!).
The scenes of John Abraham with his on-screen wife are nice to start with but every time she appears on screen towards the end, the story screeches to a halt. After a while, she overstays her welcome and we begin to get bored by this track. Something happens between her and John right towards the end that was not only unbelievable but also highly annoying and off-putting. Suffice is to say that this part becomes a stickler in the narrative.
Having said all that, I will still give brownie points to the team of Parmanu for even daring to make a film like this. They would have pulled off a perfect film had they not given in to the callings of the commercialism and the inclination to have all rows of the theater in their folds. This wasn’t that kind of a subject. However, for everything good that Parmanu does, it deserves a view. It’s not every day that a film like Parmanu is made and it must be encouraged to ensure that the taste of trying different things with the medium survives in the Hindi film industry.