Perhaps the problem with the way we see heroes is that we forget they aren't defined by their heroic acts alone, that they, too, are human. Major, while effective in parts, suffers from the same.

Adivi Sesh as Sandeep Unnkrishnan in MajorScreenshot
Flix Entertainment Friday, June 03, 2022 - 22:35
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One of the more realistic things that Sandeep Unnikrishnan, played by Telugu star Adivi Sesh, says in Major is that it is ok for a soldier to feel fear when under attack. In a scene, Sandeep, who is an NSG training officer, questions one of the trainees about how he reacted during the simulation. He then tells the latter that when a soldier is under attack, and sees his fellow soldiers dead, it is human to feel fear. But being a soldier means that they must carry on, despite this fear. It’s a refreshing representation, one that subtly shows the difference between courage and fearlessness, and acknowledges that heroes and martyrs, eulogised to unrealistically larger-than-life representations, are also prone to very universal emotions in adverse situations.

Major, which is a biopic by Sashi Kiran Tikka on 26/11 martyr Major Sandeep Unnikrishnan, gets some such things right. And compared to several recent films steeped in glorified nationalism and jingoism, Major does tone it down. But not entirely – partly because it also subscribes to the formulaic filmmaking around nationalist narratives that has become increasingly common. This formula usually involves an altruistic hero with a penchant for the moral high ground. He makes barely any mistakes, or the mistakes end up having a purpose. His sacrifice dims all and everyone else’s. And he is masculine, often with super-human strength displayed in the backdrop of swelling music.

Major begins with us learning about Sandeep’s childhood and early life – from his roots in Kerala to his teenage years in Bengaluru. The elements of an uncomplicated, easy-to-like hero are all there – Adivi’s Sandeep has wanted to don a uniform since he was a young boy, loves his mom and dad (played convincingly by Revathi and Prakash Raj respectively), shows a desire to save people in distress from an early age – an element of which is also in his shy, endearing but unconvincing teenage romance with his schoolmate, Isha, played by Saiee Manjarekar. The first third of the film is dedicated to this. However, it’s almost too simple, too homogenous, and full of cliché dialogues about how Sandeep was never theirs (his parents’), but the nation’s. While it is clear that Tikka wanted to show the late Major’s personal life, several media interviews encapsulate much more endearing and colourful aspects of the real-life Sandeep – the fact that he loved adventure, had deep knowledge of history and architecture, that he loved life and “never wanted to die” according to his mother. However, none of this, or his relationships with his fellow officers, beyond professional, is really explored in the film.

The story, however, picks up once it comes to its meat – the 26/11 terror attacks in Mumbai. There are several intense and frightening sequences of gunfire, people being shot at the Leopold Café and Taj Hotel, and being taken hostage by the terrorists. A lot of it is an accurate and terrifying representation of the real events, such as how the terrorists came into the city, the sequence of the attacks etc. However, it is appreciable that Major does this without too much jingoism, especially at a time when the cinematic picturisation of terrorists – whether real or fictional – is being exaggerated to peddle Islamophobia. In Major, terrorists like the mastermind Headley, Ajmal Kasab, and the others who laid siege to the Taj Hotel, aren’t over-emphasised as skull-cap donning Muslims with kohl-lined eyes, who shout out ‘Allah’ to emphasise their religion ever so often. They just are who they are, and that is enough for us to root for Major Sandeep.

The action-packed sequences which show the NSG Commandos, led by the Major, are convincing and gripping, albeit full of some expected corny dialogues about what it means to be a soldier, and how Sandeep wants to save everyone. However, the film says barely anything about any of the other heroes of 26/11. Assistant Sub-Inspector Tukaram Omble is merely mentioned in passing on a news bulletin about the capture of Kasab. But the others such as Anti-terrorism Squad Chief Hemant Karkare and Mumbai's Additional Police Commissioner Ashok Kamte aren’t mentioned. We hardly see anything of how many of the hotel staff risked their lives for the safety of those trapped inside except one manager Rodriguez, who gives information to the NSG commandos team. Even Commando Sunil Kumar Yadav, whose life was saved by real-life Major Sandeep after the former was injured in gunfire at the Taj, is only loosely modelled by a character named Aakash, one of the commandos reel Sandeep is shown training earlier in the film. This underscores a larger critique of the film – that the supporting characters have barely any track except to be the recipients of the hero’s punchlines and purpose. Even Sobhita Dhulipala, who plays one of the women staying at the hotel, has a track only so it can culminate into the motivation for Sandeep’s insistence at saving her and a child, and ultimately lead to his sacrifice. Well fleshed out supporting characters (beyond Sandeep’s family), even in smaller roles, especially when there was plenty of inspiration to be drawn from the real-life persons who experienced 26/11, could have added more depth to an otherwise decent attempt.

In fact, the only (sort of) exception to this is Sandeep’s relationship with Isha, and the pain she expresses about not having him by her side when she needs him. In a poignant dialogue between the two, she talks about how soldiers’ sacrifice is the one that gets talked about, and not the sacrifices that people like her make so that soldiers can remain on that path. However, this too is oversimplified and negated by a voiceover which talks about how only a soldier can know the sacrifice he makes, when leaving that exchange as it is would have been so much more effective and realistic for the audience. Isha ultimately files for divorce – a part of the late Major’s life of which barely anything is in public domain – which perhaps allows the film to take more creative liberties to ultimately show reel Sandeep’s sacrifice as greater, when it could have been used to let the complexity and vulnerability of the on-screen relationship be.

There are many aspects that the film does a good job of representing, especially if you compare it with the existing literature – such as the reference to Sandeep’s love for animals, his desire to put his duty above all else, and the way his parents learn of Operation Black Tornado unfolding, Sandeep’s involvement in it, and ultimately, his death. Major Sandeep’s reported last words, “Do not come up, I will handle them,” feature in an action-packed and emotional climax, which is cliché, but works.

The film is slow in the first half, but once it picks up, the screenplay, despite its flaws, keeps you gripped. Prakash Raj is particularly endearing as a father who doesn’t want his son to join the army, but is looking out for him all the same. Saiee and Adivi’s acting seems limited in range and expression initially (perhaps due to the cliché and limiting scenarios) but you get used to it as the pace of the film fastens. The music is not particularly striking or memorable, and features plenty of typical swelling crescendos when focusing on Adivi’s Sandeep.

While Major is a sincere attempt, it could have done with more colour and complexity, especially given the documented material already available on 26/11 and the access the filmmakers had to Major Sandeep’s parents, K Unnikrishnan and Dhanalakshmi. Perhaps the problem is the way we think about heroes – we talk about their bravery so often, that we start to forget that they too were multi-dimensional, imperfect, real people. Adding more nuance to Sandeep’s life on-screen would not have made him appear any less patriotic or courageous, rather, would only have made the hero more human.

Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the film. Neither TNM nor any of its reviewers have any sort of business relationship with the film's producers or any other members of its cast and crew.

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