Before writing, directing, and producing Bhuj: The Pride of India, Abhishek Dudhaiya directed over 1,000 TV episodes. Perhaps that’s why Bhuj‘s story feels like it would have been better served as a miniseries. Dudhaiya focuses so narrowly on action sequences and requisite patriotic war drama plot points that the film lacks emotional resonance.
Dudhaiya’s screenplay is based on real-life events from the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971, when Pakistani bombers destroyed the airstrip at Bhuj Air Force Base. Commanding Officer Vijay Karnik enlisted the help of 300 villagers to rebuild the strip and make it operational again. Other important characters are based on real people as well.
After a brief recap of the events leading up to the war, the story begins with Pakistani leaders devising a plan to distract India’s attention from the fighting in East Pakistan by attacking India’s western border. On December 8, 1971, warplanes from West Pakistan bombard the airstrip at Bhuj. Amidst smoke and explosions, Commanding Officer Vijay Karnik (Ajay Devgn) himself mans anti-aircraft guns to repel the attack, as many of his subordinate soldiers lie wounded around him.
Leading with such a visually dramatic scene isn’t an uncommon screenwriting choice, but it puts Dudhaiya in a bind. By December 8, Pakistan’s bombing of Western military sites had already been underway for several days, forcing the screenplay to flash back to earlier attacks in order to introduce other characters and locations important to the story. There are flashbacks within flashbacks to give characters backstory that further confuse the sequence of events.
Vijay’s storyline has a scene from December 3 — the day Pakistan first started its bombing campaign — that makes a more sensible opener. Vijay and his wife Usha (Pranitha Subhash) celebrate their wedding anniversary at a party with all the base’s officers and their families. Everyone dances, unaware that Pakistani jets are speeding toward them. As the romantic song “Hanjugam” ends, bombs fall on the adjacent airfield, sending civilians scrambling for cover and soldiers running to their posts. The scene establishes the camaraderie among the soldiers at the base and shows us who Vijay is trying to protect.
Sadly, sense of place and character motivation are low on Dudhaiya’s priority list. Other major characters like fighter pilot Vikram Singh Baj (Ammy Virk), Army scout Ranchordas Pagi (Sanjay Dutt), and Army officer Nair (Sharad Kelkar) — tasked to hold a strategic base with too few soldiers — get about 30 seconds of backstory each. At least Sonakshi Sinha’s village leader Sunderben kills a CGI leopard, while spy Heena Rehman (Nora Fatehi) gets a full training montage.
These are all characters that would have benefited from a longer series format, rather than a two-hour movie. Heena’s story is particularly ripe for exploration. She became a mole for India in order to avenge the death of her spy brother at the hands of Pakistani military intelligence head Mohammad Hussain Omani (Pawan Shankar). Heena’s assignment requires her to act as Omani’s girlfriend. How does she feel about having to sleep with the man who murdered her brother? Bhuj doesn’t ask. The only emotion characters are allowed to feel is patriotism.
The film’s priorities are action focused. Besides the bombings and air battles, there are a lot of hand-to-hand fight scenes. Pagi single-handedly kills about 100 men. The emphasis on individual physical prowess makes Bhuj blend in with other hero-centric Hindi films, like those where one honest man cleans up corruption by himself.
All of the action takes place without a sense of geography. Vijay needs to repair Bhuj’s airstrip so that Vikram can land a plane full of reinforcements from Jamnagar who will drive to Vighakot, the base that Nair and Pagi are trying to defend. There’s no sense of how far the bases are from each other, or how close Bhuj is to Sunderben’s village. Characters just show up wherever they need to be whenever they need to be there. Vikram miraculously crash lands within walking distance of his base after a dogfight with a Pakistani fighter plane.
Inscrutable geography is important, because Vijay has less than 24 hours to repair the airstrip. Though onscreen titles consistently show the location name and date when the scene changes, they don’t show the time. There is a ticking clock, but the audience can’t see it.
In real-life, repairs to the airstrip took three days. Adding that to the fact that Pakistani’s bombing campaign lasted over a week reinforces that Bhuj would have made a better series — especially in the hands of a director with no feature film experience but solid TV chops.