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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. 



Parmanu—The Story of Pokhran, Review: More fission, less fusion

Parmanu—The Story of Pokhran, Review: More fission, less fusion

India has carried out several nuclear (parmanu is Hindi for nuclear) tests since 1975. Yet, the 1998 experiments in the desert land of Pokharan, near Jaisalmer, have remained the talk of the nation. These were the tests that put India squarely in the nuclear power league. Records of such defence-related activities are usually classified. Unless the makers of Parmanu-The Story of Pokharan, have been allowed privileged access, large parts of the film might amount to mere projection, guesswork or conjecture. Of course, it is based on a true incident, one that took place in May 1998, exactly twenty years ago. Most of us saw the pictures on TV and read about the high drama on the papers. Now, should you watch the film or not? Read through, if you will, please.

Under the leadership of India's future President, Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, and during the tenure of PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the Indian Army carried out nuclear tests at Pokhran. They were largely the effort of Capt. Ashwat Rana, who had made a blueprint. A bunch of lackadaisical leaders tried to go ahead on their own, without even bothering to read Rana’s plan, as detailed in a floppy disc (remember, those were pre CD and memory stick days). The experiment flopped.

Son of an army officer, Ashwat neglects his wife and son and works on what would be Pokharan II. Luckily for him, Himanshu Shukla, a Senior Secretary on the High Command, sees some merit in Rana’s well-researched papers, and agreed to back him. Soon a team is formed, consisting of the five defence and research wings, led by Rana. Inspired by the television serial based on the epic Mahabharata, and perhaps by his own Mahabharatian name, Ashwat, the members of the team are code-named after the five Pandavas: Yudhishthira, Arjun, Sahdev, Bheem and Nakul. Their cover? The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) officers, working to restore the Pokharan Fort. On the lighter side, one of the members is a woman, so she is forced to go under a male name. And definitely no prizes for guessing who is code-named Krishna.

Besides putting in herculean efforts in preparing the ground and the shafts for the explosion, the team has to work in top secrecy, avoiding the gaze of the locals, as well as the omnipresent Lacrosse satellite, through which Big Brother is Watching. A dash of detail about Lacrosse: Onyx 3 (3103, USA 133, NROL 3) (ex Lacrosse 3) 1997-064A. Ok, so why worry about Big Brother? Because the USA did not, and does not, want any expansion of the nuclear club, and had warned India, after the failed Pokharan I, not to go down that road. As if the revolving satellite was not enough, there were some men on the ground, both from Uncle Sam and India’s northern neighbor in the constant lookout for anything unusual, the smallest of clues.

Pokharan really did happen. It is history. There is really no element of suspense to keep the audience glued to their seats. What was needed to gold your interest was the back story and the little nothings that news reports might not have carried. Written by Saiwyn Quadra (Mary Kom, Neerja), Sanyuktha Chawla Sheikh (dialogue for Mary Kom, Jodi Breakers, Love Breakup Zindagi) and Abhishek Sharma (the two Laden films), Parmanu chooses to develop just two players: Ashwat and his family, and the Secretary, with no references. Ashwat, wife and child are moulded in the most trope-cal manner, leasing up to the anticipated melodramatic confrontation. Himanshu Shukla is a complete Western import. He stares at you, says an emphatic “No”, only to lead into a cut that shows he said “Yes.” Oh, by the way, he drinks too. Shukla is almost acceptable, but remains the odd-ball in the pack. There is little or no character building or back-story, except for some mumblings and grumblings.

What we must appreciate in the screenplay is the ingenuity on either side. Team India works so surreptitiously during satellite blind spot windows that even their vehicles don’t leave tracks for the cameras up there. For their part, Team USA and Pakistan can spot in car parked in the opposite direction. And when their satellites cannot spot anything, the operatives are able to tap in to landline (mobiles had just arrived) phone conversations between Ashwat and his wife. This cat and mouse game becomes the most important part of the proceedings. Scenes that lead up to Pokharan I are amateurish and contrived. Maybe all that I have listed above really happened—doesn’t matter; it does not make good cinema.

Abhishek Sharma (Tere Bin Laden, The Shaukeens, Tere Bin Laden: Dead or Alive) has too much of factual data on his plate. There is almost no comic relief. Freezing the players near the end as a result of the explosion was a good idea. On the other hand, it also appeared that they had miscalculated the perimeter of the explosion, and were being blow away. Former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Bajpayee gets good exposure, while A.P.J. Abdul Kalam is given just token screen space, which seems to belittle his contribution. It is unclear why the six ‘ASI officers’ have to wear army-like uniforms, with their Mahabharat names stitched on their chests—a sure-fire way of attracting attention.

John Abraham (Jism, Dhoom, New York) as Capt. Ashwat Rana is better than his usual self, but the melodrama was best left out. Dialogue delivery is monotonous, though he does look in control. Diana Penty (Cocktail, Happy Bhag Jayegi, Lucknow Central) Ambalika Bandopadhyaya. She’s more than fair and it takes a while to accept her. What is more important is that she knows her job. It’s a small role, and she measures-up. Vikas Kumar (Prithipal Singh..A Story, Hamid) as Major Prem is a great piece of casting. He was rivetting in the short ABSNT and leaves his mark here too.

Yogendra Tiku (Queen, Ankhon Dekhi, Neerja) as Dr. Naresh Sinha, the oldest member of the team, and predictably forgetful, is passable. Aditya Hitkari as Dr. Viraf Wadia, the decorated one, is passable too. Some humour in infused by Ajay Shanker as Puru Ranganathan, always munching. Although she puts in hard work, Anuja Sathe (Bajirao Mastani, Blackmail) has a clichéd role. Having worked mainly in television, Darshan Pandya fits the role of the Pakistani spy, while Zachary Coffin (how can one ever tire of smiling when that name comes up?) is just right as the American counterpart, Stephen. Back in the US, Mark Bennington does a good job of being on the job: preparing satellite reports. Boman Irani (Bhootnath Returns, Happy New Year, PK, Housefull 3) as Himanshu Shukla faces no challenge as an actor. To some, he might even be the less Indian than desirable, like Diana Penty. Stock mannerisms, minor variations in pitch and brimming confidence--sometimes, all this can work against you.

There is a thin red line between nuclear impact and no clear impact. Likewise, a fusion involves blending together while fission is bursting out of explosive elements. Made by agnostic producer John Abraham, the subject was a good opportunity to reach real patriots, but not of the rabble rousing kind. Team Parmanu has succeeded partially, and partial success of a nuclear test is not good enough, even if it lasts for 135 minutes.

Rating: **


Pokhran-II: Facts and figures

On 11th May, 1998, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), along with the Indian Army, carried out three underground nuclear tests, at 3:45 pm, and on 13th May, 1998, two other nuclear tests were conducted, at 12:21 pm, in the deserts of Pokhran, in the northern state of Rajasthan. The Operation was codenamed Shakti. Earlier, India had carried out its first nuclear tests in 1974, under the codename Smiling Buddha, under the leadership of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

There were five explosions during 1998. Among the five nuclear bombs, the first one was a ‘fusion’ bomb and the rest four were ‘fission’ bombs. The first three bombs included 45 kilotons thermonuclear device, 15 kt fission device and sub-kt nuclear device. The other two, which were tested on 13th May, were also sub-kt bombs, of power 0.5 kt and 0.3 kt.

The tests were carried out under the leadership of A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, the former President of India and former Head of Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO). Other chief coordinators of the project were Dr. R Chidambaram, former Chairman of Atomic Energy Commission, Dr. K Santhanam, former Chief Adviser, Technologies, DRDO and Dr. Anil Kakdokar, former Director of Baba Atomic Research Center (BARC).

After conducting the tests, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee addressed the media and confirmed that there was no release of radioactive elements into the atmosphere. The Pokhran-II tests pushed Indian into the elite ‘nuclear club’ and the tests were also was also seen as a boost for country’s defence forces.

Pakistan vociferously opposed India’s nuclear tests and issued a statement accusing India of starting an arms race in the sub-continent. Despite being immensely pressurised by US President Bill Clinton and Opposition Leader of Pakistan Benazir Bhutto, the then Prime Minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif, went on to authorise its own nuclear tests. The tests by Pakistan were conducted on May 28th, 1998 and on May 30th, 1998, under the code name Chagai-I and Chagai-II.

Quoting JohnAbraham

“This subject had come to Prerna and Arjun (Of KriArj Entertainment). When they came to me with this subject I liked it and then we developed it in-house. We were very fortunate as the script finally shaped up really well,” said John.

Statement issued by John Abraham’s company JA Entertainment

As per the order of Bombay High Court, "Parmanu-The Story of Pokhran" will release on May 25, under the joint banner of JA Entertainment, Zee Studios and Kyta Productions.

"There is no other producer associated with this project. The film will be distributed in India by Vashu Bhagnani's Pooja Entertainment, and will be distributed overseas by Zee Studios.

"We are extremely thankful to the Hon'ble Bombay High Court for the speedy resolution of various issues at hand thus paving the way for our film's release. We would like to make no further comment and focus all our energies on the release of the film now."

KriArj Entertainment had accused JA Entertainment for not fulfilling their commitment to finish the project.

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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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