Captain Vikram Batra was just 24 years old when he gave his life in the Kargil War in 1999. Over the previous two decades, memories of his valour and the mantra “Yeh Dil Maange More” that he used as code to relay the conquest of Point 5140 on the Tololing Ridge have inspired soldiers and amazed residents. He made his home in Palampur, Himachal Pradesh, with his parents, twin Vishal Batra, and sisters. He fell in love with Dimple Cheema during his college years, but she chose to remain unmarried following Captain Vikram Batra’s death on the battlefield.
Sidharth Malhotra resembled Captain Vikram Batra, who was posthumously awarded the Param Vir Chakra, and the Batra family thought he would play him in the movie on Captain Vikram Batra’s life. The actor threw himself into the project entirely and devoted himself to it from the start. Shershaah, a film co-produced by Karan Johar’s Dharma Productions and Kaash Entertainment, will debut on Amazon Prime Video on August 12 worldwide. The film is his “first passion endeavour,” he says. Sidharth talks about why this is more than another commercial venture for him, the challenges he faced to see the project get made with the same passion that he had and how doing justice to the expectations of the martyr’s family is a huge responsibility. Excerpts:
Playing a real-life war hero is a huge challenge for an actor. For Shershaah, Captain Vikram Batra’s family wanted you to play the role as you reminded them of him. Usually, it’s the filmmaker who approaches the actor, but in this case it was different. Did that place humongous responsibility on you to essay the character of such a larger-than-life hero?
Yes, it’s a huge responsibility and it’s a great matter of pride to play a national hero. Captain Vikram Batra laid down his life for all of us, and for that matter, that holds true for all martyrs. This is a film for them, and we owe it to them to remind the people of India of the kind of sacrifices the Armed Forces make so that we can live in a democracy. That’s the pressure and responsibility that comes with this kind of a role and one has to accept it.
There are various angles to the story of Captain Vikram Batra. Here, you have the story of the twin brothers who chose different career paths. Then there’s a heartwarming love story, and of course, above everything else, there are several stories of bravery and courage that he displayed on the battlefield. How difficult was it to encapsulate all of this within the framework of a single story?
It’s such an incredible life story of a real-life hero that it’s close to impossible to accommodate everything in two hours. He was predominantly a very lovable Punjabi guy, who eventually became a great leader. We concentrated on how Captain Vikram Batra became Shershaah. He gave the last many years of his life to the country, so we have focussed on that. My approach as an actor was to focus on the specific qualities he displayed. For instance, we have a particular scene from his college days which brings out an aspect of his personality, then we go on the battlefield, where we show his leadership qualities and ability to inspire, laugh at danger and move ahead with confidence. The film shows jhalaks and moments from his life. We hope that through the film, people understand the various aspects of his personality.
The film was made over four years, and you were involved with it right from its inception. Usually, after signing a film, an actor goes straight into prep mode for his role, but in this case, it seems that you were creatively involved at every point. Tell us about your journey with the film.
When Vishal Batra (Captain Vikram Batra’s twin brother) met me with (producer) Shabbir Boxwala, it was a completely different team with a much bigger script. I told them that we need to work more on this, and get a better version of it. We spent almost two years in that process, and I kind of took over this film, saying I want to make it in a certain way. Then we got Sandeep Srivastava as a writer, Vishnu Varadhan to direct the film and Kiara Advani to play Dimple Cheema (Captain Vikram Batra’s fiancée) on board. Since I was involved with the film from a very early stage, I am far more attached to this film. Shershaah is my first passion project. I approached Dharma Productions to back it, so there was no need for me to produce it. But if that hadn’t worked out, I would have definitely been involved as a producer because I wanted to retain the authenticity of the project. I didn’t look at the film from a commercial point of view. Firstly, because of the amount of time that I have spent on it, and also because when I met the Batra family, I just felt a connect with them immediately.
Captain Vikram Batra’s family feels that you physically resemble him. Was the first meeting with the family an emotionally charged moment?
When I met them, it was an emotionally-charged moment for everyone. I felt this could be my family. I come from a similar cultural background, and it could very well be my uncles and aunts there. My grandfather was a part of the Armed Forces and fought in the Indo-China War, I could have very well joined the Indian Army if I wasn’t an actor. My daadu got injured on the battlefield and took early retirement. My family has seen the kind of sacrifice that the Armed Forces have to make. You know, two years after I was approached for the project, I had a conversation with Vishal Batra when I expressed that the film needs to be in better hands. He was gracious enough to give me that responsibility and trust me with it. That’s why I am so emotionally attached to the film and I feel I owe it to the family to ensure that their brave son’s life story is portrayed authentically. It was always on my mind that for their family this is not just a film, it’s the life story of their brave son and brother, and I am extremely anxious to know what the family says and thinks when they see the complete film.
The catchphrase ‘Yeh Dil Maange More’ and Captain Vikram Batra’s interview on television during the Kargil War are known to the world. Did you interact with his colleagues and friends from the Army to delve deep into his personality, traits, behaviour and other nuances?
I must tell you that most of the dialogues spoken in the film are close to what Captain Vikram Batra said. That’s because of some great research by Sandeep Srivastava, our writer. When you see interviews of his comrades and juniors, they would often say, ‘Yaar, jab Batra saab lead karte hai hume bahut confidence milta hai. Woh aage se lead karenge aur humein batayenge ke kya karna hai.’ He had that love from all his subordinates. They trusted him with their life. They knew that he would put his life on the line for them. That was the quality that earned him the name Shershaah. It’s one thing to give directions, but he really walked the talk. You might think that some dialogues are very filmi, but he was also a very filmi person in real life. He was very influenced by Hindi films at that time, and he showed it, whether it was in his love story or dealing with his comrades.
The love story of Captain Vikram Batra and Dimple Cheema seems straight out of a classic romantic novel. In a film that’s centred around the Kargil War, how did you do justice to that part of his life?
Their love story makes you believe in love. They committed to each other in college, and unfortunately, he passed away and she chose not to marry and live with the love that she felt for him. In today’s day and age, it makes you believe in true love. It’s a unique story of that first love, which is innocent and pure. I feel it adds to the appeal of the film because most of what you see is true.
You were very young when the Kargil War was fought. Do you have any memories of reading or watching the coverage of the war from that time?
Back then, I lived in Delhi and we would often watch the news about the Kargil War on TV. I remember seeing these jhalaks of the famous interview of Captain Vikram Batra on TV, which is an iconic interview. It’s a surreal feeling that 15 years later, I am living and playing the person who I saw on the television screen of my house so many years ago. It’s been a long journey. I learnt that it was nowhere close to what I saw on television. There was so much more to be told.
The story of Captain Vikram Batra’s life is inspiring on many levels, how do you see it impacting the younger generation?
I hope the film inspires the youth. Captain Vikram Batra was only 24 when he sacrificed his life for the country. With this film, what comes into focus for the younger generation is to find that one thing that can inspire and drive you in your 20s; it could be anything. The question you need to ask yourself is, do you feel passionately about anything in your life at 24? If you do, then give it your all and it will manifest itself.