When Sandeep Srivastava began his research on the life of late Captain Vikram Batra for the biopic "Shershaah", the screenwriter realised the film couldn't just be limited to the heroics of the Kargil war martyr. Besides being a daredevil Indian Army officer, Captain Batra was essentially a man from the small hill town of Palampur, Himachal Pradesh who fell in love with Dimple Cheema, his MA English coursemate at Chandigarh's Panjab University. Srivastava, whose writing credits include "Ab Tak Chhappan", Kabir Khan's "Kabul Express" and "New York" and Disney+ Hotstar series "Aarya", said he wanted to delve a little more into Cheema's story who was instrumental in Captain Batra's journey.
Released on August 12 on Amazon Prime Video, "Shershaah" earned acclaim for sensitively piecing together the life of Captain Batra, who fought till his last breath during the 1999 Kargil war.
Through the love story of Captain Batra and Cheema, played by Sidharth Malhotra and Kiara Advani, the film depicts the horrors of war and loss.
In an interview with PTI, Srivastava said "Shershaah" gave him the opportunity to immortalise Captain Batra's life on screen which went beyond his achievements as a man in uniform.
"I realised it is not just a story of a war hero, but there was a very sensitive (story) of a small town boy and the kind of episodes that happened in his life. Everybody I met had only good things to say about him, his energy. Then there was a love story. I realised I had an opportunity to not just talk about his war heroics but also the chance to write this exemplary love story which is rare to find," the writer said.
Srivastava started working on the project in 2017, officially kicking it off on July 26, Kargil Vijay Diwas from Dras sector of Ladakh's Kargil district along with producer Shabbir Boxwala and Captain Batra's identical twin, Vishal Batra.
He said his research was primarily divided into three sections - meeting officers who worked with the martyr, spending around 10 days with Captain Batra's family in Palampur and then going to Chandigarh to meet Cheema, who chose to stay single after Batra's death.
Srivastava requested Vishal Batra that he wanted to speak with Cheema, who is a teacher by profession. An "extremely private person", Cheema refused to meet the writer but said yes to a telephone call. But when that brief call turned into an hour-long conversation, she finally agreed to meet him.
"She realised that I genuinely wanted to know what happened. It was an extremely emotional experience. My respect for her rose many notches up when we started interacting."
The writer said during the course of the meeting, he was touched to see that Cheema viewed her and Vikram's love story and her subsequent life through the lens of a beautiful, melancholic encounter, as opposed to the public perception of a "sacrifice".
"She told me, 'People keep telling me that this is a huge sacrifice that I have made. But, honestly, I don't look at it as a sacrifice. This is a choice.
Vikram was everything to me. That chapter could have been with Vikram, it was with him and that's it. I am fine with it. There is no sacrifice'," he said recalling Cheema's words.
Through their love story, the screenwriter said he wanted to focus on the personal aspirations and dreams of a soldier that make him a human.
"I knew Vikram's story won't be complete without what he shared with Dimple. You could just concentrate on war and it could be a macho film. But the sensitive side of this soldier is what is appealing to the people. The vulnerability of a war hero. He has the love for his country and the love for the girl he has left behind. I understood that theirs was an unconditional love. She was his pillar of strength."
Directed by Vishnu Varadhan, "Shershaah" is produced by Karan Johar's Dharma Productions and Kaash Entertainment. The film has also garnered praise for not catering to jingoism despite its war backdrop. Srivastava said he wanted to steer clear of chest thumping as he personally doesn't subscribe to that school of thought.
"It was a conscious decision to not go into a jingoistic territory, because they are soldiers fighting from both the sides, for both the countries... It is conveyed through actions.
"You don't need to beat your chest and say, 'This is what I am going to do for my country.' That's why I wrote in the film the line, 'I don't want to talk about patriotism by shouting. You are all patriots, which is why you are here.' That was my author's disclaimer to all things jingoistic," he said, referencing a dialogue spoken by Malhotra in the film.