Synopsis – Film based on 1967 Nathu La and Cho La clashes along the Sikkim border after 1962 Sino-Indian War
My Take – It is a known fact that war films haven’t worked for a while in Bollywood. Despite four wars post independence stories to rely upon, Indian filmmakers often chose to stay away from the genre as it is considerably hard to tell a brave story with all its grit, glory and realism, sans the commercialization which the major section of the audience comes in expecting. However, if one had to pick a film which did manage to mix it up well, it has to be the 1997 blockbuster Border from film-maker J.P. Dutta, which continues to remain the most successful Indian war film till date.
While, director Dutta himself couldn’t recreate the same success with its follow-up, in the technically better and better ensemble 2003 film, LOC-Kargil, fifteen years later, he has returned to complete his war trilogy, which is a great feat for any Bollywood filmmaker. Based on 1967 Nathu La and Cho La clashes along the Sikkim border, an actual line of control between India and China, a strategically important corridor between India and Tibet, here, director Dutta once again aims to tell the story from the POW of the Indian Army, who put up a spirited defense against their unreasonable Chinese counterpart.
While the film manages to look visually stunning, and showcases the huge amount of effort that has gone into making the film as far as the shoot is concerned, it more or less, feels like a retread of Border, while lacking the novelty nor freshness of the same. At a 150 minutes running time, the multi starrer drama just feels overlong and more about testosterone and male ego than strategy or drama and, surprisingly, tentative even in its jingoism. What’s most shocking is that director Dutta, whose penchant was seen in his earlier films, shows his craft and experience only at the tail end of this saga during one large battle sequence.
Set in 1967, five years after the Indo-China war, the Indian army continues to simmer in anger over how they lost to their devious Chinese counterpart, while the latter, in its arrogance, continues to illegally built inroads into Indian Territory. The story follows the platoon from the Rajputana Rifles, which under the command of Major General Sagat Singh (Jackie Shroff) hands over the ground level duty to Lieutenant Colonel Rai Singh Yadav (Arjun Rampal) to head the Rajput Battalion and protect the Nathu La Pass, while avoiding unnecessary skirmishes with the Chinese army that could lead to war.
Seconded by Major Bhishen Singh (Sonu Sood), and his unit consisting of Captain Prithvi Singh Dagar (Gurmeet Choudhary), Lt Attar Singh (Luv Sinha), and Hdr Pashar (Siddhant Kapoor), along with Major Harbhajan Singh (Harshvardhan Rane), who joins them from the unit they are replacing at the post. Upon arrival it is quite clear that tensions are simmering high on both sides, as each one of them are engaged in their own form of psychological warfare, but when it is clear that the Chinese are determined to cross the boundary line, Lieutenant Colonel Rai Singh Yadav calls in Maj. Cheema (Rohit Roy) to build a barbed fence on the boundary, a strategic move which leads to one of the most bloodiest wars in Indian history.
Yes, the plot isn’t particularly engaging. Shot in real locations, while the film recreates the 1965 setting, it completely negates the corresponding tension. The conflict, which is an obscure-but-remarkable victory by the Indian army, doesn’t have any sense of urgency. There’s also no clarity in why a battle, that saw hundreds of lives being sacrificed, was triggered. What’s more, the film seems to have been lazily packaged, as there are several instances that makes you just wanting to stop watching. The film could have been a very well made drama on how this 1967 war was fought against Chinese; it had the locations, the budget, and the skill to have been an engaging war drama. Instead it comes across as a bloated, almost 3 hour long bore of trying to meld the war moves with the quintessential masala film.
The film does actually begin well, in a gut-wrenching sequence at the beginning of the film, we see a postman delivering tragic news about soldiers to their families at the break of dawn. The scene hits you with the trauma of these families that can only be imagined. However, post that the film turns to a collection of clichés. Here the war scenes are terribly executed, using the same repetitive scenes, and spending unnecessary time on casual talk. Next, there is no story nor any subplots nor any satisfaction of seeing any objectives achieved by the soldiers. Director Dutta has earned a reputation for showcasing the valor of the soldiers in the Indian army and showing people what the brave soldiers have to sacrifice to protect the country and us, while we sleep peacefully.
Most of his war films manage to bring the message across. Sadly even though this film too does manage to convey this message loud and clear, the film kind of falls flat! Instead of focusing on context and giving us a wholesome perspective, precious minutes are wasted on giving us an insight into a soldier’s love lives. Yes, there is one notable exception: the Gurmeet Chaudhary and Dipika Kakar sequence, not a masterfully done scene but leagues above the rest, strikes a chord. The addition of the songs also follow the same pattern as LOC-Kargil, a song that celebrates the army, a song that is about reminiscing the loved ones back home and the final track that pays tribute to the fallen soldiers.
There are predictable preludes to the war sequences where precisely a couple of soldiers call home before the night of combat and have emotional dialogues, like: “The more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war,” “No guts no glory, no legend no story,” or “Heroes do not choose their destiny, destiny chooses them,” and many more like these which could actually be made into a book of inspiring quotes!
This is followed by a contrived scene in which each soldier sitting around a bonfire looking at the photos of their loved ones in their wallet. Seeing them their seniors also decide to do the same and they all take their wallet at the same time, and put it back at the same time! This would have worked provided the chemistry between the male cast would have worked, but unfortunately the bromance here lacks the emotional depth and conviction. All of this collectively blunts much of the desired impact of what could have been a riveting war film.
Sure, the psychological warfare and the tense sequences between the armies have their moments. A heated argument leads to an impromptu stone-pelting, as both factions aim to hurt each other. However, the treatment of most of these scenes goes beyond melodramatic and filmy. The dialogues are of the chest-thumping variety, and it feels like no soldier in the Indian camp can speak nothing but in jingoism. A big drawback was the depiction of the Chinese army – they are mostly shown as cartoonish, evil caricatures lacking no morals thus taking realism from the final combat. The main leader is a comical looking Chinese Commissar who keeps repeating “Hindi-Chini bhai-bahi.”
But then I guess that is only to be expected in a film that mistakes border-bashing as patriotism. A more nuanced approach would have made them memorable enemies and make the final battle more impactful. One more funny aspect to the film is that all Indian soldiers have ripped and chiseled bodies but Chinese army men lack in the department of looks. Sigh! There are several instances that make no sense in the film – like that of throwing stones at each other’s army men (yes, that legit happened). If the film had cut short its running time by 30-40 minutes, it would have worked much better.
The war that happens at the climax is pretty decent and is reminiscent of the war scenes in ‘Border’. That intensity is there, and even though it is melodramatic, you feel great when India finally wins the war. The film had the potential to send a strong message about the war, but the director got too bogged down with flaunting the cast, so much of the seriousness of the film becomes lost. Also, why do they always have to use that slow-motion death sequence routine again and again? It is not touching, just plain tacky.
Fine actors like Arjun Rampal and Jackie Shroff struggle to keep the proceedings dignified in the midst of maelstrom of hefty hamming. Sonu Sood is great with his deliberate acting. Gurmeet Choudhary does try hard but goes overboard in many places. A complete and very pleasant surprise is Luv Sinha, who is completely in sync with his character and makes a mark. Harshvardhan Rane impresses initially in his outburst but settles down into an average turn as the hot-headed Sikh who is a dutiful son. Poor Siddhant Kapoor, playing the Chinese translator for the army, has the weakest role among the main cast. He is sidelined in many of the scenes with no backstory of his own. Rohit Roy is passable in his brief role, while the females, Esha Gupta, Sonal Chauhan, Monica Gill and Dipika Kakkar, have minuscule roles that barely given them opportunities to impress. On the whole, ‘Paltan’ is a tacky representation of a brave story which despite its patriotic tones ends up failing.
Directed – J.P. Dutta
Rated – PG15
Run Time – 150 minutes