Every year, as August 15 draws close, my ears reverberate with our first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru’s words…At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. And my thoughts turn to the movies down the decades that have reminded us of the significance of Independence Day and our tryst with destiny.
From Shaheed and Upkar to Kranti, Gadar and Rang De Basanti, there have been so many. But for today’s tribute, I’ll pick three that are associated with three wars that shaped India’s history.
Let me start with a 1964 black-and white film, Haqeeqat, which had its muse in the ’62 Indo-China war; a trecherous moment in time that occurred when Chinese premier Zhou Enlai was shaking hands with Pandit Nehru in Delhi and promoting the ‘Hindi-Chini bhai bhai’ naara. A land-grabbing endeavour, initiated to divert attention from disturbing internal issues, snuffed out the lights in many homes that Kaali Diwali as countless jawans laid down their lives protecting our border. The film is a tribute to those unknown soldiers.
I never got to meet master director Chetan Anand, but I have spoken to his son, Ketan, on several occasions. Once, talking about the Haqeeqat shoot in Kashmir, Ketan remembered his dad speaking to a select group one evening outside their hotel. One of them, a young uniformed soldier in uniform, caught his eye. Later, when he enquired about the handsome army officer, Chetan saab laughed, “Oh, that was Captain Bahadur Singh, or rather, my hero, Dharmendra.”
When watching the film Ketan was deeply moved by the dashing Captain’s dying cinematic moments. Bahadur Singh and his gypsy girlfriend, Kammo have sacrificed their lives to hold the Chinese who have surrounded their chowky at bay, while their comrades beat a retreat. Knowing that the end is near, they reach out to clasp hands. But before their fingers can interlink, they’ve breathed their last. This love story didn’t come with a ‘and they lived happily ever after..’ fairytale end. All it did was underline the futility of war, as even those whom soldiers these two young people die protecting, are eventually killed.
Haqeeqat, it’s often been said, inspired Border. JP Dutta’s ’97 blockbuster was born in the pages of the diary of his brother, an Indian Air Force pilot who died in a MiG crash in ’87. It recreated the Battle of Longewala, fought in Rajasthan during the Indo-Pak war of ’71.
My dad, a bank officer, was posted in Shillong at the time, and I remember pulling the dark curtains and putting off the lights as the sirens went off. Moments later, the skies filled with the drone of fighter planes. We never experienced the terror of a bomb exploding close by, but I remember closed coffins returning from the warfront to stoic families who refused to shed a tear.
Years later, just before the release of JP’s Umrao Jaan, I was granted an ‘exclusive’ interview with his 80-plus writer-director father, OP Dutta. His health was frail but his mind, razor sharp as we traced his colourful life through the stories he had penned. When we came to Border, he surprised me by zereoing in on Akshaye Khanna’s as the most memorable performance.
Akshaye enacted the role of Second Lt. Dharamvir Bhan, the son of a ’65 war martyr who is terrified of shedding blood and once almost gets the post’s BSF commandant, Bhairon Singh, killed because he can’t pull the trigger on a cornered insurgent. “Every morning, when they were leaving for the shoot, I would tell Akshaye, ‘Go kill them all and come back alone and victorious.’ And that’s exactly what he did,” OP Dutta reminisced with a smile, pointing out that Akshaye was a hero on screen and off it too, standing tall besides more seasoned actors. “I was really happy for him. I’d worked with his father (Vinod Khanna) in Mastana and Kshatriya, and it made me proud to see the young boy getting such good reviews.”
In the film, Dharmvir breaks through the enemy cordon and returns to the post severely wounded, dying before he can learn about India’s ‘brave’ victory. In real life, both he and Captain Bhairon Singh lived on, only two soldiers were killed in battle.
Not many were surprised by the fact that JP would contemplate a sequel to Border. But his father surprised me by admitting that he had warned his director son not to make LOC: Kargil. “Since the Kargil war was more recent, we couldn’t get too authentic and turn the film into a documentary. At the same time, we had to be careful about fictionalising accounts since feelings were still raw,” OP Dutta reasoned. “Also, the timing was wrong because by the time the film released, India and Pakistan were talking peace.”
But like Chetan Anand before him, JP too has a mind of his own. And to him, LOC, like Haqeeqat, was a tribute to the lost soldier. His father recalled JP telling him, “Why don’t you think of the 21-year-old boy who fought your war and lost his life in the process?”
OP Dutta did… So do I. Everytime I see these films, I end up smiling tearfully and lighting a candle in my heart for these unsung soldiers.