20 years of Border : In conversation with Col Dharam Vir aka ‘real’ Akshaye Khanna
The 1971 war hero’s role was played by actor Akshaye Khanna in the film Border, based on the Battle of Longewala. People asked the colonel to sue director JP Dutta for killing his character in the film, but he replied it was not a gentleman’s behaviour.
Colonel Dharam Vir’s heroic role in the 1971 Battle of Longewala was brilliantly portrayed by actor Akshaye Khanna in the 1997 blockbuster film, Border, which celebrates its 20th anniversary today.
The officer, then a 22-year-old lieutenant, says that Akshaye was a good choice to play his role on screen. “I met him once in Delhi at an event. He came up to me and spoke very nicely. He was very sweet. Even in the movie, he was just like me... simple! I was a very simple boy. Uss time pe ladke aise hi hote the. Seedhe se. Ab toh bahut smart and clever hain,” he laughs. Akshaye even got clicked with the officer, his wife and two sons, one of whom is an Army officer now.
The retired colonel, who now lives in Gurgaon, remembers the events that led to the making of the film as vividly as the battle. “I was commanding an infantry battalion in 1992 when JP Dutta, the director and producer of the film, came to meet me. His brother, an Air Force officer, had told him about the Air Force’s role in the battle and told him to make a movie on it. He wanted my story; I gave it. But I told him to seek permission from the Army Headquarters first. I also said that all sacrifices should be acknowledged.”
Colonel Dharam Vir says that he didn’t hear from JP Dutta after that, until the time around the release of the film. “I got a call from [JP Dutta] and he said that the Censor Board was not clearing his film, as I had been shown as a martyr in it. He asked me to send a fax saying I had no objection. I was very innocent... didn’t know what a fax was (laughs). I spoke to my wife and she said I must send it. ‘Desh ka sawaal hai,’ she said. So I sent a fax saying, ‘I, Colonel Dharamvir, have no objection to Akshaye Khanna depicting my role. You can depict it the way you like.’ I wrote something like that,” says the 68-year-old.
The film was then immediately cleared by the Censor Board. The colonel says that he wasn’t invited to any of the events preceding the film’s release, though Brigadier Kuldip Chandpuri (played by actor Sunny Deol) was. “Maybe I wasn’t that famous, and it’s okay,” he says, adding that many people had tried to incite him against JP Dutta after the release of Border. “They said he shouldn’t have killed your character. Take legal action. I told each of them the same thing: ‘I am a soldier, I remain a soldier and I will die a soldier. Soldiers don’t do such things. This is not a gentleman’s conduct.’ People also come up to me and ask me if I got any reward for this. I didn’t do anything for a reward but after all these years, I feel perhaps I should have.”
Though Colonel Dharam Vir had no issues with the dramatisation of his character, his wife (played by Pooja Bhatt in the movie) would sometimes get miffed as people went by what they saw in the movie and kept quizzing her about the “cancelled wedding”. In the film, since Dharam Vir’s character never returns from battle, the woman he loves can’t marry him. Some other details were also changed in the film, such as the place where she lived.
“Kabhi gussa ho jaati thi, kyunki usne Daulat Ram College se MA kiya tha. She was born and brought up in Delhi. We never lived in a village. And we hadn’t even met when the [Battle of Longewala] happened. I met her in 1972. It was a proper arranged marriage. I lost her in July 2015,” he says.
Cinematic details aside, Colonel Dharam Vir says that he can still visualise the battle as it played out in December 1971. “It was a moonlight night. The sand was glittering. And I heard the tanks. And do you know what Brigadier Chandpuri said when I told him the attack was coming towards us? ‘Generator ki awaaz hai.’ He didn’t believe me until the guns started firing and a shell landed at Longewala. Another thing I clearly remember is spotting a helicopter and asking permission to shoot it down. He asked me, ‘Tiranga or chaand sitara?’ I said, “Sir, chaand sitara.’ [The helicopter] was there to evacuate an injured Pakistani major. We didn’t shoot it.”