With Kesari, Captain Vikram Batra biopic, JP Dutta’s Paltan — the war film genre gets a chance at revival
With Akshay Kumar in Kesari, Sidharth Malhotra in the Captain Vikram Batra biopic, and JP Dutta's Paltan, the war genre is very much alive and kicking in Bollywood.
Last year when The Ghazi Attack and Rangoon released in quick succession, it seemed like popular Hindi cinema was attempting to look beyond the obvious when it came to war films. More than the success of the former, it was the lackluster performance of the latter — which combined elements of the life and times of the real-life actress Fearless Nadia, and the Michael Curtiz classic Casablanca (1942) — that applied the breaks on experimentation. It’s not like Bollywood has completely abandoned the war genre. With Karan Johar and Akshay Kumar’s already in production Kesari inspired by the epic Battle of Saragarhi, Johar’s announcement of a biopic of Capt Vikram Batra PVC featuring protege Sidharth Malhotra, and JP Dutta’s Paltan that would see the filmmaker go back to war, the genre is very much alive and kicking.
Based on true events of the Nathu La and Cho La clashes of 1967 between India and China alongside the border of Sikkim, Paltan promises to be vintage JP Dutta. Once synonymous with the genre thanks to Border (1997), the film that transformed the Hindi war genre, Dutta returns to active filmmaking after a gap of twelve years. His last film, Umrao Jaan (2008), was a far cry from what Dutta was known for, and while Paltan might be familiar territory for him, both Dutta and the genre are not the same as they were.
If the success of Border presented Hindi cinema with the perfect war film template where reality could be combined with the presence of big stars, it made Dutta larger than life. He could do anything he felt like, and after a failed attempt to feature Dilip Kumar and the then debutant Abhishek Bachchan in a project called Aakhri Mughal, Dutta went back to a different theater of the same war that featured in Border.
Dutta’s next Refugee (2000) failed to live up to the expectations, but it was still a lavish production that pretty much decided the template for war films, which automatically meant great budgets. This was aided by the transformation of Hindi film industry into the globally recognized brand called Bollywood where it was flushed with enough money to get big budgets. This is the reason why the early the 2000's became the best phase for the genre. Each subsequent film that came pushed the envelope both in terms of production value as well as the scale of the narrative.
The next major boost for the genre came in the form of Dutta’s LOC Kargil (2003), where barring the three Khans and Akshay Kumar, practically every other male actor in Hindi had a part. A flurry of war films followed — Ab Tumhare Hawale Watan Saathiyon (Anil Sharma, 2004), Deewar: Let’s Bring Our Heroes Home (Milan Luthria, 2004), Lakshya (Farhan Akhtar, 2004), Tango Charlie (Mani Shankar, 2005), Yahan (Shoojit Sircar, 2005) and Kabul Express (Kabir Khan, 2006) – but none enjoyed Border like success.
For the first time in nearly a decade, the war film genre is experiencing a revival. This had been in the making for a while now. A few years ago, an interest in the 1897 Battle of Saragarhi — where an army of 21 Sikhs fought against 10,000 Afghans — sparked intrigue and Ajay Devgn was said to have begun work on a big screen adaption. As of now, Devgn has supposedly delayed production but the Karan Johar-Akshay Kumar joint project Kesari forges ahead.
In the middle, there is also a Rajkumar Santoshi version of the same film with Randeep Hooda. Renewed enthusiasm aside, one of the reasons why war films suffered could be due to a ‘designer product’ like approach as opposed to telling a great story on the part of filmmakers. A film such as Kesari or the Vikram Batra biopic needs the presence of a major ‘star’ (in front of the camera or even behind as a producer) to justify the heavy costs attached to a period war film. Yet one can’t help but feel that the very thing that sees a film on such a scale get green-lit also runs the risk of bogging it down.
Unlike Border, flaws and shortcomings notwithstanding, most war films appear to fall short when it comes to capturing the ethos of the Indian soldier. The biggest challenge that a Lakshya or a LOC Kargil faced was that they both were essentially narrating stories that millions of people had seen unfold on the television. Perhaps the audiences wanted to know more about the real person behind heroes such as Lt. Manoj Pandey PVC, Captain Vikram Batra PVC, Captain Anuj Nayyar MVC and Grenadier Yogendra Singh Yadav PVC ; but what they got were familiar faces of Ajay Devgan, Abhishek Bachchan, Saif Ali Khan and Manoj Bajpayee.
Would it be wrong to think that war-themed films today are being reversed engineered to fit a certain image, be it of the actor or the filmmaker? Dutta, too, can be said to have fallen prey to this ploy when he made LOC Kargil, a film that he was apparently not too keen to make but had a change of heart. Heraclitus had observed that no man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man, and one hopes that the new bunch of war films manage to transcend the trappings of the past.
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