War seems to be the mood du jour in Bollywood. The spectacular success of the Vicky Kaushal-starrer Uri in 2019 has led to an avalanche of stories about men and women in combat. Two were released just this month: Shershaah, a too-safe but moving film about Captain Vikram Batra, who played an instrumental role in the Kargil conflict in 1999 and was posthumously awarded the Param Vir Chakra; and Bhuj: The Pride of India, an incoherent trainwreck set during the 1971 India-Pakistan conflict, about a squadron leader named Vijay Karnik (Ajay Devgn) and the 300 women of Bhuj who rebuilt an airstrip so that Indian pilots could continue operations there.
Coming up are Tejas, in which Kangana Ranaut plays an Indian Air Force pilot; Sam Bahadur, in which Vicky Kaushal plays India’s first Field Marshal, Sam Manekshaw; Captain India, a Hansal Mehta film in which Kartik Aaryan leads a rescue mission (it’s not yet clear exactly where); and Ekkis, in which Varun Dhawan plays Param Vir Chakra awardee Second Lieutenant Arun Khetarpal.
These tales of valour and sacrifice speak to the current zeitgeist of nationalism that often veers into chest-thumping jingoism. A case in point is Bhuj, which prioritises Pakistan-bashing over storytelling. What’s curious is that despite the stars, special effects and sizeable budgets, none of the films released so far has been able to displace the king of the genre, Chetan Anand’s Haqeeqat.
Haqeeqat is a black-and-white film made in 1964. It is set in and around Ladakh, during the 1962 India-China war. The film was shot on location and includes soaring visuals of stark landscapes, as well as expansive battle scenes. It is impossible to imagine the audacity and ambition of a filmmaker who, 57 years ago, would take a film crew to this remote space.
But what’s even more impressive is the way Anand, who also wrote the story, weaves intimate moments and the personal lives of the soldiers into the larger narrative at play. These characters aren’t cannon fodder. We get glimpses of who they are outside the uniform, of the women and children they’ve left behind. A soldier’s wife sends him a fistful of soil and seeds so that he might grow a flower in the barren landscape. Another, a brigadier and leader of troops, struggles to write to his wife; he doesn’t know how to tell her that their son, a captain he sent into combat, is dead.
The Chinese are depicted as cartoonish characters capable of horrific deception and cruelty, but Anand never loses sight of the horrors of war. There is plenty of patriotic dialogue but the suffering of the soldiers isn’t glossed over. At one point, a platoon almost gives up. A soldier says it would be better if they were dead. The camera lingers on scores of dead bodies.
At another point, soldiers sit down to sing plaintively of their loved ones: “Ho ke majboor mujhe usne bhulaya hoga (Left alone, she must have been compelled to forget me).”
We get haunting close-ups of men committed to the cause but also broken by what they have endured. The overarching sense of loss reaches its peak in the iconic climactic song, Ab Tumhare Hawale Vatan Sathiyon. The lyrics by Kaifi Azmi and music by Madan Mohan encapsulate the tragedy of human beings killing each other but also the passion and unstinted valour of men and women who embrace death for their country. It is impossible not to weep as it plays, because it also makes you keenly aware of your own role in taking forward the legacy of these soldiers. The song forces you to consider whether you are worthy of their sacrifice and, more importantly, whether you have done enough for your country.
Contemporary war films have little of this complexity or emotion. Filmmakers seem content to repeat predictable dramatic beats and macho dialogue as they try to dazzle us with hardware — planes, artillery, bombs, tanks, sweeping drone shots. It’s obvious and easy rabble-rousing.
I humbly advise directors making war films to watch Haqeeqat as homework. The film is a gift that keeps on giving.