Hindi cinema took its time to get to making films about independent India’s armed forces. As late as 1961, when the Dev Anand-starrer Hum Dono was released, filmmakers were still tapping into the country’s contribution to the Second World War. For a country and film industry grappling with the trauma of Partition and the turbulent early years of a newborn India, perhaps it was too soon to turn the cinematic gaze to the violence that is invariably integral to stories involving the armed forces. The 1962 war with China changed all that. It was the second sustained action fought by India (the first had been between India and Pakistan and led to the partitioning of Kashmir between the two countries), and one that found its way into cinematic depictions.
Haqeeqat (1964), directed by Chetan Anand and starring Balraj Sahni and Dharmendra, became the first film to depict a battle fought by Independent India, taking inspiration from the Battle of Rezang-La in the ’62 operations.The Air Force got a brief moment in the sun that same year in Raj Kapoor’s Sangam, in which The Showman played a pilot who goes missing in action, triggering a chain of events back home. Romance took the front seat, and it would take nearly a decade for the Air Force to be the focus of attention.
Directed by Chetan Anand, the multi-starrer boasted of some terrific sequences of simulated attacks and manoeuvres, all performed by IAF pilots.
The film starred Raaj Kumar, Vijay Anand, the late Balraj Sahni, Priya Rajvansh, Amrish Puri, Parikshat Sahni, and a young Amjad Khan, and featured the legend that was the British-manufactured Folland Gnat fighter, the Soviet Sukhoi 7s, the Hawker Hunter fighter and the French Mystere IVa, which was made up to look like the American Sabre fighter that the Pakistan Air Force had among its inventory in the 1971 war. Despite the hijinks of aerial warfare being new to audiences of Hindi cinema, Hindustan Ki Kasam failed to pull in audiences.
A solid two decades before Farhan Akhtar drew together the war film and the coming-of-age film in Lakshya (2004), director Govind Nihalani laid the foundation for that kind of film with Vijeta.
Released in the IAF’s Golden Jubilee year, Vijeta earned great plaudits. With a cast that included Rekha, Amrish Puri, Om Puri, and Shashi Kapoor (who was also producing), the film was star-studded. Kapoor’s son Kunal played the enthusiastic youngster who makes his way through the National Defence Academy and the Air Force Academy to ultimately “touch the sky with glory”. Featured prominently in the film were the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited’s HJT-16 Kiran, an intermediate jet trainer aircraft, and the Soviet manufacturer Mikoyan-Gurevich’s MiG-21 fighter aircraft, which is currently in the process of being phased out after having been in service for over six decades.
While primarily the story of the Battle of Longewala from the perspective of the Army, the Air Force joins the party in director J.P. Dutta’s first – and best – crack at a war film. Wing Commander Andy Bajwa, played by Jackie Shroff punches a Hawker Hunter out of frustration while stating it cannot fly at night. The Hunter was designed by the British manufacturer Hawker Siddley, and the IAF placed an order for it in 1954; it spent over four decades in service before being retired just after the filming of Border.
The Air Force provided logistical and operational support to Dutta’s production, but were not particularly happy about how the organisation was depicted. Air Marshal M.S. Bawa, the officer on whom Shroff’s character was based, criticised the film for playing down the IAF’s role in the battle.
At the heart of Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s coming-of-age drama is the death of a beloved character in a MiG-21 crash. The film did not use actual assets of the IAF — the MiG-21 that appears in the film was created by the visual effects team — but drew upon controversies and criticisms of the aircraft. Rang De Basanti brought to light that in the fifteen years preceding the film’s release, there had been 206 MiG-21 crashes with as many as 78 pilot fatalities.
Among the few films that shone a light on the sorties and missions carried out during the Kargil conflict of 1999 is Sharan Sharma’s Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl (2020), starring Jahnvi Kapoor as Flight Lieutenant Gunjan Saxena, one of the first women to become an IAF pilot.
Since Saxena was a helicopter pilot, those are the aircraft in focus, though aircraft of other makes do occupy the scenery of the film. Particular attention is given to the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited’s Chetak and Cheetah helicopters –indigenous variants of the French Aérospatiale Alouette III and SA 315B Lama respectively – and the Russian-made Mil Mi-8.
Produced with generous cooperation of the IAF, the film feels a lot like a showreel of the IAF’s sleekest assets, most prominently the Russian-made multirole fighter aircraft Sukhoi Su-30 MKI, flown by Squadron Leader Shamsher Pathania (Hrithik Roshan), and the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited’s utility helicopter Dhruv, flown by Squadron Leader Minal Rathore (Deepika Padukone) respectively. Also featured are the French Mirage 2000 fighter, the American Chinook CH-47 transport helicopter, the Russian Antonov An-32 transport aircraft, the American F-16 fighter, and the Swiss Pilatus PC-7 trainer, among others.