Raja Krishna Menon’s Pippa, adapted from Brigadier Balram Singh Mehta's book The Burning Chaffees, thrusts us right into the heart of the Battle of Garibpur during the Bangladesh Liberation War. Ishaan Khatter leads the charge as Brigadier Balram of the Indian Army, alongside Priyanshu Painyuli and Mrunal Thakur, who play his siblings Major Ram Mehta and Radha Mehta, respectively. In an exclusive interview, Film Companion sat down with actors Ishaan Khatter and Mrunal Thakur, as well as director Raja Krishna Menon, to learn about the making of Pippa.
Here are edited excerpts from the interview:
Film Companion (FC): What drew you to this story, and how did you prepare for a war drama?
Ishaan Khatter (IK): Well, I had the good pleasure of interacting with Raja (Krishna Menon) sir over a zoom call during COVID. He took me through the script. He had a completely ready bound script at that point based on The Burning Chaffees, which is written by Balram Singh Mehta. The fact that it was educational but entertaining, and engaging, appealed to me. It sounded very impressive. It resonated with me and my views and offered me a great, very rare opportunity as a young actor. I had taken note of Raja Krishna Menon as a director after watching Airlift (2016). I remember going into the theatres not knowing what to expect, and not having watched his previous films. I remember specifically the moment where I took note. I was like, “Who made this film?” I really enjoyed that. That was a really well made film. So, I was thrilled that I was getting to have a conversation with him in the first place because he is, of course, a director of such calibre. But the script — it was that, it was simply that. Something told me that I can trust him, and trust that we should get together and tell this story, that I can deep dive into a role that is so challenging for a young actor. But just the fact that he was telling that story, the fact that he brought that opportunity to me and thought I was worthy was enough.
Mrunal Thakur (MT): Ishaan just spoke my mind. But to add to that, my gut instinct just made me say yes to this. We were having a chat over a Zoom call, and by the end of the conversation I told him, “Sir, I want to do this film.” It's very rare that I do that. I usually don’t say that without reading the script, without reading the screenplay. I had no clue what the character graph was like. I just wanted to be a part of this film so that I could learn, because I love watching and learning. I'm not someone who would learn after reading, I'm more of a visual person. In Telugu, they say film picchi (film lover) — I’m a film picchi. I just wanted to be a part of a subject that I didn’t know about. And I would learn about the war through the characters, through Balli (Khatter) or Radha (Thakur) or Maati (Soni Razdan). I feel like there is a bunch of audience that does believe in visuals, and they love watching movies. I just wanted to educate myself first, and I want today's generation to know what happened exactly in 1971. What is Balram's story? What is Radha's contribution towards the war?
IK: And what is India's story.
MT: Yeah. And Raja sir told me that it's about liberating a nation. If you ask me, the family, the bond between all four of them, it's so beautiful and it's so tough to send your brother or your father or your husband to the war. I mean, what do women do? … It's a war film. It's a human drama. It's a story about siblings. There's so many layers. And I think for me, it was a learning process. What else do I want? I just wanted to be on a film set where I am discovering who I am truly as an artist first, and as a human.
Raja Krishna Menon (RM): We just spoke about who this girl is. We spoke about what those siblings mean. I wasn't pitching. I was asking her (Thakur) whether she felt a connection to Radha. And we largely spoke about that for an hour. Then for 15 minutes, I told her the story. I simply asked her, “Do you relate? Do you have siblings? How do you connect?” And she said, “I'm doing it!” And I said, “Okay, I don't believe you, so I'll send you the script” (laughs).
FC: What drew you to telling this particular story? It's not a very popular war story.
RM: I kind of grew up with this Bangladesh story around me, and I don't know why yet. I need to figure out why I grew up with that. It's always been part of my subconscious — maybe because of people. I've always found it a fascinating war because it's the one episode in world history where I think war is somewhat justified. I think most wars are not justified. I think we don't need to go to war — there are better ways to resolve problems. But I think in this case, what we did was just phenomenal by not becoming bystanders. There are no innocent bystanders. We weren't innocent bystanders. We went in and did what we had to do to solve a genocide problem. That's the right way to do it. When you help somebody, you don't go there for your own gain. You go there because you have to help somebody. It's very Gandhian, it's very simple. That's always been a very important war, and it feels conflicting. I'm not very pro-war, but this war, I'm very pro. When the story came to me I realised I couldn't let go of the opportunity. Also, a tank battle — we haven't seen one in India.
FC: How did you approach the portrayal of Brigadier Balram? Can you take us through your preparation for the role?
IK: We had Brigadier Balram Singh Mehta, (who was) very actively involved with us. It was a boon for us to have a guiding force. I had a few interactions with him. He has great wit, and sense of humour, and has insane energy for somebody who's now in his mid 70s, but has seen so much, (and) was a true hero of this war. Then we went on to do our second part of preparation. Once we started physical prep, we went on to do two army training camps. They were about four to five months apart because we had COVID, delays, et cetera. But the first camp that we got to do was in Suratgarh in Rajasthan, and we were there for about seven days. About six or seven of our cast members, some of them didn't make it to the final film, but we all went there as a troop, and they grilled us. They put us through the wringer. We were doing all kinds of physical training, and at night we would dine like officers. They taught us all about the tank. We luckily had the PT-76 at the time, because when we went for our first training course, we went to the 45th Cavalry, the regiment that we represent in the film. … This is the first film that represents the Blackberries, the armoured corps. We took that very seriously. We put in the work. We did a second session with them in Ahmednagar right before we started shooting.
That's when we were all in our looks. Priyanshu Painyuli and I were in our film looks at that point, and we went and did that last burst of training, where they literally gave us a lifetime experience of a live firing exercise in the commander's seat in a tank, which I believe no civilians have ever got to do. Aside from that, I got to drive the tank, train with other weapons, rifles, and a lot of stuff. We got to do all the cool stuff. That was an insane experience.
But what that did, I think, other than all the academic stuff and the physical stuff, was it brought us actors together as a unit. There was a sense of comradeship which we didn't have (in) a lot of scenes in the film. It's already established. The film is about so many things. It's about the coming-of-age of a nation. It's about liberating another nation. It's the coming-of-age of this character. It's a family drama. Each member of the family has such an important part to play, and (contributes to an) individual’s perspective towards this war. There's so much in the film that (for which) we needed to have a set chemistry and a set comradeship, which I think those sessions helped build. They (the characters) feel like they've known each other forever. That's what training did.
FC: Mrunal, can you tell us about the emotional heavy lifting that you did since you didn't get to go to the boot camp?
MT: I just dived right in. One thing that I love about the shooting process, and especially Pippa is that we shot it in one schedule. For me, it really helped me to be Radha right from day one. And I was Radha till the last day.
Radha is somebody who's always balancing it out between the three siblings. I have to play the mediator, convince my mom, and also my siblings. It's literally emotional heavy lifting.
RM: She is the fulcrum of the family, actually.
MT: What was lovely to learn was cryptography, something I didn't know much about. I had that machine and my entire office, which you'll see in the film. It's really intriguing. When I walked onto the set for the first time, I was mesmerised. It looks amazing with those gadgets out there.
It's a period film. I've explored the Sixties, the Nineties and the 2000s, but never the Seventies. So this was the first time I went back to the era and there was a lot of information that my father told me. … Apart from that, I did get to learn how to ride a bike — a Royal Enfield. It was beautiful.
FC: In the current climate, what do you hope people will take away from this film?
RM: I think, the pain of war? I think the idea that war is not a game, that there's real loss, there is no real personal victory. You fight for something, and of course, all those (reasons) are very important. But I think just realising how massive the real loss of war all around is — in terms of people's lives, tearing apart families, destroying properties and livelihoods — war is a miserable thing. I think if at any level, anything that can help defer or delay and ideally desist from going to war, then anything that conveys that should be said more and more often.
MT: Yeah, well, it's really unfortunate that that's happening. It's really unfortunate where the younger generation is just wiped out. I just feel helpless sometimes, but I feel like, wish this didn't happen. War is not a solution.
RM: War is generally not the solution. It shouldn't be there, but it should be the last resort for anything.
MT: I don't think war should even be an option.
IK: Well, I hope people gain perspective. Hopefully our film has left enough for it. We know our take and our view on war in general. Of course, this contextually was a very different war to what we're seeing today. I wouldn't want to draw parallels, of course. But having said that, I think one thing (is) that we were always cognizant, and what I'm very proud of is that this is not a mindless glorification of war. It takes great courage to participate in it, especially if you go in with a strong resolve. Everyone is convinced that what they're doing is the right thing.
I do believe that what India did by intervening to help liberate and stop a genocide, more importantly, was, I think, as noble an act as you can do as a defense force, or as a nation. This is a very important chapter of our history.
Having said that, I think the thing that I want people to take back is realise that these are real people in war, and the badge that they wear and the uniform that they wear is what they do. But behind that are real emotions, real feelings and families. What we don't see often are the people that are most affected by war are women. Hopefully, there is a sense of that. There is a sense of the cost of war, the human side of it. The first casualty of war is humanity. I don't think anybody comes out of a war saying that this happened exactly as it should have. It's painful. And I am a pacifist, I don't think that war is the solution. And my heart goes out to all the innocents that suffer at the cost of others.