Director: J.P. Dutta
Cast: Jackie Shroff, Sonu Sood, Arjun Rampal, Gurmeet Choudhary, Harshvardhan Rane
For more than two decades, J. P. Dutta has served as Hindi cinema’s lone poet of war. He finds a profound passion and pride in stories of men in combat. In Dutta’s worldview, the battleground is where real heroes are forged. It is the ultimate showcase for pride, patriotism and an overarching masculinity. With Paltan, Dutta completes his war trilogy, which started with Border in 1997 and was followed by the interminable LOC Kargil in 2003.
Paltan is based on a military operation against the Chinese at the Nathu La Pass in Sikkim in 1967. The characters are based on real-life soldiers. Most of the film takes place in the arid landscape of Ladakh, here filling in for Sikkim. Dazzling wide shots give us a sense of the tough terrain – it’s visually stunning. As I watched, I thought about how challenging the shoot must have been – with men, artillery, cameras, equipment. Paltan is a valiant effort at recreating a forgotten slice of history.
But with movies, sweat doesn’t automatically translate into compelling storytelling. For most of its running length, Paltan is structurally clumsy, bland and flat-out tedious. Largely because Dutta, who has also written the film, isn’t interested in creating flesh-and-blood characters. He wants to make a point about the courage it takes to defend the nation and the sacrifices that are made by these men and their families so the rest of us can sleep in peace.
So we get stock characters who speak in inspiring mottos – Arjun Rampal playing Lieutenant Colonel Rai says: No guts, no glory, no legend, no story. Sonu Sood as Major Bishen Singh sagely declares: The more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war. And Jackie Shroff as Major General Sagat Singh declares: Heroes do not choose their destiny, destiny chooses them. Or so I think – by the time, the fifth slogan was pronounced, my eyes glazed over. Some of the characters get to flashback to families and partners left behind. The women of course are incidental – they weep or flirt or look solemn as these brave soldiers leave.
But the Chinese don’t even get this superficial treatment. Each one, down to the last man, is a caricature. They are called ‘darpok’ and ‘kayar’. Their commissar is almost comical in his constant declarations of ‘Hindi Chini bhai bhai’. I have little idea of how border skirmishes play out in life but in this film, the confrontations resemble five-year-olds having a fight in the school yard. A handful of soldiers keep egging each other on. Everyone screams a lot. There is constant chest-thumping and baying for blood.
Dutta has always been a great proponent of manliness – you remember Kshatriya in which a bare-chested Sanjay Dutt and Sunny Deol wielded swords and sacrificed animals. He revels in the spectacle of strong men – here too, the soldiers are constantly talking about what they will do to the enemy. There is a gratuitous scene in which two characters are exercising shirtless in snow and then rubbing it on themselves. Basically, it’s a testosterone overdose.
All of this huffing and puffing eventually works itself into an actual battle. You can predict which characters are going to die because just before the fighting begins, they’ve called home and had loving conversations. The story, aided by Anu Malik’s music, strains to be poignant. And at the end, it gets there. Dutta wants us to see the pain of war and the post-climax coda is emotionally rousing.
But it’s too little, too late. Paltan is leaden and one-dimensional. Incidentally, the word Paltan is repeated dozens of times, just in case you forget which movie you are watching.