Director: Raja Krishna Menon
Writer: Ravinder Randhawa, Tanmay Mohan, Raja Krishna Menon
Cast: Ishaan Khatter, Priyanshu Painyuli, Mrunal Thakur, Soni Razdan, Chandrachoor Rai
Duration: 139 mins
Available on: Prime Video
If I had an Indian rupee for every time a Hindi film reduces the Bangladesh Liberation War to the Sholay template (India is Jai-Veeru; West Pakistan is Gabbar; East Pakistan is Basanti), I’d be loaded enough to buy myself a coffee to stay awake through its tired patterns. We've reached a point where the same actors are being cast as token evil-Pakistan soldiers and Indira Gandhi across mediums. Hot on the heels of Shyam Benegal’s Mujib: The Making of a Nation (2023), Raja Krishna Menon’s Pippa is another biopic that uses South Asian history to fan the flames of the current climate. The humanity that drives this story feels like an excuse to valorise one nation by villainising the second and victimising the third. The problem isn’t in the legitimacy of these events or the politics – most of it is true. It’s the tone of the saviour complex. The patriotism itself is a ruse. A.R. Rahman’s hasty soundtrack, too, feels decorative. The storytelling pretends to care, but the facts become a deferential ode to the fictions of our time.
This treatment of Pippa is a pity, because the source material has the motifs of a war epic. It is an adaptation of The Burning Chaffees, a 2016 book by Brigadier Balram Singh Mehta, the film’s valiant protagonist and leader during the 1971 Battle of Garibpur. The real-life Indian Army-man from the 45 Cavalry regiment is played by Ishaan Khatter, an actor whose boyishness is at odds with the chain-smoking masculinity of this role. The toll of an army life simply does not show; being a maverick soldier, too, comes with its starry caveats.
Balram, fondly known as Balli, has a strict older brother named Ram (Priyanshu Painyuli) and a sister, Radha (Mrunal Thakur), who are also involved in separate outfits of the war. But their arcs intersect in strange and derivative ways. Balli’s relationship with Ram brings to mind Sanju’s black-sheep syndrome in Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar (1992), where the rakish son bristles with resentment against the righteous one. There are also shades of Saving Private Ryan (1998), Fury (2014) and Pearl Harbour (2001; replace the love triangle with a sibling triangle), neither of which seem to inspire the bland action sequences of Pippa. The title of the film – which translates to “an empty ghee can” – refers to India’s first amphibious tank. Even though the tank played a key role in this battle, it’s a footnote in a film that initially presents itself as a love story between a soldier and his mean machine. There’s even a quasi-romantic montage featuring Balli working on his dear Pippa across late nights to get her primed and battle-ready. In a more self-aware film, this might have been a cheeky take on the loneliness of battle. Here, it’s just silly.
The staging is the biggest failing of Pippa. There is very little sense of rhythm, timing or cultural balance. For instance, the film opens with the Pakistani army storming a university in Dhaka and gunning down the protesting students. But they could well be robots – nobody looks like they’re shooting or getting shot, there’s no noise or urgency, and there’s a massive disconnect between the violence and its actual unfolding.
Then there’s medical student Radha’s journey. The idea is to show she is meant for bigger things (because doctors only save lives, right?). Yet the film chooses the most random path: She scribbles down insults about her college professor in code (who does that?), gets noticed, and two scenes later she’s intercepting not-so-smart messages between Pakistan and its allies at India’s covert research and analysis wing. Towards the end, we see one of the bosses waiting for a victory phone-call – a la Argo (2012) – at the agency. The shot is designed to be suspenseful, but it means nothing because there’s no build-up to justify the pay-off; there is no intercutting between the office and battle prior to it. The errors are so fundamental that it hurts.
There’s more. Balli’s mission to retrieve the body of his colleague from behind enemy lines would usually merit a film – or at least an extended combat scene – of its own. But all it takes in Pippa is one shot of him advancing in his tank, a quick “all enemy soldiers neutralised,” and some sad-violin (whose first few notes imitates the Schinder’s List theme before going rogue) tears. It’s that easy. If only the film wasn’t in denial of its Gadar-shaped soul. At another point, a cynical Indian soldier has a change of heart when he sees a village full of poor Bangladeshi refugees. But not one of them acknowledges his presence – he simply walks through the crowd, staring at their ghostly faces, as if they were part of an art installation called ‘Suffering’. The other country is incidental. Naturally, his voice-over duly goes: “I now understand the need to fight a war to liberate then. It was the longest five minutes of my life”. Longest five minutes, indeed.
There’s also a Pakistani deviant (Inaamulhaq) whose job is to behave as if he's in a Tim Burton creature feature, and a Russian woman who dances with Balli in the beginning so that we know he’s a charmer. The writing doesn’t bother with any sort of reasoning or complexity. When a soldier goes undercover in a rebel outfit, he asks a trainer why children are part of this deadly camp. It’s a worthy question. But the answer – that they’re not children anymore after seeing the horrors inflicted on their families (and also that “rebellion needs heart, not age”) – sounds straight out of a Radicalism-101 handbook. Except, the film doesn’t seem to realise that. The soldier is convinced, just like that. He wouldn't have lasted a day on social media.
The only compliment I can pay Pippa is that it’s not half as tacky as recent companion pieces like Mujib or Tejas (2023). The visual effects are passable, even if the war choreography is dull and incoherent. As you can tell, I’m running out of ways to call out such movies. But the bright side is that it’s forcing me to be creative about evoking the P-word (rhymes with ‘Cropaganda’) without spelling – or yelling – it out. After all, we are nothing if not subtle.