War is a useless thing we have convinced ourselves is essential, not only for nationhood but selfhood. To be part of the military is aspirational; to be part of a few thousands who train in violence, and fight in borders against a few thousand others, to determine the border of a nation of millions. The border in question is inhospitable mountains. Elections are moved and funds are reconfigured to keep this machinery of pride moving, and then when wars are lost, money is funneled to the arts to reframe the loss as a moment of valour. In 1962, India lost a war against China, and its wounded pride found a voice in 2021 through Mahesh Manjrekar's 10-part show 1962: The War In The Hills, streaming on Disney+Hotstar. So is that it? War is a just pride-producing machine? (It does seem so, at least artistically. In the last episode of this show the Chinese general, played by Meiyang Chang notes looking at an Indian major at his feet, Abhay Deol, "Tum dushman ho, par mein tumhe salute karta hoon. Tum ek jabaaz sipahi ho." We lost, but at least we lost with pride.)
Even if we leave that aside, there's a certain craft to creating a war film. Plotting can be incidental if the action is superlative, like the second half of Baahubali, like 1917. Similarly, action can be incidental if the plot is superlative, like Lakshya, like Yahaan, like Kaatru Veliyidai. But if both action and plot are loose and tired, there's just no fun to be had. As a result, the show, stale on arrival, drags through each 45 minute, poorly plotted, poorly choreographed episode.
1962: The War In The Hills is about the bravery of 125 men who fought 3000 Chinese, but eventually lost, ceding territory. (The borders between two nations, whose population together makes up a third of the world, fought between approximately 3125 men in the freezing outposts of Ladakh in cheap canvas clothing, and only potatoes, onions, and gunfire for company.) It was a blow to India's morale, newly independent more than a decade ago. The first half of the show is about the loss at the NEFA (North East Frontier Agency) — Assam, Arunachal Pradesh — and second half is about the loss at Ladakh.
The action itself has a desaturated video-game-like quality to it, whose novelty fades after the long, limp stretches of violence. Video-game-like, not in the quick-paced maneuvers, but in the careless violence that doesn't look violent. Stabbing a person barely looks or feels more graphic than stabbing a potato. You don't sense the blood, and this might be due to its desaturation, the poorly staged violence, or both. Ditto for the conditions of cold and hardships that the soldiers had to endure. Without doubt, it was mortifying—the thin air that makes the nose bleed, the freezing temperatures that the ill-equipped canvas clothing wasn't protecting them from, and the harsh terrain. The show, based on interviews given, was shot in Ladakh amid taxing conditions. But then why does it look so pale and easy? The barren sandy landscape suddenly becomes an icy glacier greenscreen. The desaturation, I assume, is supposed to make the viewer feel the cold, inhospitable climate. It does no such thing.
It must, however be noted, that the show does attempt to put out a more rigorous take on the life of an army man. The nosebleeds, the carefully calculated logistics of potatoes and onions to be carried in sacks, the burners for tea and heat, the careful setting up of tents, all help create a world of the soldier that isn't just about the fighting of a war, but is also about setting up the fighting of a war. It also brings the JP Dutta sob story backgrounds to the lives of soldiers. By making almost all of them come from the same village, Rewari, the backstories are all linked instead of the distinct, separate lives lived by the soldiers in Border. Major Suraj Singh, played by Abhay Deol, is the only one who lives apart, in Baramulla, with his wife, played by Mahie Gill, and child. Even then attempts are made to bring these backstories together through marriage and funerals.
What the series also upends is the notion of the singular army. The army is a collection of citizens, and so, like every collection, this too is infused with the same concoction of faith, faithlessness, righteousness, and casteism; where justice exists both in the military complex and in the Panchayat. The backstory of a lower caste Kishan (Akash Thosar) in love with Radha (Hemal Ingle) who is also coveted by the upper caste Karan (Rohan Gandotra) is an interesting touch. Mahesh Manjrekar, the director of the show, is clearly more comfortable with slow-motion shots, and closeups to establish love and jealousy. (There is a wonderfully colour corrected scene between Radha and Kishan beside the village river, where the slow motion of Thosar's ab-ed self looping into the waters, while cliched, worked.) The scenes where characters are meant to interact, however, are written and performed with cloying irritability and over enthusiasm, as if the 1990s style of dialogue delivery and writing haven't left Manjrekar's mind. There is a difference between nostalgia and stagnation, with Manjrekar's direction as seen both here, and in The Power, veering very strongly towards the latter. None of the acting impresses because it's so beaten down by cliche.
The uneven tone within a scene is another big issue with the series, where I wasn't sure what was trying to be done. In a scene where soldiers are just shown walking around in the forest, with erect spines saddled with rifles, Vande Mataram plays out as a background score. But there is nothing rousing in the staging of the scene and the music falls flat. Similarly with Vaishnava Janato playing randomly with some end credits, and whose hum emanates from a scene without context. Out of the blue, in a tense scene there will be a comedy track. A randomness permeates the storytelling, as its characters mistake exaggerated overtures for deep feeling, and the makers mistake a thud-thud-thud background score for swaggering action set pieces.
The framework, like Kabir Khan's The Forgotten Army, is frustratingly, from the present day— aged people reminiscing the old days of war. While Khan's flat and tiring Amazon Prime Video series tried to retrace the contours of Bose's INA, Manjrekar does the same with India's war from the context of the present day skirmishes at the border. It also gives voice to a shrill Nehru (who fires people with their replacements in the same room), a villainous VK Menon, and a soft-hearted, deferential Indira Gandhi. The acting here, too, is uniformly school-skit-like.
The parallels with the present are not just narrative tricks. A casual joke among the soldiers about replacing schezwan sauce with pudina chutney while having pakodas rings more emphatically than it should given the news reports of Chinese fast food kiosks shutting down or being made to shut down given India's current standoff with China.
In the fourth episode, an uneasy distinction is made between martyrdom or shahadat, and "unfair and unnecessary" battlefield deaths. The latter being those which could have been avoided, like being shot lazily after the soldiers had surrendered anyways. This implies that martyrdom is not only unavoidable, but also that it gives war heft and meaning. As Kishan notes stoically, the job of a soldier is to either unfurl the Indian flag on strained territory or to come back dead, shrouded in the flag, fighting for it. Unfair and unnecessary death, doesn't even configure in this framework. It is dishonourable to die without reason. It is honourable to die with reason. But then we must also ask, why die at all?