Director: JP Dutta
Cast: Arjun Rampal, Jackie Shroff, Sonu Sood, Harshvardhan Rane
What would JP Dutta do if we manage to achieve world peace? Yes, I know, but stay with me on this thought experiment. Where would he run? Will he retire? Will he make up dystopian worlds where there are wars all year long? Will he look back at his career and reminisce over all his films and the endless supply of wars for him to put up on screen with the same helpings of myth-making, melodrama, jingoism and nationalism? The same lines about waiting for letters and bullets with equal fervour, Sonu Nigam, in his a little too pure and saccharine voice, singing ballads to go with visuals of army men in their finery, and their families waiting for the inevitable?
His new film Paltan, based on the Nathu La and Cho La conflict at the Sikkim border in 1967, has all of it. One can cobble together footage from his various war films and with a good editor, can put together another one like Paltan. There are mentions of farmlands and farming back home while digging trenches by, you guessed right, a Sikh. Wives and children celebrating festivals without the man of the household, to put it in terms as old-fashioned and as disposable as the film. Army men indulging in song and dance a few hundred metres from a disputed border. And of course, the all-important letters from home.
Paltan begins with a prologue from 1962 Sino-Indian war where the Indian army is ambushed early one morning. For a war film, blood is a surprisingly rare commodity in Paltan. Or any willingness to shoot realistic battle sequences. The astonishing thing here is that Dutta himself has done it better in the past. A huge hoarding of Mao stands on the China side of the border overlooking Lt Col Raj Singh Yadav (Arjun Rampal) and his paltan. For a generation that grew up on the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan, Paltan in 2018 looks like cartoon attempts at a propaganda film of Maoist China. Dutta’s sensibilities are laid bare in the scene that follows — a postman, at the crack of dawn, delivers telegrams to houses in a neighbourhood, conveying the deaths of the army men. The postman moves on from one house to another without batting an eyelid as the families break down one by one.
This pitch of melodrama needs a little more commitment, now more than ever, and we don’t get that in Paltan. It looks like a hastily-put-together film — coming 12 years after Dutta’s last film ironically — where the green screen sequences are embarrassingly apparent. But it is not like Paltan’s events are anywhere near the scale of the 1971 war or Kargil. The film’s first half is remarkably eventless with the Chinese and Indian army repeatedly caught in a kerfuffle about international border lines and nothing more. The chief on the China side speaks Hindi and for everyone else there is a translator on the Indian side. It’s as if the two countries mutually agreed on which side the interpreter should be from. There is no battle till about the final third of the film and it is over even before you realise.
The film becomes so stagnant that as an audience we start baying for blood — “You have a gun. Use it and end this film!” is what I wanted to scream at the screen. Maybe this is some twisted way of instilling jingoistic tendencies even in peace-loving beings. After all, Paltan is just JP Dutta not wanting to miss out on the current period in India’s history when films on nationalist themes and the pride of the Indian army are disconcertingly enjoyed and celebrated.