J.P. Dutta’s fixation with Indian battles and wars stems from a personal tragedy. He lost his brother, an Indian Air Force pilot, in the line of military duty for India, and mourns him. The loss is always in his memory, and it is for the honour he pays to thousands of such mourners across the country, that Dutta has made Hindi films on so many conflicts with our neighbours. He is a good military historian who researches his projects thoroughly, but war has now become an obsessive conviction with him, and he seems trapped in a no man’s land from which he might struggle to escape.
One of the consequences of a war obsession is to demean the enemy, and, unfortunately, that is what the director does to the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) which was locked eyeball to eyeball with an Indian battalion across the Nathu La pass in Sikkim in 1967.
As ‘Paltan’ begins, many officers in the Indian Army Post are smarting from the defeat of 1962, and are itching for a re-match. They are led by a gung ho commanding Officer, Lt.Colonel Rai Singh Yadav (Arjun Rampal) who claims to have met Field Marshall Montgomery while on training in England. He also says that he has read Chairman Mao’s ‘Little Red Book’ and that it has helped him understand the inscrutable Chinese military mind. He has plans for them, and they don’t include speaking softly and carrying a big stick. In fact, quite the opposite.
The first half of ‘Paltan’ is about shouting matches between the two sides across the border. On each occasion, the encounters begin with aggressive words and gestures, and then end with a form of reconciliation, when both sides part with the words: “Hindi-Cheeni-Bhai-Bhai”. On the Indian side is the flag, and on the China side is a huge cut-out of Chairman Mao that looks uncannily like a movie poster.
With a Major General (Jackie Shroff) egging him on from HQ, Lt. Col Yadav decides to up the ante. He stages several mock drills, before quickly setting up a wired fence on the Indian side of the border. This is interpreted as a hostile gesture by the Chinese and they come swarming down to confront the Indian battalion. During an exchange of angry words, one of the Indian officers knocks the Chinese Commissar down to the ground. This is the trigger to the battle, but it has clearly been stage managed by the Lt. Colonel.
JP Dutta loves landscapes, particular Rajasthani ones, which practically function as a character in his many films set in the desert. Here, thousands of feet high, the scenario is as stark, and there is ample opportunity for panoramic shots of the plateau and the mountains. It is a pity that so many soldiers die amidst such stunning natural beauty, and the director illustrates this sentiment with an astonishing scene of a row of funeral pyres dotting the skyline after battle.
Frankly, the first half of the film, which is all about political manoeuvring between the forces, is a bore. All we see are loud verbal duels. The movie picks up well after the interval, when talking is replaced by conflict on the ground. As Chairman Mao once said in his infamous ‘Little Red Book’ : “ Politics is war without blood, while war is politics with blood”
After the fighting starts, the pointlessness of human lives lost is emphasised. Though, in a JP Dutta film, this refers only to Indian lives lost.