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Filmmaker M.S. Sathyu was working with the Patriot newspaper in Delhi when director-producer Chetan Anand came down from Mumbai to seek permission from the defence forces to shoot a film in Ladakh. He was making Haqeeqat, India’s best war film. However, one that was triggered not by celebrations of a grand victory but the pain of a humiliating defeat at the hands of China in 1962.
Ironically, it was a bunch of left-leaning IPTA artistes—Anand, Sathyu, Balraj Sahni, Kaifi and Shaukat Azmi—who came together to actively work on Haqeeqat, without charging a penny. “There were a lot of us who were angry with China, felt hurt and let down by Zhou Enlai,” recalls Sathyu. Much of the resentment got reflected in the film quite literally—like the oft-described scene of Mao’s Red Book being pierced with a bayonet and the critique of China interspersed with documentary footage of Zhou Enlai taking the guard of honour on his India visits. The Chinese were the quintessential baddies with no redeeming quality and China’s great betrayal was embedded in the film’s narrative sweep. Major Ranjit Singh (Balraj Sahni) on the frontline is warned of the impending aggression but told not to attack first and hold fire, only to find his men forced into a crushing retreat. “Interestingly, there was also a split in the Left at the time,” recalls cultural commentator Madan Gopal Singh. In the aftermath of the war, in 1964, the CPI had fractured and the CPI(M) had emerged from it; lines had been drawn between pro-Chinese and pro-Soviet factions.
Anand just had an idea of what he wanted to make, there was no ready script. Interactions with soldiers led the storyline.
Haqeeqat is said to have been made with the support of the Indian government and is often referred to as a propaganda vehicle for Nehru. Cynicism with Nehruvian socialism had peaked by then. Nehru’s five principles of peaceful coexistence, Panchsheel, had been rendered obsolete. “The political leadership of the pre-Independence era was perceived as a family, a community. That idea had been brought to a close in the popular imagination,” says Madan Gopal. The defeat in the 1962 war was a moment of realisation, raising questions about India’s military capabilities under Nehru’s leadership. “Our army was ill-equipped, the soldiers didn’t even have proper clothes to wear in the inclement weather,” recalls Sathyu. In such a scenario came Haqeeqat, which at the very start claimed to be a tribute to Nehru and the Indian soldier. “There was an underlying need to reclaim Nehru and the pacifist policies,” says Madan Gopal. He considers it an unusual film in that everything happens entirely in the landscape. It was the first Indian film ever to be shot in Ladakh. There was no ready script in hand. Anand just had an idea of what he wanted to make, interacted with army personnel involved in the conflict as well as the local population and wrote scenes as he shot. Later, portions were shot in Mehboob and Kardar studios of Mumbai, with Sathyu as the art designer.
The landscape helped in playing up the human angle, the harshness highlighting the desolation. Music added to the emotions. “It was about various relationships and lives ravaged by the war. These were brought out through the songs,” recalls Madan Mohan’s son Sanjeev Kohli. Music charts the emotional graph of the film and, in turn, of the nation. Masti mein chhed ke reflected the positive mood of the soldiers which was soon to lead to the despair of war with songs like Main ye soch kar. The anguish and suffering of the armed forces and the nation was all-pervading. “The music had to be pathos-laden, it had to have an air of despondency,” says Kohli. There is the mandatory praise for the bravery and sacrifice of the Indian soldiers but as cultural commentator Sadanand Menon puts it, the film also had an interesting tinge of melancholy. “The futility of war and the sense of loss were seeped in the film. Main ye soch kar uske dar se utha tha contributed to the overall melancholia encapsulated in the film in the failure in love and war,” he says. But the crowning song was at the very end: Ab tumhare hawale watan saathiyon. Like a letter to the nation from its soldiers. And also from Nehru.