War movies have proved to be the weakest point of the Bollywood filmmakers owing to their uncanny obsession with masala, melodrama, and all other familiar tropes. And yet, they are not ready to give up.
Since the genre holds unfathomable possibilities both in terms of creativity and commercial returns, several movies based on successive wars in recent history -- from the 1962 Indo-China war to the 1999 Kargil battle -- have been made down the years but Chetan Anand’s Haqeeqat (1964) remains arguably the best war movie ever made by the Hindi film industry yet.
Movies like J.P. Dutta’s Border (1997), based on the Battle of Longewala during the 1971 war and Aditya Dhar’s Uri: The Surgical Strike (2019), on India’s surgical strikes on the terror camps in Pakistan in 2016, turned out to blockbusters, largely because of the themes of chest-thumping jingoism. But Haqeeqat, Anand’s black and white classic on the India-China war has been widely acknowledged to be far more realistic than any of the war movies made in the Eastmancolor era.
Anand, however, could not replicate his success when he attempted another movie, Hindustan Ki Kasam (1973) on the India-Pakistan war, which marked the debut of Amjad Khan in a small role, long before he became famous as Gabbar Singh of Sholay (1975).
Anand also made a TV serial, Param Vir Chakra for Doordarshan in the late 1980s, depicting the exemplary valour of the recipients of the country’s highest military honour in successive wars.
Still, only a few war movies have struck a chord with the audiences. J.P. Dutta’s Border became a huge hit but he failed to recreate his magic in his next two war movies, LOC: Kargil (2003) based on ‘Operation Vijay’ of the Indian Army during the Kargil war and Paltan (2018), on the Nathu La and Cho La clashes with the Chinese army along the Sikkim border in 1967.
In recent times, the success of Uri: The Surgical Strike has made war movies one of the hottest trends in Bollywood, but most of them appear to be the biopics of war heroes. On August 12, Amazon Prime Video’s Shershaah, a biopic on the Kargil war hero Captain Vikram Batra, a Paramvir Chakra awardee, is set to stream on the OTT platform.
Produced by Dharma Productions of Karan Johar, Shershaah stars Siddharth Malhotra in the lead. Karan has also produced two other war movies, Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl (2020) and The Ghazi Attack (2017) in the past.
Shershaah was supposed to release in July 2020 but the Coronavirus pandemic forced the makers to postpone it. Incidentally, Ajay Devgn’s Bhuj: The Pride of India too will release on August 13 on Disney-Hotstar+. apparently to cash in on the all-pervasive mood of patriotism during the Independence Day week. Devgn is said to be playing Indian Air Force (IAF) pilot squadron leader Vijay Karnik of the 1971 Indo-Pak war in the film.
It will be interesting to see how these two films fare on the OTT platforms where several movies of big stars have had no takers in the past few months. In any case, war movies made on an epic scale with great visuals are widely considered to be an ideal material for the big screen. But both the movies had to skip the theatrical route due to prolonged uncertainties over the reopening of the multiplexes across the country.
In the next few months, many war biopics are set to hit the screens, both small and big. Vicky Kaushal, who made ‘How is the josh’ a popular catchphrase with Uri; The Surgical Strike is playing Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw, the hero of the Bangladesh war, in a Meghna Gulzar film while Varun Dhawan will portray another 1971 war hero Arun Khetarpal, the youngest recipient of Param Vir Chakra, in a Sriram Raghvan film. Actress Kangana Ranaut, too, is portraying an Air Force pilot in the upcoming Tejas.
The main problem with Bollywood’s war movies is that its screenwriters tend to take too many cinematic liberties while adapting real events, hoping to boost the commercial prospects but they invariably end up distorting the facts. Last year, Jahnvi Kapoor-starrer Gunjan Saxena was in the eye of a storm after the Indian Air Force objected to a few scenes in the film.
Bollywood would do well to remember that a war hero such as Vikram Batra deserves a befitting biopic. It is altogether a different matter that given its proclivity for overdramatization, it will be too optimistic to expect movies like Shershaah or for that matter, Bhuj: The Pride of India to become the Haqeeqat of our times.