Here finally is a war movie that steers clear of many of the tropes that Bollywood employs often to the detriment of the genre. Pippa, directed by Raja Krishna Menon, presents the action firmly within the realms of believability and stages it around soldiers and revolutionaries who look and sound real.
The film takes time to warm up. Once it does, it delivers a portrait of battlefield valour that abjures shallow bravado and bluster. The fighting men are heroes all but they aren’t oblivious of personal challenges, doubts and misgivings as they plunge into their mission.
Pippa, produced by Ronnie Screwvala’s RSVP and Siddharth Roy Kapur’s Roy Kapur Films, places a just cause and the people fighting for it front and centre. The story it tells is more about palpable humanity than about pulpy patriotism.
To be sure, not everything that Pippa attempts comes off. But it does strike a chord with its sustained restraint even as it deals with violence, courage and death. The battle scenes, staged in a no-holds-barred manner, are central to the narrative but they aren’t all that there is to the film.
Centred on the landmark Battle of Garibpur in November 1971 and toplined by Ishaan Khatter, the Amazon Prime Video film never loses sight of the human aspect of the action. It is about three siblings – two temperamentally different army boys and their spirited sister, a Delhi University student activist, who is recruited by India’s spy agency to intercept and decipher secret wartime messages.
The film begins with a voiceover introduction by the protagonist, real-life war hero Captain Balram “Balli” Singh. It clarifies the historical context of the 140-minute film, if in a somewhat rushed and facile manner. But once the initial hiccups are out of the way, Pippa perks up appreciably. It zeroes in on a young soldier’s quest for redemption amid the heat, dust and wages of war.
The impetuous Balli is the twentysomething version of the brigadier from whose book (The Burning Chaffees) the film has been adapted by screenwriters Ravindra Randhawa, Tanmay Mohan and the director. There is sufficient drama in Pippa, but it isn’t of the kind that strays into shrill chest-thumping.
It talks about tyranny and acknowledges a situation in which (borrowing an expression from the film itself) not fighting is not an option. The future of a people in shackles is at stake and the Indian Army jumps into the fray alongside the Mukti Bahini to stop a rampage by West Pakistani forces.
Balli, son of a martyr and younger brother of 1965 war hero Ram Mehta (Priyanshu Painyali), faces an internal inquiry for defying a superior’s order in the course of a joint Indian-Russian military exercise. He rides a newly-inducted amphibious tank into the deep end of a lake despite repeated warnings from the commander, Major Daljit Singh Narag (Chandrachoor Rai).
The defiant captain is banished to a desk job at the army headquarters in Delhi although there is nobody in his squadron more adept at handling the “Pippa” (“a can of ghee” in Punjabi), the name given to the 45 Cavalry’s PT-76 battle tank.
His elder brother goes incognito and infiltrates East Pakistan with a couple of Mukti Bahini fighters (wish they were accorded more play) while his sister, Radha (Mrunal Thakur), finds her way indirectly into the war and assumes the role of a military intelligence code-breaker.
Pippa has its share of imperfections, not the least of which is the way in which a rousing call-to-action song by Bengali “rebel poet” Kazi Nazrul Islam – Karar oi louho kapat (Those iron gates of prison) – is reduced to a dissonantly whimpering remix by A.R. Rahman (no less!). What the film does very well, however, is hew to a tone that is anything but jingoistic.
The 1971 Indo-Pak war aimed at birthing a new nation. It wasn’t directed so much at an enemy as it was against a genocide unleashed by a ruthless government. The spirit of bahaduri (courage) and fateh (victory) are invoked when needed, but just as important to the narrative is the bonding that soldiers fighting shoulder to shoulder develop with each other. It is about camaraderie.
Pippa brings that out as emphatically as it underscores that it was humanity that drew India – she was at that point less than a quarter century old as a free country – into the conflict notwithstanding the human and financial cost the influx of ten million refugees entailed.
Pippa is about brothers-in-arms, who jostle in a very literal sense to get into their father’s boots. It is about a family and an army thrown into someone’s else’s war because that just happened to be the right thing to do.
When Balli worries about the pressure that the nation faces as refugees rush in as a result of Pakistan’s ruthless Operation Searchlight, his mother (Soni Razdan), a war widow, reminds him that refugees are living, breathing people and that they themselves are displaced.
The Indian war room is made up of the then Prime Minister (played by Flora Jacob for the umpteenth time), Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw (Kamal Sadanah) and a spy chief modelled on R.N. Kao (Avijit Dutt). They call the shots and the film gives credit where it is due without making a song and dance about it, which the “ghar mein ghus ke marenge” brand of Bollywood war movies are loath to do.
It is interesting to note that the film’s cinematographer and its editor are both women – Priya Seth and Hemanti Sarkar respectively. The duo has worked with Menon before. Part of the credit for the sensibility that drives Pippa is probably due to the two key technicians, if not necessarily on account of their gender. They give the film a tactile texture and a contemplative rhythm that set it apart from run-of-the-mill military actioners.
Ishaan Khatter gives a solid account of himself as a soldier who comes of age on the job in a war that changed the map of the subcontinent forever. He is ably supported by Mrunal Thakur and Priyanshu Painyuli. Chandrachoor Rai, Anuj Singh Duhan (as a lieutenant) and Inaamulhaq (as a Bangladeshi who takes orders from a Pakistani officer) are among the others in the cast who are not sidelined as a result of the focus being squarely on the Mehta siblings.
Pippa merits applause. It is a war film that refrains from a frontal attack on our senses and eardrums. No mean feat that.
Ishaan Khatter, Mrunal Thakur, Priyanshu Painyuli, Soni Razdan
Raja Krishna Menon