Major Kuldip Singh Chandpuri, commander of a Company of the Indian Army’s 23rd Battalion, Punjab Regiment, had a difficult choice before him on the night of December 3, 1971. As enemies from Pakistan stormed the border and attacked their post, Longewala, in the middle of the Thar desert, he could either command his troop to flee the spot or hold out the enemy attack until reinforcement arrived. He chose the latter. And that’s where JP Dutta’s magnum opus Border (1997) and the Indo-Pakistan War of 1971 converge – at the Battle of Longewala. And on the 49th anniversary of the Bangladesh Liberation War today, December 3, we’re looking at this cult film that gave an entire generation a kaleidoscopic view into this crucial chapter in Indian history, through the lens of pop culture.
BORDER, LESS WAR, MORE MELODRAMA
JP Dutta’s Border, for us, 90s kids, is a little capsule of nostalgia. No Sunday would be quite the same until Chitrahaar played Sandese Aatein Hai. In this ensemble cast, we followed the lives of Major Kuldip Singh Chandpuri (Sunny Deol), Border Security Force Commandant Bhairon Singh (Suniel Shetty), 2nd Lieutenant Dharamvir Bhan (Akshaye Khanna), Subedar Ratan Singh (Puneet Issar), Wing Commander Anand Bajwa (Jackie Shroff), among others, in a build-up to war. For most of us, this was our first tryst with a war movie, and excitement was palpable. But in reality, Border the movie was little about the actual happenings of the Indo-Pakistan War of 1971 and more a tear-jerker, a typical Bollywood melodrama in all its glory.
Dialogues about loving your Motherland were jammed into every frame, almost making it burst at the seams. There were actual scenes of an officer (Shetty) sleeping on the desert because maa ke god mein neend achhi aati hai. And then there were those where you were made to feel like a traitor for wanting to tend to your cancer-ridden dying wife in the wake of war. But then such was the time, such was the mood way back in 1997.
THE BATTLE OF LONGEWALA
Of the 177-minute runtime of Border, the actual Battle of Longewala takes up about 30-45 minutes, and those were the most enjoyable portions minutes of the film. Though shot on a relatively decent budget, in 1997, there were fewer technical tools available at Bollywood’s perusal to pull off a war scene like that. Which is why Border’s Longewala was scaled down. In reality, the Pakistani Army arrived with 30-40 tanks, but in Border, we see just about 8. Similarly, at Longewala, 120 Indian soldiers fought about 2000-3000 Pakistani men, a number we’re informed of in dialogue, but never get to actually see. Yet the film had such a build-up, given the powerful story behind it, as an audience, you find yourself hooked.
BORDER’S BIGGEST STRENGTH
Border’s biggest strength remains it music – each song written and composed with the same conviction as the previous, each one landing where it was supposed to. The iconic Sandese Aate Hai by Sonu Nigam and Roopkumar Rathod, for example, aside from the soothing tune, boasted of hard-hitting lyrics that pierce through the heart. Aye Jaate Hue Lamho by Roopkumar Rathod again is another example.
FROM 1997 TO 2018
21 years after Border, Meghna Gulzar gave us Raazi, starring Alia Bhatt and Vicky Kaushal. WhIle Border borrowed from a very well-known chapter of history, the Battle Of Longewala, Raazi dived into the footnotes of the book of the 1971 War, so to speak. Harinder Sikka’s 2008 novel Calling Sehmat, Raazi follows a true account of a RAW agent who is deployed as an Indian spy in Pakistan. Sehmat Khan, played by Alia Bhatt to perfection, is married into the family of Pakistani military officials and is charged with relaying information to India, prior to the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971.
So while Border was taking place at the battleground, Raazi was about covert operations that happened away from the battleground but affected the results vastly, nonetheless. As far as authenticity is concerned, Raazi certainly appeals to one’s sensibilities, while Border still tugs on nostalgia.