Paltan Review

Left to right: Gurmeet Chaudhary, Arjun Rampal and Sonu Sood in J.P. Dutta’s war drama “Paltan.” The film tells the real story of how the Indian armed forces crushed a bigger Chinese force at Nathu-La Pass on the Sikkim-Tibet border and won a victory over those who had defeated India in 1962. (photo provided)

MUMBAI—When a real story is to be told, there are two options: commercialize it sufficiently or tell it as near to reality as possible. In the latter case, a filmmaker runs the risk of making a docu-drama or a dry saga. J.P. Dutta, returning to ‘work’ after 12 years, chooses a real story, of how the Indian armed forces crushed a bigger Chinese force with sheer determination at Nathu-La Pass on the Sikkim-Tibet border and won a victory over those who had defeated India in 1962, and that too by even treacherous means, as the beautifully-shot opening sequences show.

As per a search on the Internet, the Chinese and Indian forces were stationed in 1967 about 20 to 30 meters apart, which is the closest of anywhere on the 4000 km Sino-Indian border. From 1963, small-scale clashes in the region were frequently reported in the press. On Sep. 16, 1965, during the Indo-Pakistani War, China issued an ultimatum to India to vacate the Nathu La Pass. But Major-General Sagat Singh (portrayed in the film by Jackie Shroff) refused. The Chinese became more aggressive from August 1967, digging trenches in Nathu La on the Sikkimese side of the Sikkim-Tibet border.

The Indian army retaliated by building clear fences, and ultimately, all the periodic scuffles led to a full-fledged battle that resulted in Indian forces destroying a lot of Chinese bunkers until they declared ceasefire, but suffering great casualties as well. Dutta simplifies the story but keeps both characters and incidents real. The audience (as in me!), however, becomes more than a bit restive because nothing really happens in the first half of the overlong film (a Dutta trademark). And I have seen such endless sagas earlier (Dutta’s “Refugee” and “LOC Kargil” and Govind Nihalani’s “Vijeta”).

The writer-director, therefore, does not seem to have learned from the debacle of “LOC Kargil” and chooses the driest part of the narrative (the verbal and physical scuffles between the enemy forces) to devote more than 30 needless minutes of repetitive ennui! At will, and thus in supremely random manner, like a ‘90s post-“Rangeela” era song that comes and goes in between the storyline, there are family sequences of the different characters, but minus any strong emotional connect.

Yes, there is one notable exception: the Gurmeet Chaudhary-Dipika Kakar sequence, not a masterfully done scene but leagues above the rest, strikes a chord. Sonal Chauhan, Esha Gupta and Monica Gill are wasted, as are the actors who play the other family members. A major irritant is Jackie Shroff, who hams, as a colleague rightly put it, all the way. But he could have beefed up the hamming (pardon the atrocious-sounding mix of gastronomic metaphors!) with some clear-cut dialogues delivery. Actually, though, his English is majorly incomprehensible!

To sum up, Dutta has chosen a dry subject that did not have sufficient meat for an attractive full-length feature, and it was probably his record (since 1989, but for “Border,” his other eight ensemble cast films have been failures!) that made him opt for smaller actors rather than big stars, who ironically, MAY have made a sufficient difference. Another downer is the title, for not everyone will understand the meaning of this one. A rousing title would have got film buffs much more interested.

The music is just okay, with “Raat Kitni Daastaanen” being the pick of the three songs. The background score (Sanjoy Chowdhury) is apt but could have been pulled down in volume in places. At some points, even the on-screen translations of what the Chinese say are lost as the fonts are too slim and dull against the backdrop of the frame. And to repeat for the umpteenth time, why not have the translations in Hindi as well?

The cinematography (Shailesh Awasthhi and Nigam Bomzan) is lovely, and what really stands out are the last 20 to 25 minutes of action wherein Sham Kaushal shows his solid mettle. The sequences of Chaudhary jumping into the bunker as a human bomb and the post-climax scenes of exchange of dead bodies and the way the bad news is conveyed to the martyrs’ homes are also sensitively done. However, there are two points: why were the families not informed through telegrams (as in the opening sequence)? And why was the opening sequence itself stretched needlessly?

Dutta gets good support from his main leads, though Sonu Sood, unexpectedly, seems to have a problem with his lines on many occasions, getting into curiously staccato tones. Arjun Rampal is his usual natural self, and Gurmeet Chaudhary, in a playing-to-the-gallery role, is initially a shade irritating (in his early encounters with Sood) but becomes immensely likable and impressive as the film goes on. His performance has the most impressive graph among the actors here.

A complete and very pleasant surprise is Luv Sinha, who is completely in sync with his character and makes a mark. Harshvardhan Rane impresses initially in his outburst but settles down into an average turn as the hot-headed Sikh who is a dutiful son. Siddhant Kapoor is wasted as the soldier who speaks Chinese and acts as interpreter. The rest are adequate, but the man who plays the Chinese Commissar again hams.

The film, as it stands, needs a big support by word-of-mouth to leave an impact. Wish it had been crisper and embellished sensibly.

Rating: *** (Just About)

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