Free Press Journal

20 years of Border: Chest-beating war cries don’t move India anymore


While the cast and crew of National Award-winning film Border plan their 20-year reunion, Preeja Aravind propounds why it was the last popular war movie in Hindi, and why Indians are not moved by chest-beating war cries today

It is very easy to talk about war,” says a retired Air Vice Marshal, who served during the 1971 Indo-Pak War. I am guessing he is pushing 100, but I don’t have either the heart or courage to confirm his age. He and his wife of 67 years have been patiently answering my questions—trying to fill in the blanks in each other’s memories—about the wars that happened when he was serving with the Indian Air Force.

From what he remembers, he was in Allahabad during the 1971 Indo-Pak war. He recollects vaguely that during those times he had some friends who were sent to the warfront, who never came back. “Some returned, some didn’t,” he says with the nonchalance of a man who has seen a lot.

When I ask him about the film Border he can’t recollect if he saw it. He remembers the Battle of Longewala though. He remembers that his wife, and all the other women at his base, rallying together like unseen troops to knit warm clothing and cook unspoilable sustenance for the troops at the front.

Two decades later
This battle was dramatically depicted in JP Dutta’s Border—the film that swept away awards for direction, action and music. It was tale of valour and tragedy of 120 men from the Indian Army and Border Security Force who kept the enemy at bay and handed a resounding victory to India.

So why did Border—the cast and crew of the film will celebrate its 20 years at a reunion on June 13—work so well, when so many Hindi war movies after it didn’t? It was not just the triumph of an Indian battalion against an enemy with tactical superiority… A victory despite the odds is always hailed, and there is a desire to revisit it repeatedly. My take: It was the ensemble star cast, the music and perhaps the sense of patriotism that it fanned through what Jaganath Guha called in his essay ‘conflict as masala’.

Passion, and pathos
In the book, Filming the Line of Control, Kishore Budha writes that Border was considered a landmark war movie after Chetan Anand’s 1964 Haqeeqat, which formed the canon for Hindi war film genre. Adrian M Athique, meanwhile, in his essay in the Journal of South Asian Studies, writes, “The 1990s saw a seismic shift in the popularity of martial themes in the Indian cinema. There can be little doubt that JP Dutta’s film Border — and the across-the-board success it achieved upon its release in 1997—was instrumental in encouraging the slew of military-themed films that emerged through the remainder of the decade.”

He argues that other factors that contributed to a slew of war films by Bollywood had more to do with the “political rhetoric of the BJP in India” and “the military build-up by both India and Pakistan”—something similar to the political and military scene today.

“I don’t remember much of the film, I only saw this when I was young. But it was the grandiose of the war, victory to our side and the song — Sandese aate hain… — that has stayed in my mind,” recollects Ajay David Kachappilly, a Malayalam and Hindi film cinematographer. Which just shows that perhaps while the conflict and Army courage might have influenced some young minds, the movie’s success was also about its music.

Heart of the matter
The lyrical superiority of Javed Akhtar and music composer Anu Malik’s rhythmic melody created some beautiful songs, which won both of them numerous awards. This was a marked change from the previous war films’ musical score; Border’s music showcased love in different lights — romantic, patriotic, longing — and gave cold shoulder to the usual drum-beating war chants that are supposed inspire the troops. Instead, the music inspired the masses who are quite removed from the realities and horrors of any war or battle.

“Being an accomplished craftsman, Dutta effectively recreates the palpable tension of the coming battle and the textures of the seemingly ordinary lives that will drown in it,” film critic Anupama Chopra had written in her review of the film in India Today magazine in 1997. According to her, Dutta managed to bring alive some of the hell of war in Border — the second half of which was entirely dedicated to the battle.

The battles scenes — shot exclusively on location near the India-Pakistan border in Bikaner — in the arid desert had enough pathos to move the Indian masses to tears. This is where Dutta took artistic licence and killed off many more men than the deaths registered in the actual battle; perhaps to portray what Aristotle has said about war: Only the dead have seen the end of war.

Dutta, who dedicated his film to his brother “Late Sqn Ldr Deepak Dutta, who lost his life in the service of the nation,” creates a character out of death too — where the call to arms by men in the battlefield is a moment of acknowledgement that the enemy, too, is someone’s darling.

It shows through when the film, as it ends, has Akhtar’s beautiful lines listing the horror and chaos of war, sung hauntingly by Hariharan “Jung toh chand roz hoti hai, Zindagi barson talak roti hai (Battles run a few days, life cries for a years to come).”

The retired Air Vice Marshal echoes similar sentiment: “None of our wars were very long. The longest I remember is one that went on for 15 days.” The nonagenarian then quotes John Steinbeck to me. “All war is a symptom of a man’s failure as a thinking animal. Which is why it is very easy to talk to about war. What many don’t know is that both parties would have done their best to prevent it in the first place.”