Captain Balram Singh Mehta of the 45th Cavalry tank squadron was one of the heroes of the 1971 Indo-Pakistan war. Later, as Brigadier Mehta, he recorded his experiences and memories in the book The Burning Chaffees. The Prime Video film Pippa, directed by Raja Krishna Menon, is an adaptation of the book as a war drama.
Some of the narrative jumps in the screenplay suggest that it was challenging for co-writers Menon, Ravinder Randhawa and Tanmay Mohan to condense a 300 page book into a 140-minute film which is primarily a recreation of a covert operation that became the Battle of Garibpur. This operation was pivotal to the liberation of East Pakistan from a genocide that resulted in millions of refugees flooding India.
Bookending events on the battlefield is a family drama set in the Mehta household. A martyred war hero’s two sons are fighting their own emotional battle even as they prepare to go to the Eastern front. Older brother and war hero Ram (Priyanshu Painyuli) has become the household’s de facto head. Ram is frustrated by his younger brother Balram’s (Ishaan Khatter) seeming lack of responsibility. Their mother (Soni Razdan) reminds them and their sister Radha (Mrunal Thakur) – a whiz at decoding cryptography – that like the East Pakistanis fleeing to India, they too were refugees from Rawalpindi.
Menon’s direction hits its stride when his film leaves the living room and moves into the battlefield. The camaraderie between the members of Balram’s squadron, the little things soldiers do as they prepare for war, the humour that makes light of the probability of death are captured in nuggets.
The screenplay unfolds in three sectors – Radha’s work in the intelligence agency where she decodes covert messages, across the waters in East Bengal where Ram is undercover with the Mukti Bahini, and on the Eastern front in India where tank expert Balram is learning to fill his father’s big and empty boots. A family also comes to terms with loss, with Painyuli efficiently playing the supporting role, literally and metaphorically.
For all his lack of regard for authority, Balram is an expert tank commander. Pippa is the nickname given to the amphibious army tank PT-76 he operates. Indeed, the film’s highlight is the tank battles, with Khatter leading the charge as the soldier who comes of age. Khatter conveys a lot within the confines of his environment. The sound design and army tactics are underlined by AR Rahman’s percussive background music, which trumps the songs.
Pippa the tank and Khatter are the stars of this film, which is a competent addition to a growing roster of movies celebrating India’s military might, achievements and heroes.