Sitting in an underground operations room, Pilot Officer Angad Singh pulls at his traditional kada and speaks to a colleague about his role in the war that is going to break out soon. The camera focuses on Angad’s face as he describes his feelings on the destruction he is about to wreak on the “enemy nation”, the land of his ancestors. Once Angad gets into his MiG-21, he will bring death and destruction upon those who are like him and his family – but his act does not bring him peace. In many ways, Angad is the modern-day Arjuna, unsure if he wants to wage war against those who are his flesh and blood.
In 1982, the year of the Indian Air Force’s golden jubilee, a movie came and went without fanfare. Vijeta, directed by Govind Nihalani and produced by Shashi Kapoor, was supported by the Air Force. Kapoor played Nihal Singh, a clean-shaven Sikh who leaves Punjab during the Partition and arrives in Mumbai to earn a living in advertising. In the role of Angad, Kapoor cast his son Kunal.
Vijeta continues to be remembered as a cult classic. Beautifully shot by the director, the movie has air combat scenes and authentic depictions of National Defence Academy training that have rarely been seen before or since. Some of the authenticity can be credited to the two screenwriters – poet and novelist Dilip Chitre and theatre personality Satyadev Dubey.
The film revolves around Angad, who arrives home as an academic failure, acutely aware of the tensions this will cause between him and his father. He is close to his mother (played by Rekha), but is also aware of the discord between his parents. Confused about his future course, he goes on a holiday with his maternal uncle, an officer in the Indian Navy (played by Om Puri), and decides to join the NDA.
The NDA training course has been termed as one of the most gruelling in the world. It stretches young men to their limits for three years. Angad initially finds it hard, but begins to find new levels of self-determination. This remains a consistent theme in the richly complex narrative.
Vijeta is not only about IAF pilots and their magnificent flying machines. The movie is also about individuals caught in the construct of a nation-state at war with another nation-state. The horrors of Partition, felt by Nihal Singh as a young man, are transferred to the horrors that his son Angad will see in war. The film studiously avoided naming the “enemy country”, but it is clear that Pakistan is in question, and that Angad is fighting in the 1971 Indo-Pak war.
Unlike the war films that preceded and followed Vijeta, Nihalani’s narrative is as much about the individual as it is about the nation. Decades later, I sat with Chitre in his living room in a modest flat in Pune and asked him what he had intended to portray in that film.
“It was about the young man in a young nation,” Chitre told me nearly 18 years ago. (He died in 2009). “We wanted to show a young man who grapples with notions of defeat and victory as much as nationalism and patriotism, and see him emerge victorious through the fog of war.”
A few lines of poetry slipped in as dialogue and reminiscent of Chitre’s poem in Nihalani’s Ardh Satya (1983) contextualise Vijeta. After being shot down by the unnamed enemy, Angad lies on the verge of death in the desolate Thar desert. Angad sees a vision of his father, who exhorts him to assess the choices before him on a weighing scale. On one side of the scale lies death, while the other has life. Nihal asks his son to choose life over death: “Mrtitunjay arpan, vijeta arpan” (May you conquer death and emerge victorious).
The victory at the end of the 14-day Indo-Pak war was not as inevitable as it now seems. No wars are. What Vijeta did was to juxtapose the individual’s notions of defeat and victory with the fortunes of a young nation at war.
Numerous other films have explored the 1971 conflict, but they lack Vijeta’s subtlety and impact. J Om Prakash’s Aakraman (1975) wasn’t shy of naming Pakistan. It had all the usual formulaic ingredients – an amputee ex-soldier exhorting his colleagues to go to war, a young officer in love, a soldier who tied the fate of his day in battle to his wrist watch and a Muslim soldier who serves as the ultimate symbol of this version of patriotism.
Chetan Anand’s Hindustan Ki Kasam (1973) was equally trite. Raaj Kumar plays an IAF pilot who even shakes a fist at a retreating Pakistani fighter jet while standing over the body of a fallen comrade killed in a bombing raid. The film, which involves a Pakistani radio station and a radar station, stretches incredulity beyond the acceptable, portraying a nationalism that was still influenced by the Nehruvian era but had a distinctly muscular Indira Gandhi stamp to it.
It was surprising that Anand should have made Hindustan Ki Kasam, since he had helmed Haqeeqat (1963) only a decade ago. The story of the Chinese invasion was as gritty and realistic as it could get. Balraj Sahni, a fine actor and a Communist in real life, plays a gritty Major who has to ensure that his battalion can offer a modicum of resistance to the Chinese hordes. The realism that permeates the film is present as much in the war scenes as in the inter-personal relationships between the characters. Sahni, on leave from his unit, is left brokenhearted when his marriage proposal is turned down. Carrying the engagement ring with him, Sahni tries to give it to an Arunachali woman, only to be turned down again. The humanism that Sahni portrays makes the tragedy of the national defeat greater and deeper. The song Kar Chale Hum Fida, sung by Mohammed Rafi and written by Kaifi Azmi, immortalises the soldier and his sacrifice for an embattled nation. It also evoked the notions of sacrifice for a national cause, frequently witnessed in these demonetised times.
By the 1990s, ideas around nationalism and the military had begun to change. The military was no longer infallible, and a brutal war in Sri Lanka had done much to erode its mythical strengths. The fact is that over 1,400 Indian soldiers died in Sri Lanka didn’t make for good nationalistic cinematic until Shoojit Sircar’s Madras Cafe came along.
The ’90s was a decade of change on many fronts. The Jammu and Kashmir insurgency fundamentally changed India’s foreign policy, ushering in a more robust sovereignty framework to its foreign policy while also introducing a liberalised economy. The Kashmir insurgency made hidden martyrs of soldiers, competing for space in the national and regional consciousness with militants dying for “azaadi” (independence).
The ’90s also brought Kargil – finally a robust victory that didn’t have the confusion and the moral blurriness of the decade-old militancy in Kashmir. The war in Kargil had identifiable enemies, clear-cut heroes and little ambiguity. Naturally, Kargil inspired a spate of films¸ but the framing of the war in the national consciousness came a few years before the actual event, in 1997.
JP Dutta’s Border, a fictionalisation of the Battle of Longewala, had clear-cut heroes (Indian Army) and villains (Pakistan Army). A band of gritty soldiers holding on to their post against overwhelming odds made for a simple, easily comprehensible film that was infused with a healthy dose of the new nationalism. By the time the war arrived, citizens had their Sunny Deol equivalents charging up mountains, doing some real soldiering.
What followed with Lakshya and LOC: Kargil was as per script. Young men, some deemed rudderless before the war, don the uniform to find themselves and their patriotism. The tales were told without complexity, and the songs were full of the pride of martial men marching off to battle. Any complexity was a side show.
Vijeta had only one song, a Hindustani classical piece that had little to do with the plot, but it also had a powerful background score by Vanraj Bhatia. The national anthem didn’t play during the film, but it did have the stirring NDA prayer which, when read in solitude, serves as a powerful reminder of the duties of an officer-to-be.
As Cadet Angad Singh goes on his first solo flight, he writes to his estranged father his first letter of what he has discovered within himself as well as his place in the world. The thoughts are of a young man at war, defending complex ideas and histories that are both personal and national.