JP Dutta is back where he belongs: on the battlefield. The 68-year-old director’s new movie Paltan tackles India’s military operations against the Chinese army in Nathu La and Cho La in 1967. Dutta describes the September 7 release, whose cast includes Jackie Shroff, Arjun Rampal, Sonu Sood, Gurmeet Choudhary, Harshvardhan Rane and Siddhant Kapoor, as the concluding chapter in his war trilogy. Border (1997) and LOC Kargil (2003) revisited crucial episodes in India’s armed conflicts with Pakistan. Meanwhile, Refugee (2000) marked the acting debut of both Abhishek Bachchan and Kareena Kapoor and examined border crossing between India and Pakistan.
“All children love to play with guns and love action and war films,” Dutta said during an interview at his office, which has plaques and awards for his films on a shelf, framed posters of Stanley Kubrick and his classics A Clockwork Orange and Full Metal Jacket on the walls, and bound copies of RG Grant’s books on war and battle on the table. “I am like a child and I have got this toy called cinema and I play.”
‘Paltan’ is your first film since ‘Umrao Jaan’ in 2008. What does it feel like to be back on the sets?
Filmmaking is like cycling. Once you know how to ride a bike, whenever you come back to it, you get back to it. You do not have to learn again. Wherever I leave it, I pick it up from there.
At the trailer launch event, you said that you have ‘been sent to do this – to make our soldiers immortal’.
Every human being has a purpose in this life. Be it good or bad, they have a karma to perform. Keeping that in mind, when you know what your calling is and you have the vision to make movies, you start thinking about the subjects you want to make films on.
My family’s background is from the armed forces. My brother was in the air force and I lost him in an air crash. He was a fighter pilot. I have been very close to the armed forces, so I know their culture. I know their pains and frustrations, their highs and lows. That excited me.
My brother took part in the first war film that I made. He was part of that battle [of Longewala] and he flew in the battle. He came and told me the story and that is how I made Border. The pattern has now been turned into a trilogy with Paltan.
How did ‘Paltan’ take shape?
We only remember 1962 [the Sino-Indian war], which was a defeatist chapter of Indian history. One should try and be positive in life and look at the positive things of your country and history and try and depict that in motion pictures.
We are, all said and done, a young nation. The young generation should look up to positive things. Keeping all that in mind, I took it upon myself to show the good part of this life and this country. And the armed forces are a good part of the country.
War films are often accused of being jingoistic. What are your views on the subject?
The word jingoism is used very liberally. It is thrown around in a big way. The word jingoism does not exist in families that lose men at the border. What exists is pain and suffering. That is the reality. It is talking about being patriotic in a derogatory manner.
Like Samuel Johnson said, patriotism is the last recluse of a scoundrel. However, that was in a different context altogether and not in the context of what we see as patriotism. That has been twisted over the years by a section of people who speak about being anti-violence and anti-war.
But the fact remains that as Plato has said, only the dead have seen the end of war. There has never been a moment on earth where there has been no war at some part of the world. Human beings by nature are in conflict all the time, for whatever reason. Wars are not going to disappear, but the evolution of man is still underway.
The world is getting more complicated and things are not looking very good. It is time people wake up and smell the coffee. Look at Israel. It is such a small nation, but see how they are strong. They are one.
Does the current political climate have anything to do with the debate over jingoism?
I was born post-independence. We only heard about the sacrifice of people who got us our independence. There was no question of jingoism, whether it was Subhash Chandra Bose or Mahatma Gandhi.
Jingoism means being aggressively patriotic. Everybody uses the word. India has never been an aggressor, but always been a liberator. We have never ever occupied anybody’s territory. So jingoism does not apply to India.
Among your earlier films, ‘Ghulami’ remains significant for the manner in which it tackles caste. How would the film have been received today?
Today, I am not so sure. The time I made the film, people were aware of the caste system. But now the young generation is not that aware. Western culture has come into our country in a big way. There are negatives and positive to Westernisation.
Another much-appreciated film is ‘Hathyar’, starring Dharmendra, Rishi Kapoor and Sanjay Dutt.
Some of my critics always tell me that it was my finest work. It was Bombay-based. Working with Dharmendra ji, Chintu [Rishi Kapoor] and of course Sanjay Dutt was a lovely experience. It was easily one of my finest works.
You have often expertly handled an ensemble cast. How much of this stems from the writing, and how much happens on the sets?
I do not know how it all came about. There is a certain trust that the actors have in me. They are confident that they will be presented in a nice way. I guess I have never done any film that has been questionable. I don’t stoop to conquer.
It is not really challenging to handle an ensemble cast. Once you trust them, they trust you. It is a beautiful journey. I have had a great time with all of them and I am thankful to all those actors with whom I have worked.
Which of your films have challenged you the most – was it ‘Border’?
It is LOC Kargil. It was a four-hour film. The first cut was six hours. It was difficult. Another challenge was the huge star cast. That was the most difficult project of my life. Border was tough, but I enjoyed it. Because I was a first-time producer with the film.
You have posters of Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Full Metal Jacket’ and ‘A Clockwork Orange’ on your office wall. Has Kubrick influenced you in any way?
There are two filmmakers who have inspired me. David Lean and Stanley Kubrick. I am inspired by their cinema. I have seen all of their films and look at them as a student. I like their films for the visual impact that they create.