Mahesh Manjrekar’s new web series 1962: The War in the Hills seeks to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. The Sino-Indian war of 1962 might have ended in humiliation for India, but Manjrekar’s show for Disney+ Hotstar finds the grace notes in the slaughter. These are supplied by the 125 members of the fictional C Company, who heroically stand their ground against 3,000 invading Chinese soldiers at a crucial mountain pass in Ladakh.
The numbers are precise, not one more or less on either side. Manjrekar’s Border-meets-300 saga claims to be inspired by real events. The derring-do of the Indians results in ignominy for the Chinese, but at a massive cost. Fighting with inferior weapons and canvas shoes in the biting cold, the men fling themselves in harm’s way, motivated by their mission to prevent a crucial airstrip from falling into Chinese control.
Among the survivors is the soldier nicknamed Radar (Pawandeep Rajan), who has to convince his seniors (and viewers) that the Ladakh miracle did indeed take place. Another series would have used Radar’s testimony as the framing event. Instead, Manjrekar and writer Charudutt Acharya focus on a handful of C Company troopers, all of whom hail from the same village, Rewari, and are connected beyond the battle zone.
We know why this has been done. Countless war-themed movies and shows have sought to reveal the beating hearts nestled inside the killing machines. In trying to forge emotional connections with its characters and make us admire them even more, The War in the Hills ends up equally being “The War in the Homes”.
Far too much attention is devoted across the 10 episodes to civilian headaches. Manjrekar frequently and jarringly cuts away from the battlefield to the skirmishes raging in kitchens and bedrooms. The series often feels like more of an amateurish television soap than a rigorous look at the camaraderie that made the Ladakh miracle possible.
Among the overstretched tracks is the love of buddies Kishen (Akash Thosar) and Karan (Rohan Gandotra) for Radha (Hemal Ingle). The eternally chirpy Radha has her heart set on the lower-caste Kishen, but her family wants her to marry Karan – a dilemma that takes forever to get resolved.
A battlefield feud between the widower Ram (Sumeet Vyas) and Harman (Vineet Sharma) spills back into Rewari. Company leader Suraj Singh (Abhay Deol) too has trouble brewing back home. Even as Suraj keeps warning his superiors that the Chinese are up to no good, his wife Shagun (Mahie Gill) starts falling ill once too often.
Mahie Gill also provides the voiceover, which is inexplicably delivered through clenched teeth.
The back stories allow women to assert themselves in a mostly male narrative, even if mostly as support staff. Another woman plays a vital role in aiding the Army’s efforts. Ladakhi shepherdess Rinpa (Rochelle Rao) uses her mobility to report on Chinese movements. Rinpa proves her loyalty to India many times over, both through her barefoot reconnaissance and her frequent declarations of “Jai Hind”.
Despite its premise, the wall-to-wall use of patriotic songs (the music is by Tejas Modak) and some inevitable China-bashing, 1962: The War in the Hills is far less jingoistic than other shows of this kind. Hindi Chini bye bye, Shagun declares. There is talk of boycotting the Hindi film song Mera Naam Chin Chin Choo, but the thought is set aside. It’s only a song, after all.
Although there are explicit references to the current border tensions between India and China, the series doesn’t attempt to apportion blame for the 1962 conflict. Instead, we see both indecision and debate in play. Faced with an unavoidable and unenviable choice, Jawaharlal Nehru (Arif Zakaria) waffles about and takes the wrong advice. His daughter, identified as Priya (Geetika Vidya Ohylan), is the hawk in the war room, urging Nehru to bite the bullet. Priya’s toughness anticipates Indira Gandhi’s starring role in the 1971 Indo-Pak war that resulted in the liberation of Bangladesh.
Despite his weaknesses, Nehru comes across as a leader willing to listen to advice. Since The War in the Hills avoids making overt political statements, perhaps not too much should be read into this plot strand of a flawed but concerned prime minister who can compromise when needed and an Army leadership that is bold enough to put its points across.
The Chinese side has a more clear chain of command, led by the suave Lin (Meiyang Chang) and the ridiculously named Ug Lee (Liao Meng Chi). Ug Lee is the show’s villain in capital letters, but he is held back ever so often by Lin. Resembling a K-pop star and fond of gliding into view to the tune of a rock-heavy background score, Lin is a man of honour who likes to play by the rules.
The Indian soldiers go into battle knowing the chances are bleak, and yet they do. The series is at its most rousing when it examine the bonds between the men in uniform that fuels their bravery. Suraj, astutely played by Abhay Deol, is a firm and caring military man, rather than a swaggering commando (apart from jingoism, the show jettisons needless machismo).
Among the other actors who stand out in the ensemble cast is Annup Sonii as Suraj’s peer. Sumeet Vyas is cast against type as an aggressive soldier, while Akash Thosar turns on his boyish charm to play a lovelorn recruit.
The saccharine-salt combination threatens to undermine the show’s impact in nearly every episode. Shlocky and corny each time it visits Rewari, 1962 perks up when it returns to Ladakh. The thrilling battle sequences, choreographed by Don Lee, include firepower and chaotic moments of hand-to-hand combat as the Indians and the Chinese finally come face to face. As men in their prime on the verge of new love, weddings and fatherhood are cut down one by one, 1962 finally arrives at its destination. Forced to improvise and think on their feet, the soldiers of C Company blast their way into A-grade glory.