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War Footing

With the latest film of JP Dutta’s war trilogy, Paltan, coming up for release, the cast – Arjun Rampal, Harshvardhan Rane and Gurmeet Choudhary along with the business head of JP Films Nidhi Dutta – talk to Team Box Office India about their film

Box Office India (BOI): In a country like India, where a lot of patriotic films are made, there are very few war-oriented movies. What do war films mean to you?

Nidhi Dutta (ND): Honestly, I do not know why we don’t make more war movies. Maybe, civilians do not have sufficient awareness about the armed forces. Luckily, my dad comes from that background and so he knows all about the forces. That is why he attempts the genre more than anybody else. 

Gurmeet Choudhary (GC): It is an utter shame that a war film has not been made in the last 10 years. When we were shooting for the film in Ladakh, most of the people on the set apart from us actors, belonged to the armed forces. We realised that Bollywood means a lot to them. When they wake up in the morning, they listen to Bollywood songs. They want to know what is happening in Bollywood. It is our responsibility to make films for them, and for our youth, who want to know about the army and how they fight on the border and achieve martyrdom.

It was important for a war-oriented film to come out. It is unfortunate that a 10-year-old child has not watched such a film. The biggest example of a war-based film is Border. Films like these encourage young men and women to join the armed forces. When we were shooting, many soldiers and officers came up to JP (Dutta) sir and said so. It is important for such films to be made today.

Harshvardhan Rane (HR): I have lived in an army cantonment area, so this film felt like home. I was surrounded by the colour green. My friends studied in an army school. They used to travel to school in the shaktiman buses. I feel fortunate that I got to work with JP sir, the only director who has made a trilogy on war films. I agree with Gurmeet. We, actors, have the responsibility to make such films. Bollywood reaches soldiers working on the border. It is a fabulous medium to show what our armed forces are doing for us. Nobody could do it better than JP sir.

Arjun Rampal (AR): The reason war films are not made that much is because India is a tolerant country. I am glad we don’t make a lot of them because war is not a way out. I don’t think any soldier likes going to war. Soldiers are there to protect you and to create peace. I think it is a good sign that we don’t make many war films.

On the other hand, there are so many war movies made in America because that country interferes in everybody else’s business, whether Afghanistan, Iraq or Iran. It is important for certain stories, especially the story of Paltan, to be brought to the forefront because it is a story that went missing and was hidden from our people. It is based on an incident that took place in 1967 and for it to be revived now and brought to life by the maestro of this genre is great. Even JP sir did not make a war film for a really long time because he did not know what the right story to tell would be.

This is a tribute to those soldiers and officers who sacrificed their lives and who did so much for this country. Their honour and dignity were taken away even though they were Maha Vir Chakra recipients. Somewhere down the line, the stories of what they did got lost. Having a wonderful story to tell is the most important thing. Each war film teaches you one thing, that war is not the answer to anything. I don’t believe in violence but I am glad to have been a part of this film and to tell this story.

BOI: The purpose of a film is to essentially entertain audiences. As actors, how do you walk that thin line between entertainment and giving out information at the same time?

AR: Luv (Sinha) and Siddhanth (Kapoor) are the only ones who had the most entertainment. The rest of us did not have any entertainment. (Laughs)

HR: That is where the genius of a film director comes into the picture, where you don’t just make a documentary out of an incident. He needs to make it cinematically in a way that people from every walk of life come to theatres not only to gain knowledge, but also to enjoy it as an experience. Working on Paltan was a form of education for me because I was not aware of this war.

I am lucky that I got to play a real life character who received a Maha Vir Chakra for his contribution in the war of 1967. The general audience will definitely gain a lot of knowledge from the film. But they go to watch a film for its scale and grandeur, and that is exactly where the director comes into the picture. He takes a few cinematic liberties and delivers information to his audience laced with entertainment so that they come out prouder.

AR: Entertainment, for me, is when you are engaged and focused throughout. Entertainment in a war film cannot be about song, dance and comic scenes, which is how we make many of our films in India. Thoda family ke liye bhi kuch daal dete hain. Our films are a mix of everything. Entertainment is when a film is engaging and you can take away certain things from the film, go back home and discuss it. You can enjoy it as a cinematic experience. When you are watching a war film, you are participating in it. It evokes certain emotions in you. When a film can achieve this, then it is a good film.

BOI: Nidhi, what kind of work did it take for you to choose this story from the history books?

ND: My dad has been really lucky because these stories have come to him. Longewala was the battle that Border was based on. That came to him when he was in college. Jackie Shroff’s character in the film was based on my dad’s younger brother. He came back and narrated the entire episode to my dad. That is how Border happened.

We have lived in the times of the Kargil war. There were stories of families that needed to be told and the details of their sacrifices did not reach us, which is why somebody from the Ministry had told dad that this is a story that needed to be told. The details were so heart-wrenching for dad that it made him say, “This is something that I need to do.” LOC Kargil was based on that.

As far as Paltan is concerned, it is not a story that we picked. It was a discussion that happened between someone from the army and dad. He took notice of that. The last time that China and India came face to face was in 1962, and we lost that war. How we lost it and why it is called the loss of a battle is something that you will see in Paltan as well. The battle of 1967 happened and we did not know about it. Dad wanted to bring it to everybody’s notice.

BOI: What is the formula to make a successful war film?

ND: My father can answer this question, not me. (Laughs)

AR: How do you even make a successful film? If you have a formula, you can make only successful films which is not possible..

ND: I do not know how he has made successful war films. That is something only he can answer.

AR: JP sir is right and that is why his record of success in this genre is very high. His heart is very pure when it comes to making a film like this. I have never met a person who is a purist at that level. He really wants to get it right. He does not believe in a defeatist attitude. He wants to give back to the soldiers. As Nidhi said, JP sir’s brother himself was a martyr. He has a very strong personal connection with the armed forces. I don’t think any filmmaker in India has that. That is what makes his films stand apart from other war films.

BOI: How did all of you actors come on board for Paltan?

AR: Harsh was buying eggs. He was in the middle of a jungle…

ND: Really, he was camping in some jungle. There was no network.

AR: He went to the highway, then he got network and he saw the message. Then he came to Mumbai, met our producer and this is how he got on board.

ND: That was three hours before the flight.

AR: He didn’t speak for three days afterwards. He was in shock.

ND: (Laughs) Yes, that is also true. 

HR: Actually, I was in shock. (Laughs)

BOI: Arjun, what about you?

AR: My producer came to my office…

ND: I never came to you.

AR: With your dad…

ND: Oh, yes.

AR: JP sir told me the story and I was shocked that the story had not been told till now. JP sir and I were planning to do a film before but it didn’t really materialise. So, yes, this is how I came on board.

GC: A very close friend of mine told me that Paltan ki casting chal rahi hai. Actually, we all are big fans of JP sir. Jab bhi fauji bana na hota hai, JP sir se achhi film koi nahi ho sakti. As soon as I got to know about this casting, I told my friend that whatever happens, please fix a meeting for me with JP sir. After that, getting selected for the film was up to me.

After 4-5 days, I arrived at his office and saw Nidhi sitting there. When I met JP sir, I told him I was a huge fan of his work and that I wanted to do his film. He didn’t give me a small role but the character of Capt P S Dagar. I believe that if you wish for something from your heart and ask the director for it, he will understand. He must have thought that yeh pagal hai, isko koi role dedo warna yeh office se nahi niklega.

AR: You went in uniform, right?

GC: Yes, I cut my hair and went to meet him in uniform.

BOI: With an ensemble cast like this, how was the dynamic on the set?

HR: For me, it was very surprising because this is the first time that I was…

ND: Interacting with people.  

HR: (Laughs) We have always seen sir (Arjun) on the big screen and it feels like he would not be friendly at all in real life. On the set, I was taken aback by his warmth and how he very quickly makes you feel comfortable. He cracks jokes throughout and I always tell him that he has a scanner.

GC: No one can escape him.

HR: Then there is Arjun sir, who is always correct about what you are thinking. I have actually given up. In the beginning, I got caught by him a couple of times.

AR: I am like a lie detector or an ‘emotion detector’.

HR: But it was amazing and then Sonu sir joined in and he is also very humorous. He has one-liners for everything. Even Gurmeet, when I saw him the first time on the flight, I wondered whether or not he would talk to me since he is so famous. Then he gave me this look on the flight. Ekdum Ram waali nigahon se dekha, that everything will be fine. (Everyone laughs)

AR: But when I met both of them, I thought they knew each other because they had already become so close within two days.

HR: Nidhi didn’t talk to me for three days, initially. She was very busy.

AR: Nidhi was a complete snob in the beginning. (Everyone laughs)

ND: I was not a snob.

HR: I used to wear army boots and Nidhi used to wear Versace boots. That too mitti mein. And she would do all the hard work, shoulder-to-shoulder, with the men.

AR: Versace, all the designer clothes….

GC: When she would walk about in expensive boots, badi takleef hoti thi. Sabse badi baat, her helpers knew more about all those brands than we did.

ND: (Cuts in) They want to ask other questions.

AR: In the beginning, she was very cold towards us but then gradually we started realising the human side of Nidhi. (Everyone laughs). On a serious note, hats off to her for pulling off this film. To handle people, get all the soldiers together, control army units, and also coordinate with such a huge star cast, along with over thousands of people every day, and making sure that nobody had any complaints… it is very commendable on her part. She also hijacked a monastery! 

HR: (Laughs) They gave her the keys.

ND: Nothing like that. I used to finish shooting and I used to go to this monastery because I felt really connected to that place in Ladakh.

HR: In Ladakh, there is no vegetation, you would not see anything growing in that brown set-up. Nidhi made sure we were fed the best food on the planet. She called for food from Srinagar or Delhi. There was such amazing food and maahol bhi aisa tha that sab khatam ho jata tha (Everyone laughs).

ND: Listen, please ask another question because this will never end.

BOI: A war film is considered to be very physical, considering the action sequences and the like. Does that leave any scope to bring out emotions in a character? And how important is it to do that?

AR: The emotional side of it comes through the emotion of when you are on a battlefield. When you are coming together to protect your country, or in this case it was Sikkim because Sikkim wasn’t a part of India at that point, that is when the feelings come in. When you are discussing the story of the Indo-China war of 1962 with JP sir, the way he believes that it was not really a war, you can feel the emotions in his story.

He says that a war is when both sides are prepared, there is a proper conflict and there is no surprise element left. But back then in the 1960s, we were trying to have good ties with China, we never thought that they were going to attack us. They attacked us and killed our soldiers while they were asleep. It was an attack which took us by shock. By the time our army got there, it was all over. But when that unit is standing there, seeing that enemy who did that in 1962, when you as an actor are told about that before you go on to the set, there is automatically a lot of emotion attached to it.

People ask, does the film have a lot of jingoism? And I say that I don’t know what the fine line between jingoism and courage is, because when you are out there, you are not going to talk sweetly to the person, to the people who did this, especially when those people have a gun in their hand. You have to be in a different energy zone, you have to be alert and focused. You have to make sure that your courage never slips.

If you’re loud, people might say ke arre yeh toh overacting kar raha hai. But then how else would that man be? He will be constantly on a very high level of emotion. The job of the commanding officers, which was a part that I played in the film, is to make sure that these emotions are correctly harnessed and they explode only when they need to. Harshvardhan’s character in the film is a Rajput, which is a very emotional character because the Rajputs were all massacred in the 1962 war. So, he’s got a lot of rage inside him. Each actor has their own emotional graph and, yes, when you watch the film, you should be ready to experience a cry-fest in the last 25-30 minutes.

BOI: JP Dutta sir told us that he had real soldiers on the set with you during the shoot.

ND: Whether it was dad’s two earlier movies or this one, we have always been blessed to have the support of the Ministry of Defence. It is something that doesn’t happen to everybody but luckily he has been involved with them and they treat him as one of their own. The army as well as the Ministry give him that kind of support because they know that these are stories that need to be told.

Earlier, we were talking about how real and dramatised this thing can be, and he wants it to be as real as possible. And the thing is that no matter how many junior artistes or body doubles you may get, there is a certain body language that a soldier has which cannot be matched. We are lucky to have them with us. They shot with us. We had about 300-500 soldiers at any given point on the set. When the actors look at them, they try to copy their body language.

There is a certain realism that comes into the film with the soldiers but it also takes the actors to a different level because they kind of become a part of the army.

Even on days when an actor wasn’t shooting, dad would try and get him to the set in uniform. We were with them all the time, interacting with them, there was a Liaison Officer who was given to us by the Ministry of Defence on the set. He would check things like the ranks of the officers, the bars on their uniforms, whether or not they were correct, each and every detail, to make it as real as possible so that when the audience watches the film, they will see things that they haven’t been taught before.

BOI: Nidhi, your father says that he doesn’t believe in the numbers game of the industry or the 100-crore, 200-crore trend…

AR: (Cuts In) And the trends are here because of…. Box Office India (Laughs)!

BOI: Well, yes. But as a part of the industry, how do these numbers fit into your professional life right now?

AR: Jokes aside, yes, there are filmmakers who always want their films to do well and numbers define that in terms of how many people go to see it in theatres. But does that necessarily make it a good film or a bad film? No. We have seen some not-so-great films get solid collections at the box office. But when you have a filmmaker, and I can only speak about the film we are talking about here, when you have someone like JP Dutta, you know he’s a great filmmaker because he does not make a film thinking about numbers. He’s making a film thinking about reach. He wants the film to work in a city, a small town and penetrate even beyond that.

He looks at his films from a very audience-driven point of view. That’s the way he does it. It has to connect with the armed forces because those are the people whom he is making it for. If that is the connect, then automatically you will see numbers. He has gone out with a purist’s heart to make a film for the people of India, to show them what the armed forces are really all about. I don’t know how it will do and what kind of numbers it will have but I do hope it reaches a lot of people.

HR: I am not in a position to talk about numbers right now.

ND: I think I can very confidently say that my dad doesn’t look at numbers. It is something that his father taught him because my grandfather was in the movies for 62 years. And the one thing that he put forth to dad when dad joined this industry is that, don’t ever let them say you made a bad film. Whether it does well or not is not the criterion. Nobody should get up and say ki yeh buri film hai. Touch wood, by God’s blessing, we have had that blessing.

AR: The numbers depend on inflation, deflation, recession and all those things. It keeps changing. But a film will be there forever. Even after we are dead and gone, our work will live on. If you’ve made a good film, it will live on forever. Nobody will say, in the future, that this film had made 100 or 200 crore; they will say that these guys were great and they made a good film.

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