The cast and technicians of JP Dutta’s Border, the hit 1997 war epic and ensemble best known for kicking off a wave of jingoistic sentiments and for being the first Hindi film to openly mention Pakistan as India’s enemy, came together recently to celebrate 20 years of its release. At the event, the actors walked down the memory lane providing many anecdotal nuggets. Reminiscing about watching Border “first day, last show, last row” at Mumbai’s Metro cinema, Abhishek Bachchan, who was launched by JP Dutta in Refugee, said “the entire theatre stood up and started singing” when the song Sandese Aate Hain played. Jackie Shroff, the film’s air force officer who arrives in nick of time to save the nearly-besieged Indian army, said the film propagated a “message of peace and love.”
At the same event, Pooja Bhatt (Akshaye Khanna’s fiancée in the film who otherwise, like other female characters including the redoubtable Tabu, didn’t have much to do in Border) put it poetically, “JP has given us a film that’s going to be mentioned in all our obituaries. The fact that we are celebrating this 20 years down the line – it’s a time where you don’t even celebrate 20 days anymore. And 20 years later, Border still kind of enriches us all and sends us home having added something to our lives.”
What makes Border so special? Though there are far greater and more authentic war films made in Bollywood (from Haqeeqat to Lakshya and 1971) Border is noted for the fact that it’s not a love story set against the backdrop of war (as is usually the case in Hindi cinema). Instead, the war and the ground zero is its central story. The plot, inspired by the Longewala conflict between Indo-Pak war of 1971, moves around the battle. This is not to say that there’s an absence of melodrama. Song and dance is on ample display, as if to say that the duty towards motherland is not the only duty a soldier has. And of course, this is Bollywood. The song, Sandese Aate Hain, a free verse of blockbuster proportion penned by Javed Akhtar, uses the simple imagery of the arrival of a letter from home and weaves love, domesticity, nostalgia, longing and patriotism into it. So powerful and evocative were Akhtar’s verse that director Dutta recently told reporters that he didn’t have to work too hard on the picturisation.
“The song is so visual that Javedsaab had done almost 75 per cent of the job for me. His words were pointing me to the visuals,” said Dutta.
The popular song that has become a patriotic anthem over the years summons most of the film’s top star cast. It starts with a letter that BSF officer Bhairaon Singh (Suniel Shetty) receives from home informing him that he’s soon going to be a father. The song then quickly moves to the other characters, played by Akshaye Khanna, Puneet Issar and Sunny Deol taking the audience through their private lives and personal/family stories. The song gives a glimpse of the soldiers’ personal spaces and domestic drama and at the same time, conveys the rare moments of male bonhomie and bonding that the men in uniform are depicted by popular culture as enjoying in between breaks from the battleground. In one stroke, it humanises the soldier, portraying him as someone torn between the duty towards motherland and duty towards mother/wife figure at home. The song has a precursor in Haqeeqat’s Hoke majboor mujhe, a similarly long-form anthem from the 1964 film by Chetan Anand. Note that Hoke majboor mujhe was written by Javed Akhtar’s father-in-law, the great Kaifi Azmi. That Akhtar was inspired by the sheer genius of the Haqeeqat ditty could only be an educated guess.
According to Dutta, besides the large star cast, Border featured thousands of real soldiers. They are not junior artistes or extras on screen and the guns and artillery were supplied by the Indian defence ministry. As a filmmaker, Dutta has always shown a desire towards the grand and rhetorical narrative. It’s impossible not to see Dutta as a patriot who deifies the army and takes every opportunity to paint the soldier as a symbol of heroism and valour. He calls the army the “real hero.” One of his best works, Ghulami, 1985, was an indictment of the social exploitation that takes place in villages. Even in that feudal setting, Dutta couldn’t resist having a character who serves in the army (Mithun Chakraborty). In 2003, he made another war film, LOC Kargil – this time with a bigger and grander star cast. The who’s who of Bollywood was in it.
Border is also noted for giving Sunny Deol, who was absent from the film’s 20 years celebration event, a Jat jingoism, “Bharat Mata Ki Jai”, “tormentor (or turbanator?) of Pakistan” image that came to full fruition in Gadar: Ek Prem Katha. Twenty years on, Border helped defined machismo and heroism on Hindi cinema canvas. While Border and LOC Kargil may be variously remembered as box-office behemoths (LOC was a dud though), for unleashing a jingoistic wave across the country, for Pak-bashing and for acknowledging the exploits of the army on celluloid J.P Dutta, the veteran chronicler of war, victory and showmanship, remains an indefatigable Bollywood mogul (despite his many ups and downs: think Umrao Jaan) who knows how to think big.
(Shaikh Ayaz is a writer and journalist based in Mumbai)