In spite of having fought four wars after we gained independence (not to mention the endless border combats), the war drama genre has never been a very favourite genre among the film-makers. So as a Bollywood fan, I have to be thankful to film-maker JP Dutta for giving us Border, which was an unforgettable movie experience that our generation had in the '90s. It remains the most successful war movie till date, and even Dutta himself couldn't recreate the same success with its follow-up, the technically better LOC-Kargil. With Paltan, Dutta wants to revive the genre back to its former glory, as well as tell a less-narrated tale of valour from the Indian army. The issue is Paltan, more or less, feels like a retread of Border, while lacking the chutzpah of the same.
The movie is set in 1967 along the Nathu La Pass in the Sikkim border, five years after the Indo-China war that we lost. The Indian army is still simmering in anger over how they lost to their devious Chinese counterpart, while the latter, in its arrogance, is illegally making inroads into Indian territory. Major Gen Sagat Singh (Jackie Shroff) appoints Lt Col Rai Singh Yadav (Arjun Rampal) to head the Rajput Battalion and protect the Nathu La Pass, while avoiding unnecessary skirmishes with the Chinese army that could lead to war. Yadav's unit consists of Maj Bishen Singh (Sonu Sood), who is second-in-command, Captain Prithvi Singh Dagar (Gurmeet Choudhary), Lt Attar Singh (Luv Sinha) and Hdr Pashar (Siddhant Kapoor). Major Harbhajan Singh (Harshvardhan Rane) joins them from the unit they are replacing at the post.
As tensions begin the simmer between both Indian and Chinese facts, Yadav and his Paltan engage in psychological warfare with the enemy first. However, things get the most heated when Indian army start building barbed fence that leads to a final combat, leading to losses on both sides.
I am a fan of war movies and I have to thank Border for that. The film, while melodramatic and filmy in its presentation, was successful in depicting the valour of the fallen soldiers and the sacrifices that they made for the country. It is because of this movie that I began to explore more war films and end up loving films like Lakshya, Saving Private Ryan, The Thin Red Line, Black Hawk Down and even LOC - Kargil too. But Paltan ended up disappointing me, because Dutta, in his eagerness to retain his Border glory, ended up using the same tropes from his 1996 film.
One thing he did good was retaining the identities of the real-life soldiers and their fates, unlike Border that mostly used fictional characters while changing the destinies of the real ones. However, the treatment and the narrative technique is, more or less, the same as Border. Which is lazy, as the movie came out more than two decades back.
First of all, Paltan is too long at 154 minutes. Like his other war movies, Dutta keeps on jumping to some of the main characters' personal lives which is jarring and basically feels like we have seen all this before. The addition of the songs follows the same pattern as LOC-Kargil - a song that celebrates the army, a song that is about reminiscing the loved ones back home and the final track that pays tribute to the fallen soldiers. Some of the character deaths are similar to what we see in Border; two soldiers die the same way as Suneil Shetty did in the other film. Jackie Shroff also looks to be given the same mandate as his role in Border. There, he was waiting for the call to fly and destroy the enemy forces. Here, he is waiting for the call to fire the mortar into the enemy camp. Hrrumph!
It is not that Paltan is without its individuality and powerful scenes. There is a haunting scene at the start where a postman walks in the lane at the night and delivering bad news to the houses, as cries of lament follow him. It reminded me of Malayalam director Jayaraj's powerful Bhayanakam that came out earlier this year. The psychological warfare and the tense sequences between the armies have their moments. A heated argument leads to an impromptu stone-pelting, as both factions aim to hurt each other. However, the treatment of most of these scenes goes beyond melodramatic and filmy. The dialogues are of the chest-thumping variety, and it feels like no soldier in the Indian camp can speak nothing but in jingoism.
Another big drawback was the depiction of the Chinese army - they are mostly shown as cartoonish, evil caricatures lacking no morals thus taking realism from the final combat (can't be called war, per se). The main leader looks to be a parody of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. A more nuanced approach would have made them memorable enemies and make the final battle more impactful.
Speaking of which, it is only during the climax that Paltan as a movie comes to life and we feel a genuine interest in the proceedings. The battle scene is well-choreographed, though the deaths of a couple of major characters don't have the desired impact. Sonu Nigam's rendition of Main Zinda Hoon, though, would leave you misty-eyed. Again, the songs aren't as effective as Anu Malik's score for Dutta's previous films.
The cinematography is very average and some of the frames feel blurred. The production design by Amrish Patange and Dayanidhi Patturajan is good, while the background score is rousing.
All the actors in Paltan give their best to the film, but most of them suffer from average writing. Among the cast, it is Harshvardhan Rane (who had replaced Abhishek Bachchan) and Gurmeet Choudhury who make the most impact, with more fleshed out characters and room to breathe. For some reason, they even get to have shirtless scenes to display their sculpted bodies, that we have never seen before in any JP Dutta war film. Weird!
Arjun Rampal is good, but doesn't bring the authority that his role demanded, making us miss Sunny Deol from Border. Sonu Sood is really fine. Luv Sinha struggles with his expressions at the start but is impressive in the final moments. Poor Siddhant Kapoor, playing the Chinese translator for the army, has the weakest role among the main cast - he is sidelined in many of the scenes with no backstory of his own. Jackie Shroff is passable in his brief role. Rohit Roy's character feels like an afterthought.
The female leads - Esha Gupta, Sonal Sehgal, Monica Gill and Dipika Kakkar - have minuscule roles that barely given them opportunities to impress.
- The earnest performances of the lead actors
- The premise
- Some tense moments
- The final battle
- The execution
- Too long
- A retread of JP Dutta's previous films
JP Dutta, in an interview, said that Paltan is a movie that every Indian should see. If we take this movie as a lesson in history, I agree with him. However, the Indian viewers also deserve to watch this 'history' in a well-made war film. Sadly, Paltan fails in meeting that expectation. At best, it is a passable one-time watch that relies on its climax to save it from the blushes.