With most films, by the time I see The End come up on the screen, I’ve more or less decided what I’m going to write about it, till which point I’m going to reveal the plot, and so on. With Haqeeqat, I’m still a little dazed. This is one of Bollywood’s earliest—and most realistic—war films, set against a backdrop of what was then the almost inaccessible region of Ladakh. It’s a blend of war and melodrama, propaganda and patriotism… and I’m not sure exactly what can be considered the main story of the film, since it actually consists of a number of stories woven into each other.
Let’s begin with what I originally thought was the main story: the romance between Captain Bahadur Singh (Dharmendra) and a half-Ladakhi, half-Kashmiri girl called Angmo (Priya Rajvansh, in her debut). Bahadur Singh is stationed at Sonamarg, where he’s met Angmo’s younger brother Sonam. Sonam wants to be an officer when he grows up, so Bahadur Singh takes the boy under his wing and drills him every day. One day, one of Angmo’s lambs nearly falls off a cliff and Bahadur rescues it—which brings the two together. They’re obviously very attracted to each other.
Angmo, Sonam and their mother (Ruby Myers) need to go to Leh and then on to Phobrang (near the Chinese border) to stay with their Ladakhi relatives. Bahadur Singh persuades Major Ranjit Singh (Balraj Sahni), who’s driving up to Leh, to take the little family along, and he agrees. The major also seems quite enchanted with the lovely Angmo.
While Bahadur Singh, in a fit of ardour, follows his beloved to Leh, Bahadur’s father, Brigadier Singh (Jayant), receives news of unrest along the front. A border dispute’s been brewing for a while now. While high-level talks between Indian and Chinese delegations have begun in Delhi, Chinese troops have been moving in towards Indian-held territory.
The brigadier decides to send his officers out to hold a bunch of posts right on the border. Selected for the job are Bahadur (his is one father who can’t be accused of nepotism!) and Major Ranjit Singh.
So Angmo is separated from her beloved almost before their love story starts.
And like Angmo, there are others who are far away from their homes and their families, huddled high up in the freezing, nearly airless mountains of Ladakh, way above the treeline and with nobody to turn to but each other. There is, for instance, the anguished Ram Singh (Sudhir), who’s reported back on duty after a quarrel with his fiancée (Chand Usmani) on the eve of their wedding. When he’d admitted that his leave was coming to an end, she’d been so upset that they’d had a fight and Ram Singh came away, unwed. Now, he’s waiting every day, at his post near the Chinese border, for her letter, assuring him of her love.
Ram Singh’s colleagues are placing bets on whether or not his much-hoped for letter will arrive. Some of the men are downright scornful, but one (Sanjay Khan) is sympathetic, though he doesn’t say much to Ram Singh (or to the others, for that matter): he just shoves off anyone who starts piling on.
Then there’s the very young man (MacMohan, in the only film I’ve seen him in without his beard and moustache). He’s just turned eighteen, and so has followed the family tradition of joining up. His two elder brothers are already at different outposts in Ladakh, and this adolescent’s mother, despite pleas from her two daughters-in-law (Achla Sachdev and Indrani Mukherjee), has insisted that he, the youngest of her three sons, also serve his country.
The two daughters-in-law have sent gifts for their husbands, which they ask their young brother-in-law to pass on through the daak which goes to the outposts. He does not get to meet his brothers, but sends them their gifts. For the eldest, there’s a much-longed for photograph of the son he hasn’t seen for two years now…
…and the middle brother, Ram Swaroop (Jagdev) receives a boxful of earth, along with a packet of seeds, from his wife. She remembers that he likes gardening, and having heard that Ladakh is a barren wilderness, has sent this for him, hoping he’ll be able to grow something. Something that will remind him of home, perhaps.
All Ram Swaroop remembers is the sight of his beautiful bride lying beside him, talking to him and laughing as she turns the bedside lamp on and off:
And finally, there’s Major Pratap Singh (Vijay Anand), deeply in love with the girl whom he’s just got engaged to. Like Ranjit Singh and Bahadur Singh, he too has been sent off to hold one of the posts.
They all settle down in their bunkers, biding their time and waiting for the Chinese, wondering what’s to become of them. The months go by, with the Chinese yelling out propaganda laced with frequent “Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai!” shouts over a microphone. This causes more mirth than anything else among the Indians, and finally irritation because it’s so unremitting. Ranjit Singh ends up having to give the men a pep talk.
One day, though, the showdown looks like it’s about to begin. The Chinese troops begin to draw forward, line after line of men marching across the valley towards the Indian posts. Ranjit Singh informs the brigadier, but the orders he receives are unequivocal: do not open fire until the Chinese have done so.
So begins a protracted tale of skirmishes, outright battle against a foe that far outnumbers the defenders, and mounting frustration as diplomatic strategy insists the Indians sit tight and not retaliate—while the soldiers out in the open realise with every passing hour that there’s increasingly little hope left for them.
This is isn’t the greatest war film ever made, but it’s definitely one of the best made in India. It’s realistic and gritty, and shows the harshness of life (and death) in one of the world’s most treacherous battlefields. If only it had steered clear of the melodramatic patriotism that grips it midway through… read on.
What I liked about this film:
The realism. You can see Chetan Anand (the director and producer) has taken pains to ensure that the terrain, the military background, the life of the civilians, etc are all authentic. The battle scenes may not be quite so correct (for instance, I couldn’t imagine why the Chinese marched forward in droves like sitting ducks instead of using cover), but the rest of it looks real enough. Even a small thing like the fact that the men are unshaven, sunburnt and raddled with frostbite as the film progresses, is a vast improvement on the sanitised way war is often depicted in Hindi cinema. And yes, other than a few obvious sets, that’s Ladakh, all right.
The characters and the stories of their own little lives. Ram Singh; the unnamed soldier who befriends him; Ram Swaroop and his brothers; even the cook—whose wife sends him her recipe for tandoori chicken—are not merely soldiers in uniform, but poignantly real men with real lives. Interestingly enough, except for a handful of these men, none are ever named. Even those who are named, are mentioned by name perhaps only a couple of times in the course of the film. I wonder if that was a deliberate attempt by Chetan Anand to focus on the `unknown soldier’…? Whatever, it makes for a refreshingly different storyline that is diffused rather than concentrated on a couple of individuals.
Ladakh. I first went to Ladakh when I was ten years old, and have been there twice after. I think it’s one of the most ethereal places I’ve ever been to, and Haqeeqat brought its breathtaking beauty back to me very vividly.
When I was watching this film, I found myself wishing it had been shot in colour so that Ladakh could be shown in all its stark glory. Interestingly, according to this news article, Ketan Anand had begun colourising Haqeeqat. I wonder if it’ll ever happen.
The occasional flashes of brilliant screenplay that stay with you long after the film’s over:
Warning: Spoiler ahead!
Sanjay Khan’s character, for instance, barely says a few words in the entire film, but he’s memorable, and his last scene is haunting. He’s been separated from all except one colleague, Ram Singh, who’s dying and whom this man has dragged along across the miles. There’s little hope for either, and Ram Singh begs his friend to leave him—which, after some struggles with his conscience, he does. Leaving Ram Singh lying on a vast stretch of empty plain, the other soldier drags himself up into the hills. Gasping for breath, his lips cracked and frostbitten, he looks back, then turns and slowly starts sobbing. And it’s left at that. The viewer never gets to know whether this man is crying because he knows he’s as good as dead too, or because he’s guilt-ridden at having left his friend to die.
There are other such scenes too, not spelt out in black and white, but absolutely unforgettable.
And yes, did I mention the music? By Madan Mohan, and very good. My favourite is Hoge majboor mujhe usne bhulaaya hoga, though the patriotic Kar chale hum fida jaan-o-tan saathiyon is generally more popular.
What I didn’t like:
The melodrama. This begins with a preachy speech by Ranjit Singh on India’s greatness and China’s underhand tricks, and after that it escalates into one scene after the other showing how our brave soldiers (and civilians) will do anything to keep the Chinese out. I applaud the spirit behind it; it’s the execution that riles me. Each soldier gruffly saying that he will take on twenty Chinese all by himself and so on, is fine—and who, knows, it may well have happened—but to have this patriotism drilled into me again and again got very irritating after a while. Much more subtlety was required here.
The other thing they needed was tighter scripting, and possibly fewer characters. The story meanders all over the place in parts, the fighting goes on endlessly (and the battle scenes begin to pall after a while). I found myself getting confused; for example, how does a certain band of soldiers end up in ABC when I’d last seem them firmly entrenched in XYZ… and where on earth did Vijay Anand’s character disappear? He comes in at the beginning with a bang (singing a song, too) and then vanishes, making only sporadic appearances every half hour to mutter a couple of sentences and then vanish again. Such a waste of a good actor.
I doubt if I’ve ever dissected a film this thoroughly. But Haqeeqat deserves it. In the final analysis, despite the melodrama and the preachy patriotism (and the sorrow of so many lives lost), this is still a good film. It’s very real and very believable. Definitely the best Bollywood war film I’ve seen.