CHINA TOWN (1962). Before Shakti Samanta turned to making blockbuster tearjerkers (Aradhana, Amar Prem), he was made crafty political thriller and was noted for injecting the Hong Kong influence into Hindi cinema (Singapore, Howrah Bridge). Starring Shammi Kapoor in one of his best roles, the film is set in Calcutta’s post-WWII China Town, portrayed here as a gang-infested wasteland. Kapoor doubles as both Shekhar, an Elvis-derived cabaret singer who chases after Shakila, and Mike, a gangster entangled with local hoods. The anti-China mood is pervasive in incidentals—villains Madan Puri and sex-kitten Shashikala are both given gimmicky far Eastern get-ups while the torrid conditions in the camp filled with Chinese refugees gives out more than a whiff of decay. Soundtrack includes Rafi’s hit “Bar bar dekho.”
HAQEEQAT (1964). One of the most overtly political films was also possibly the finest Hindi war film ever. Director (and a former Marxist) Chetan Anand’s opus brilliantly etched the country’s mood in the wake of the humiliation the Indian army suffered during the 1962 India-China border conflict. As Prime Minister Nehru continued to steer India towards a non-aligned international role, leaning away from both Moscow and Beijing, filmgoers were captivated by this tense black and white action-drama. A platoon of Indian soldiers lead by Balraj Sahni (another former Marxist) is presumed dead in the mountains following heavy fighting is rescued by Kashmiri gypsies with help from one especially brave soldier (Dharmendra) and his gypsy love-interest (Priya Rajvansh). The film’s memorable moments include an Indian soldier driving a bayonet through a copy of Mao’s “Little Red Book” and on-screen denunciation of documentary footage showing Chou En-Lai being garlanded with an honor guard on arrival in Delhi. Added bonus is Rafi’s magnificent “Kar chale hum fida,” one of the most intensely nostalgic patriotic songs ever.
AMAN (1967). Mohan Kumar, who coat-tailed Rajendra Kumar to box office success with romantic musicals (Jhuk Gaya Asman, Aap Aye Bahar Aye), took an unexpected detour with this anti-nuke entry. An overtly pacifist story follows Rajendra Kumar as a London-educated Indian doctor who bypasses a lucrative private career back home and instead opts to go to Japan to treat survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Along the way, Kumar is shown discussing the perils of war in an erudite exchange with a British mentor. Giving war a personal face—Kumar’s character must also diffuse his own angst at having lost a mother during WWII—Aman also allows the doctor some romantic R & R in carrying on with an exotic Japanese-Indian beauty (Saira Banu). The film met little box office success but remains a rare mainstream anti-A-bomb entry.
PREM PUJARI (1970). After working behind-the-scenes in several of his Navketan Studio’s earlier works, Prem Pujari was Dev Anand’s formal directorial debut. Ram (Anand), a soldier morally opposed to war escapes from the army after being jailed for insubordination. While on the run, Ram gets embroiled with an international woman of mystery (Waheeda Rehman) who may be fronting for a spy ring. Filmed in Spain, Britain, and France, the film’s decisive climax features an international chase for Ram to expose the gang responsible for selling out Indian army secrets in time to avert Pakistan from attacking India in 1965. Even though the film proved an expensive undertaking that did not generate the box office payback Anand was hoping for, it’s lush S.D. Burman musical score and Anand-Rehman romance are worth repeat viewing.
GARAM HAWA (1973). One of many reasons to catch M.S. Santhyu’s sterling Partition era drama is Balraj Sahni’s flawless performance as the patriarch of a shoe-factory owning upscale Muslin Indian family forced choose between staying in India and relocating to Pakistan. The story relies on small, subtle acts of oppression evidenced by economic hardships, social prejudices and other daily demons suffered by one family. This ploy allows Santhyu to not only pass on the mutilated corpses opted by later sensationalist takes on the event (Earth, Train to Pakistan), and also drives the point home more effectively. Garam Hawa may be the best film about an event whose infamous legacy haunts the subcontinent to this day.
HENNA (1991). Completed by Raj Kapoor’s offspring Randhir and Rishi after the death of their legendary father, Henna was actually RK’s second pacifist stance (the earlier, better, starkly Ghandhian Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai is not out on DVD). Taking advantage of reduced India-Pakistan tensions, this less-than-subtle attempt at cinematic sub-continental detente is actually a decent cross-border love story. An upper-class Indian youth (Rishi Kapoor) who loses his memory after being thrown into a river by scheming relatives is rescued in Pakistan by a bewitching local beauty (Pakistani actress Zeba Bakhtiar) he unknowingly falls in love with. The waving of the olive branch across the border is evident in a narrative suggesting that not all Pakistani are evil and that not all Indians are saintly. Relying on Mangeshkar big time, the soundtrack is among the best from RK’s later works.
KHUDA GAWAH (1992). This Bachchan-Sridevi starrer is outwardly an opulent tale of chivalry disguised as epic costume drama. Underneath the scintillating romance, however, there is modern spin about the porous nature of India’s borders. Even though India shares no common border with Afghanistan, Khuda Gawah ignores all the countries in between by connecting two distinct cultures in telling the story of noble Afghani warrior Badshah Khan (Bachchan) who goes to India to avenge the killing of the father of Badshah’s beloved Benazir (Sridevi). Capturing the breathtaking beauty of mountainous Afghanistan as a metaphor for Badshah’s timeless love for Benazir, the late director Mukul Anand’s beautifully photographed film unsentimentally takes for granted that all borders are man-made.
ROJA (1992). Mani Ratnam’s ethno-baiting gem was a hit in both its Tamil original and dubbed Hindi versions. Based on the true story of a mid-level Indian government official kidnapped by militant separatists in Kashmir, Roja may be the most potent geo-political drama dwelling on the Kashmir conflict. After the Indian army captures a dreaded separatist terrorist, the separatist group strikes back by kidnapping visiting Tamil code-breaker Rishi Kumar (played by Arvind Swamy). Rishi’s Tamil wife’s (Madhu) efforts to win her husband’s freedom by enlisting help from local bureaucrats, exacerbated by communicating in a language she does not speak, result in an agreement for an uneasy prisoner swap. Director Ratnam’s juggling of intra-Indian nationalistic sentiments leading up to a tense and politically sensitive prisoner exchange also makes Roja one of the finest films of the last decade.
BORDER (1997). No one can stage war on the dunes better than border-conflict specialist J.P. Datta. Based on a real-life border incident that took place during the 1971 India-Pakistan war, and boasting an all-star cast lead by a frowning Sunny Deol, the story follows an outnumbered band of Indian soldiers who must fend off overwhelming Pakistani forces while anticipating reinforcements that may arrive too late. Starting with an adrenaline-rush close-up of an Indian MiG readying for liftoff, the script eventually settles for an absurdist, neo-realist view of war conveyed through a series of letters-from-home that paint war as a zero-sum power play. Well-acted and featuring decent action choreography, Border ranks among the best Indian war films.
MISSION KASHMIR (2000). Kashmir native filmmaker Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s violent but chisel-sharp love song to Kashmir. Mission Kashmir attempts to bridge two muddied sides of the conflict by balancing a dedicated Indian police chief’s (Sunjay Dutt) struggle to maintain a fragile peace while racing to neutralize a vengeance-seeking separatist terrorist played by current heartthrob Hrithik Roshan. Filmed in Srinagar under extremely tight security, in itself a telling sign of the times, MK settles for a simple but digestible no easy answers “solution.” The father-figure cop and the prodigal-son terrorist take to wiping out corrupt individuals on both sides rather than taking on each other. Chopra’s underlying sentiment, that people on both sides are good, it’s the politicians who muck things up, comes across clearly.