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1971. Director: Amrit Sagar. Players: Manoj Bajpai, Ravi Kishan, Kumud Mishro, Chitaranjan Giri, Manav Kaul, Deepak Dobriyal. DVD Release (Studio 10).
Of all the “major” wars that India has been entangled in since Independence, the 1971 war, sometimes referred to as the “Bangladesh liberation war,” is perhaps the least written about. With the aptly titled 1971, freshman filmmaker Amrit Sagar (son of late filmmaker Ramanand Sagar) puts to test a complex, little-known chapter from that nearly forgotten conflict. What Sagar succeeds in delivering is a blend of raw heroism and first-rate adventure in a killer escape film.
Set in 1977 at a secret Pakistani prison, Sagar’s story brings together six Indian prisoners who are kept incommunicado by zealous wardens, who in turn are kept on a short leash by Pakistani military intelligence. Lead by Major Suraj Singh (Bajpai), and heavily guarded at all hours, the ragtag group of Indian POWs hatches a diabolical plot to escape from the prison. As Singh and his team piece together cryptic tidbits of real-time news—a possible prison visit by a United Nations delegation tipped off by a small but vocal Pakistani democracy movement—they learn of a horrific impending event that will make their escape all but inevitable.
Then the chase begins. If the first half of the film reaches for humorous elements from the television series Hogan’s Heroes (complete with Pakistani gun-toting soldiers supplanting clueless Nazi wardens), then the increased tempo of the second half brings to mind motorcycling scenes of Steve McQueen outrunning the Nazis in The Great Escape. The highly satisfying chase scenes, choreographed to nail-biting suspense, are marvelously staged. An ominous undercurrent of danger pervades every frame, including scenes featuring incidental jocularity.
Art often feeds irrational fears. The portrayal of Turkey as an unsafe destination in Oliver Stone’s Midnight Express gave the nation a reputation that Turkey’s tourism promoters have yet to overcome completely. In the same fashion, 1971 may single handedly rekindle jingoist fears of Pakistan as a neighbor not worth building bridges with. While India handed over more then 83,000 POW’s to Pakistan following cease-fire, this fictitious chronology on the fate of 54 real-life Indian jawans left unaccounted for in Pakistan becomes a lucid memorial to names that are in danger of becoming footnotes to that war.
Painstakingly researched and historically congruent—the POWs are rightly shocked to learn that the democratically elected Prime Minister Bhutto has been executed and General Zia now rules with an iron fist—Sagar’s story (co-written with Piyush Mishra) offer multiple sidebars that add to creating a tense atmosphere of secret military “trials” and a barrage of non-stop propaganda. That we know precious little of Singh’s personal life back home—much like the Tom Hanks character in Saving Private Ryan—adds rich irony to a character at once enticing and unknowable. Simply laid out, brilliantly directed, and very well acted, 1971 ranks alongside Chetan Anand’s 1964 opus Haqeeqat as the most memorable Hindi “war” movie ever made.
Globe trekker, aesthete, photographer, ski bum, film buff, and commentator Aniruddh Chawda writes from Milwaukee.