After “Partition,” no single catchphrase sums up modern Indian history as pro-foundly as “Line of Control,” that mega-fortified geopolitical contour separating Indian- and Pakistani-controlled sections of Kashmir, a region both countries have staked claims to. For director J.P. Dutta, re-telling a fictionalized version of the 1999 armed exchange along the LOC amounts to exorcizing the ghost of wars past. (Dutta lost a brother in the 1971 India-Pakistan war.) Roping together a plot as vast as the Himalayas, a virtual legion of armed extras, and a platoon of A-list actors, Dutta tightly binds together an action drama that is as much epic as it is an excellent film.
The plot is taken right from three-inch banner headlines from mid-1999. A group of about 1,100 Afghan Mujahedins, Taliban, and Pakistani irregular fighters breached the LOC near Kargil and overwhelmed a small Indian contingent. The arrival of Indian reinforcements—an initial trickle that turned into a punishing air and ground assault to retake Indian border positions—makes up the foreground of Dutta’s onscreen narrative.
The Indian forces pursue the infiltrators from two fronts, one lead by Lt. Col. Joshi (Dutt) and the other by Lt. Manoj Pandey (Devgan). Both leaders must display unusual valor by not only motivating comrades fighting a literally uphill battle but also outguessing enemy movements. As the fighting heats up, many of the men reminisce about loved ones back home in a series of dazzling romantic flashbacks plotted in the background.
Well-acted both on the border—especially Devgan, and Bachchan, Khan, Khanna, and Bajpai as junior officers—as well as at home, where Kapoor, Raveena Tandon, and Mahima Chaudhry keep the fires burning, LOC is an exercise in controlled excess. In the four-hour film, even the smaller stories are satisfyingly fleshed out. Another tool in LOC’s favor is Malik’s super war-rooted soundtrack, with Ghosal-Nigam’s intensely bittersweet duet “Pyar bhara geet koi” aptly capturing both the longing and the uncertainty that set before men go off to war.
Dutta’s fascination with war theater-flavored films set on or near the India-Pakistan border is legendary (Ghulami, Border, Kshatriya). LOC, reportedly the last stop on an eventful border track, allows Dutta to change into his civvies with a bang. Some outstanding sub-titling wonderfully boosts the half-Hindi, half-English script. LOC’s most perplexing dilemma is this: film censors representing the largest democracy in the world allow the filmmaker free-reign to display mutilated corpses at will and to finger Pakistan as the instigator in this conflict. However, uttering the Hindi equivalent of the f-word (used liberally) is still very much verboten. These men are old enough to kill and die for the Motherland—but damn it, they can’t be allowed to cuss!
In the end, Dutta’s vision of grace under pressure-cooker circumstances speaks volumes about the Indian army—and all of India and therefore all of humanity by hyperbole—in times of war. How these men cope with a hostile climate under constant threat of violence, how they react to adversities, shortages, and stress, how they bond and love, how they console their wounded and the dignity they accord their dead imparts valuable lessons for all of civilization.