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War films and the foreigner villain in Bollywood

In an excerpt from his book on Bollywood antagonists, Balaji Vittal writes about villains from across the border

JP Dutta's ‘Paltan’ had Chinese forces as antagonists
JP Dutta's ‘Paltan’ had Chinese forces as antagonists

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In the aftermath of the 1962 Sino-Indian war and the 1965 Indo-Pak war, the Chinese and the Pakistanis became the new foreigner villains.

In the case of Pakistanis, it was war films and more than that, war films blended with romance and layered with patriotic emotions, therein leaving very little face time for any specific villain to develop. Little wonder that many ambitious films with Pakistanis as villains, e.g., Dev Anand’s Prem Pujari (1970), Chetan Anand’s Hindustan ki Kasam (1973), J. Om Prakash’s Aakraman (1975), flopped. Chetan Anand’s war-romance theme had, however, worked very well in his earlier film Haqeeqat (1964), the first film to portray China as the treacherous villain.

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Said Ketan Anand, son of Chetan Anand, ‘The Chinese betrayal in 1962 affected my father a lot.’ And thus germinated the idea of making a film around the 1962 war. ‘The then Chief Minister of Punjab, Partap Singh Kairon, jumped at the idea and told my father, “Tu Punjab da puttar hai. Bana picture. (You are the son of Punjab. Make the film.) We want the reality to come out.” That idea became a reality—Haqeeqat, with the Punjab Government financing the project’, he added. Chetan Anand, who had chronic asthma, led his cast and crew in the harsh conditions of Ladakh, all the while taking the support of his breathing pump.

Punjabis, with their large frames, broad features and strong voices are perhaps furthest from the small-statured Chinese as far as physique is concerned. But somehow, film-makers felt that Madan Puri, a quintessential Punjabi, would make a good Chinese villain. Tao Ki Chen (Madan Puri) in Humsaya (1968) and Mr Chang in Prem Pujari (1970) were two Chinese villains portrayed by him. Coincidentally, the villainy of both Chen in Humsaya and Mr Chang in Prem Pujari was about planting impostors to spy on India. Chen asks a Chinese Colonel, Lin Tan, to undergo plastic surgery to resemble the Indian Squadron Leader Shyam Singh (Joy Mukherjee in a double role) while Mr Chang plants a captured Indian soldier, Ramdev Bakshi, as his own country’s spy by giving him a fake Tibetan passport. Prem Pujari met with widespread backlash (including a mob attack) because of its portrayal of the Chinese. This backlash took place in India, in Calcutta to be precise, where the film had to be withdrawn from theatres.

‘Pure Evil: The Bad Men of Bollywood’, by Balaji Vittal, published by HarperCollins India, 328 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>399
‘Pure Evil: The Bad Men of Bollywood’, by Balaji Vittal, published by HarperCollins India, 328 pages, 399

Better cinematographic technology brought classier cinematic adaptations of true-life war incidents involving India and Pakistan—J.P. Dutta’s Border (1997) is about the Battle of Longewala of the 23rd Punjab Regiment in the 1971 war with Pakistan, while his interminably long LOC Kargil (2003) is about the 1999 Kargil war. Set within the backstory of Pakistan intrusion into Batalik and Dras by crossing the LoC, Farhan Akhtar’s romantic war story Lakshya (2004) is a fictionalized account about the reclamation of Peak 5179 at Kargil. All three are patrioritic war-films, with the enemy being Pakistan— and not any specific Pakistani portrayed as the villain. Another film in which Pakistan as a country is the villain is Sarbjit (2016). Though it isn’t about war, it shows the 1999 Kargil war as one of the reasons that scuttled the release of an Indian prisioner unlawfully detained in a Pakistan jail. Sarbjit is based on a real-life story of an Indian villager whose identity and existence gets pitilessly destroyed by the Pakistan Police and judiciary.

In war movies, the enemy is stationed so far away that we can hardly see any of them, unless the camera zooms in on their camps. There were a few fleeting Pakistani villains in these war-movies that had the potential to be developed into something more significant. But the film-makers failed to spot the opportunity to develop strong subplots around these characters. The loud-mouthed Pakistani Army Colonel (played by Shatrughan Sinha) in Prem Pujari (1970) in a two-scene appearance was one such lost opportunity. Likewise, in Hindustan ki Kasam, the promise of a riveting espionage/counter-espionage subplot involving Pakistani Squadron Leader Amjad Qadalbash (Amjad Khan’s debut in an adult role) and an Indian spy posing as his girlfriend, fizzles out. Another such lost opportunity was in Lakshya in which Pakistani Major Shahbaz Humdani (played by Parmeet Sethi) is a shrewd military counter-strategist who out-thinks the Indian Army’s ambush strategy of climbing the vertical cliff face and almost manages to upset Indian Col. Sunil Damle’s (Amitabh Bachchan) plans. Director Farhan Akhtar missed a trick; more face time to Humdani could have brought in the much-needed variety and contrast to the story.

Excerpted with permission from ‘Pure Evil: The Bad Men of Bollywood’ by Balaji Vittal, published by HarperCollins India, 328 pages, 399.

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