Pippa starts with an unfortunate decision. A quick animated introduction to the 1971 conflict—the events preceding the genocide in East Pakistan, the war and the formation of Bangladesh—leads into the opening scene, an ominous advance towards a Dhaka university hall, where we can hear anti-Pakistan slogans. Pakistani soldiers file in and, without warning, start firing on the crowd. As the protestors scatter, they’re followed into the hallways and rooms and killed. It’s a scene that calls for no music at all, or something haunting. Instead, it’s overlaid with one of those frantic rap numbers that A.R. Rahman is so fond of. It’s tough to take a massacre seriously when it sounds like MC Sher is warming up offscreen.
The film shifts into a more easy-going register after this as it introduces Captain Balram Singh Mehta (Ishaan Khatter). Balli, as he’s known to friends and family, is a promising soldier with an anti-authority streak. In his very first scene, he disobeys his superiors during a training exercise, driving his amphibious tank (nicknamed ‘Pippa’) into the deep end of the river. He compounds this mistake by publicly hitting on the interpreter for the visiting Soviet officers. Soon, he’s back home, getting a earful from his elder brother, Ram (Priyanshu Painyuli), and concerned advice from his sister, Radha (Mrunal Thakur), and mother (Soni Razdan).
Balli is a familiar figure to Hindi film viewers—a clean-cut, callow solider who’ll learn discipline and brotherhood in the army. His biggest gripe is everyone comparing him to his brother—played with effective reserve by Painyuli—who’s already a war hero and a straight-laced head of the house (the father, also a soldier, is no more). Pippa is unsubtle about this sibling tension; Balli calls him ‘Mr Perfect’ over and over, and there's a running subplot about the literal filling of shoes. A more interesting tangent is Radha’s recruitment out of college as a code-breaker for Indian intelligence services—I’d have liked to see more of her and her laconic superior intercepting enemy messages.
Director Raja Krishna Menon has a knack of constructing set pieces with a lot of moving parts—we saw this in his Airlift, also a war film of sorts. Pippa has one very well put-together battle, an extended sequence where Balli has to assume command of his platoon midway and blow up several Pakistan tanks (though the staging lacks clarity about the enemy’s positioning and capabilities). There are a couple of pounding shorter sequences as well, like the unbroken shot of Balli racing to his tank after Indian troops are caught unawares by an attack on their camp.
In other respects, however, Pippa is unadventurous. Balli and Ram’s relationship, the film’s emotional throughline, is a sibling standoff of little depth (the constant ribbing between Balli and his platoon members is more affecting). There’s a lot of sermonizing about the civilizing influence of the army—and the moral force of the Indian army. The Pakistani soldiers are painted as outrageously evil, a murdering, pillaging, debauched lot, inept in and out of battle. Inaamulhaq’s buffoonish Bangladeshi solider is a particularly sordid caricature. The Indians, of course, treat their prisoners well, give commands to follow the rules of war, even accept Pakistani deserters.
Khatter is quite watchable, as he tends to be, but lacks the authority of someone who might inspire others to follow him into battle. He remains a promising young actor in search of a great project. My favourite performance is Chandrachoor Rai as Chiefy, Balli’s commanding officer. As the one who takes the brunt of Balli’s insubordination, Chiefy could have been a comic heel. Instead, Rai and Menon turn him into a touching portrait of a regular soldier, unlucky in love and war, yet finding solace in something as simple as perfuming his socks so they smell nice on the battlefield.
‘Pippa’ is on Amazon Prime.