Review: At 170 minutes long, JP Dutta's Paltan disappoints
Paltan marks JP Dutta's return, after a 12-year gap, to his pet project - a film trilogy that looks at the contribution of the Indian armed forces, as well as their emotional bonds, and their lives off the field.
After the immensely successful Border in 1997 and a well-received Refugee, Dutta's LOC Kargil and Umrao Jaan bombed at the box office. But now, with the release of Border 2, aka Paltan, the first war trilogy in Indian cinema is complete.
An obsessed Dutta has been working on Paltan for many years now, still affected by the personal loss of his younger brother, an army pilot who died in a plane crash in 1987.
Comparisons with Border are inevitable as Dutta delves into telling a true story from the Indian point of view after gleaning whatever he can from the classified files.
Border focused on 1971's Battle of Longowal against Pakistan, while Paltan is about the minor clash with China in 1967 at the mountain passes of Nathu La. Both battles were won by India, but have been less-documented and remembered than the full-blown Sino-India war in 1962 and the India-Pakistan conflict in 1965, and for obvious reasons.
Ironically, while Paltan has been a few years in the making, it is now very topical after a stand-off with China in Doklam last year. While Pakistan has taken most of India's focus, China still breathes heavily on the north-eastern state's side.
In 1962, India's administrators admitted they were caught unawares. By that yardstick, the skirmish in 1967 was important, and even intelligence agencies in the United States kept watch.
Despite the long intervening period since Border, the characters seen across the large ensemble cast are predictable. The movie was purportedly delayed because of the heavy visual effects involved in shooting the war scenes, but you do leave the theatre somewhat wondering what the fuss was all about. In fact, some scenes are so blurry and unimpressive, it looks almost as if they were shot on a smartphone.
Now, back to the plot: Dutta also fails to dish out anything special when highlighting how personal lives get affected after a soldier's death (one of the topics he's usually great at tackling). Some expressive lyrics by Javed Akhtar are wasted, with Sonu Nigam failing to produce the same charm as in Border on the vocals for Raat Kitni and Main Zinda Hoon.
Border had some evocative performances despite the actors in it being known for stoic expressions. On the casting for Paltan, no one comes out determined to break their acting sterotype. So Arjun Rampal and Sonu Sood play themselves, while Sidhanth Kapoor and Harbhajan Singh provide some relief, but not much.
All this makes the film length of 170 minutes turgid at times. Editor Ballu Saluja could easily have cut it short without affecting much. More pertinently, it will be interesting to know how much cinematic liberty Dutta has taken to make this a commercial film.
One of the biggest criticisms of Border was that it depicted a soldier as dead, when he was actually alive in real life. In the history books Nathu La was synonymous with another clash in Cho La that officially marked the end of the Indo-Chinese war in that era. Paltan only focuses on the former. It will be a few days before the actual heroes of India will be identified, and until then the film is just a visual acknowledgement of a moment in history. Nothing special. But nothing too bad.