Patriotism is an easy sell in India, especially when it is made for the big screen. If the explosion of patriotic outings in the last few years (Manikarnika, Uri: The Surgical Strike, Kesari) is any measure, it is also retrofitted into a genre that is now considered somewhat of a prestige outing: historical fiction. These are movies and shows that tend to feature high-profile directors, actors cast against type, a promise toward scale, and a display of ostentatious filmmaking that overwrites at times, a coherent reason for its existence. Skewed toward certain narratives, these undertakings are concerned less with spotlighting storied moments in history and more with concealing parts of it to paint an incomplete picture of war. More often not, the genre has come to represent a short-hand for the precarious trend of rewriting history to suit current political stances.
The latest entrant to Hotstar Specials, 1962: The War in the Hills, a laborious 10-episode series that re-stages the early days leading up to the 1962 Sino-Indian War that ended in humiliation for India, is cut from the same cloth. Its focus is not as much on acknowledging the Indian defeat but in sussing out grace notes of triumph around it. Its bid for prestige is visible: The show is helmed by Mahesh Manjrekar, a National-Award winning director of repute, led by Abhay Deol, an actor pigeonholed in Bollywood as the antidote to the conventional romantic hero, and features action setpieces, nationalistic fervour, and wartime filmmaking that scream an aesthetic superiority. And yet 1962: The War on The Hills never comes close to offering a portrait that can boast of any substance, primarily because it tends to portray the idea of defeat as the enemy and not war, itself. It is also terribly amateurish and consistently dull, replete with timid politics and an ear-splitting soundtrack fully capable of giving the manufactured drama in the Bigg Boss house a run for its money.
Among one of the show's worst offences is its structure itself, unsubtly lifted from Kabir Khan's Amazon show The Forgotten Army: using an older protagonist recounting stories of war to their millennial grandchildren as an excuse to justify employing flashbacks as a storytelling device. This form of storytelling partly worked in The Forgotten Army solely because the narrator had a starring role in the story he was recounting. That's not the case here, where the narrator is a soldier's widow, who could at best observe the on-ground proceedings at a remove. The distance hampers the credibility of the premise and ends up breaking the rhythm of the show instead of complementing it. That also means that the show suffers from another classic storytelling syndrome " an unhealthy reliance on voiceover. As a result, it is clunkily written (Charudutt Acharya is credited as the writer), with exposition-heavy dialogue that insists on spoon-feeding multiple threads of information. Characters are rarely allowed space to breathe and interactions are so terribly staged that it looks less like a conversation between two people and more like a declaration meant for the camera.
Like Khan's show, even 1962: The War in The Hills crisscrosses between timelines, operating in 1962 and in the present day. Set largely in Rewari, a Haryana village from where the majority of the 125 soldiers of the fictional C Company led by Major Suraj Singh (Deol) are from, the show traces the men inside the soldiers (the supporting cast include Sumeet Vyas, Akash Thosar, Anup Sonii) who valiantly prevented 3000 Chinese troops from invading an airstrip in Ladakh. But unlike the Amazon show, it doesn't possess a sense of clarity in the story it is trying to tell, unnecessary intercutting among several subplots that delay the urgency of its wartime ambitions. Like most Indian productions, it can't also pull off scale, coming across as a parody of a war show. On its part, the sub-plots are as pedestrian as they come: a love-triangle that hampers the friendship between two soldiers; a soldier being called to war on his wedding day which inevitably ends in tragedy; a guilt-ridden widowed father whose arc to redemption ends in romance; there's also a terminal illness and a premarital pregnancy thrown in for sentimental reasons. The problem isn't that these are familiar tropes, it's the idea that the makers choose to execute it in a manner whose sensibilities would feel outdated even on television in the 90s.
For a military show, 1962: The War in the Hills spends little time on the ground and far more time on setting up emotional backstories with the intention of demanding sympathy for its protagonists. The trouble is that the show treats its soldiers as both victims and heroes, rarely willing to go beyond a romanticized idea of courage and sacrifice to delve into deeper implications of being on the frontlines. The soldiers, for instance, are primed as people whose patriotism is their default setting and not as people who might question the suffering that their idea of duty entails. It then becomes a pointless affair to reserve screentime to underline the human cost of war when a show is unwilling to remove war from the pedestal of national pride. On the other hand, the women in the show (Mahie Gill, Pallavi Kulkarni) are all written the same " as manic pixie suffering girls, who further its emotional intensity by surviving tragedy by virtue of their relationship to the soldiers.
1962: The War in The Hills opens with a disclaimer that the Chinese soldiers would be shown talking in Hindi for ease of understanding, a decision that is the show's most jarring part given that the makers use it as a reason to depict them as garden-variety gangsters. The dissonance stems from the fact that the show's storytelling choices never quite affords an equal playing ground for the Chinese army. They either swing between incompetent soldiers or vengeful ones. In the opening episode for instance, the Chinese soldiers are shown to get distracted from patrolling the borders when they're offered a batch of paneer and are prone to ripping apart birds with their bare hands. The show's main villain is a Chinese soldier called "Ug Lee", his name pronounced just the way you think it might be. It's nothing short of a trainwreck of epic proportions.
The show fares even worse as an ensemble. Deol, a severely limited actor, is grossly miscast as Major Suraj Singh and his turn, equally stiff and dull, exposes his shortcomings as an actor shouldering a series. Paired opposite him as a sort of a Dev.D reunion, Mahie Gill is as forgettable as it can get. The only bright spark is Thosar, who puts up a convincing performance as a lower-caste under confident infantryman but his arc suffers from a Sairat hangover that wastes his capabilities. The acting is hammier than the filmmaking, which relies on frequent jump cuts and haphazard editing making the show feel like a rejected cut and not something worthy of being on a streaming platform.
In that sense, the biggest letdown of 1962: The War in the Hills is that it's lack of inventiveness coupled with its sluggish pace wastes the possibilities of longform storytelling. At its core, 1962: The War in the Hills fails because it can't really provide a solid justification for being 10 episodes long (with tacky sound mixing and green screen) and not a two-hour movie.